Spunky Kiev Journalism Students Expose Bogus Kremlin Reports

StopFake, established by Kiev journalism students, analyzes media coverage in both Russia and Ukraine, fact-checking reports -- and separating fact from prolific fiction.

StopFake's Margo Gontar (above) and Alina Sugonyako
StopFake's Margo Gontar (above) and Alina Sugonyako
Inga Pylypchuk

KIEV â€" Journalism students in Kiev are operating an Internet platform called StopFake, which has emerged as arguably the most powerful tool in the media war between Russia and Ukraine, because it is fact-checking assertions by the Kremlin and exposing them when they are patently untrue.

How do you distinguish a real piece of news from a concocted one? The Ukrainian initiative has been analyzing news coverage of the war in Ukraine for more than a year now, and with just one click readers can discover whether a photo that supposedly depicts atrocities committed by the Ukrainian Army in Donbass is fake or real.

The results are often quite amazing. With some pictures, it becomes clear almost instantaneously that they were photoshopped from an original photo that had been freely available on the Internet for years â€" minus the fire, smoke and hand grenade splinters, of course. Other photos weren't taken in Ukraine at all but instead in Chechnya â€" more than 20 years ago.

"Expose the lies"

StopFake was founded in March 2014 by journalism students and graduates of the journalism department at the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy. One of the founders is 27-year-old Alina Sugonjako from Kharkiv. "The false reports, issued by the Kremlin-controlled media, have increased significantly since the beginning of the Crimea crisis," Sugonjako says. "We wanted to at least be a part of this media war, even if we can't win it, and it seemed most effective to simply expose the lies."

As the military action in Donbass increased, Russian methods became ever more brazen. On Russian television, the same actors who first portrayed mercenaries later on posed as injured civilians. The peak of absurdity came when a Russian TV channel broadcast the story of a 3-year-old boy in Sloviansk, whom Ukrainian soldiers had supposedly crucified on a notice board. Even though it later emerged that the journalists reporting the story had no evidence that it really happened, and that the statement from the supposed witness was nothing but the result of an overactive imagination, no official correction was ever broadcast.

But such lies are common enough on Russian television. In conjunction with other manipulative strategies, they have come to be known simply as "Russian propaganda."

The StopFake project is bankrolled through crowdfunding and with promotional funds from the International Renaissance Foundation, founded by George Soros, as well as with money from the National Endowment for Democracy. A team of 20 journalists researches social media, Russian and Ukrainian media as well as websites of the so-called People’s Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk. It releases a video every week featuring "Exposures of the Week." Sugonjako hosts the show, and its most successful videos have been viewed more than 130,000 times.


One recent one debunks a report asserting that the public prosecutor's office of the "People's Republic of Luhansk" discovered American "Stinger" anti-aircraft missiles at Luhansk airport. These missiles were supposedly left behind by the Ukrainian Army after it abandoned the stronghold in the summer of 2014. The report shows boxes with the inscription "Tracking Rainer." A blogger exposed these pictures as fake, saying that the correct term for that missile type is "Tracking Trainer" and that "Tracking Rainer" is the fake name used for their virtual counterparts in the computer game Battlefield 3.

The next item in the show actually exposed a fake report from Ukraine. Channel STB had broadcast images of a severely injured Ukrainian soldier who was supposedly denied necessary medical attention by doctors in Donetsk. But StopFake showed that medical procedures were indeed undertaken, and even interviewed the surgeon who took charge of the injured soldier after he had been treated in Donetsk.

It's a mystery to Sugonjako why the channel broadcast the fake information. "I am assuming that the channel wanted to incite people," she says. "People love to hate." But unlike the practice of Russian media, Ukrainian media are typically only guilty of broadcasting incorrect information because they didn't research the topic properly.

"There is no uniform propaganda that is filtered down from the highest ranks as is the case in Russia," Sugonjako says. "But, nonetheless, no fakes should come about when real journalism is applied."

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Preparing a COVID-19 vaccine booster in Huzhou, China.

Hannah Steinkopf-Frank, Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Ciao!*

Welcome to Wednesday, where Brazil's senate backs "crimes against humanity" charges against Jair Bolsonaro, the UN has a grim new climate report and Dune gets a sequel. Meanwhile, German daily Die Welt explores "Xi Jinping Thought," which is now being made part of Chinese schools' curriculum.



• Senators back Bolsonaro criminal charges: A Brazilian Senate panel has backed a report that supports charging President Jair Bolsonaro with crimes against humanity, for his alleged responsibility in the country's 600,000-plus COVID-19 deaths.

• Gas crisis in Moldova following Russian retaliation: Moldova, one of Europe's poorest countries, has for the first time challenged Russia's Gazprom following a price increase and failed contract negotiations, purchasing instead from Poland. In response, Russia has threatened to halt sales to the Eastern European country, which has previously acquired all of its gas from Gazprom.

• New UN climate report finds planned emission cuts fall short: The Emissions Gap Report 2021 concludes that country pledges to reduce greenhouse gas emissions aren't large enough to keep the global temperature rise below 1.5 °C degrees this century. The UN Environment Program predicts a 2.7 °C increase, with significant environmental impacts, but there is still hope that longer term net-zero goals will curtail some temperature rise.

• COVID update: As part of its long-awaited reopening, Australia will officially allow its citizens to travel abroad without a government waiver for the first time in more than 18 months. Bulgaria, meanwhile, hits record daily high COVID-19 cases as the Eastern European's hotel and restaurant association is planning protests over the implementation of the vaccination "green pass." In the U.S., a panel of government medical advisors backed the use of Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine for five to 11-year-olds.

• U.S. appeals decision to block Julian Assange extradition: The United States said it was "extremely disappointed" in a UK judge's ruling that Assange, the founder of Wikileaks, would be a suicide risk of he traveled across the Atlantic. In the U.S., he faces 18 charges related to the 2010 release of 500,000 secret files related to U.S. military activity.

• Deposed Sudan prime minister released: Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok has been released from custody, though remains under heavy guard after Sudan's military coup. Protests against the coup have continued in the capital Khartoum, as Hamdok has called for the release of other detained governmental officials.

Dune Part 2 confirmed: The world will get to see Timothée Chalamet ride a sandworm: The second installment of the sci-fi epic and global box office hit has officially been greenlit, set to hit the screens in 2023.


Front page of the National Post's October 27 front page

Canadian daily National Post reports on the nomination of Steven Guilbeault, a former Greenpeace activist, as the country's new Environment minister. He had been arrested in 2001 for scaling Toronto's CN Tower to unfurl a banner for Greenpeace, which he left in 2008.


Chinese students now required to learn to think like Xi Jinping

"Xi Jinping Thought" ideas on socialism have been spreading across the country since 2017. But now, Beijing is going one step further by making them part of the curriculum, from the elementary level all the way up to university, reports Maximilian Kalkhof in German daily Die Welt.

🇨🇳 It's important to strengthen the "determination to listen to and follow the party." Also, teaching materials should "cultivate patriotic feelings." So say the new guidelines issued by the Chinese Ministry of Education. The goal is to help Chinese students develop more "Marxist beliefs," and for that, the government wants its national curriculum to include "Xi Jinping Thought," the ideas, namely, of China's current leader. Behind this word jam is a plan to consolidate the power of the nation, the party and Xi himself.

📚 Starting in September, the country's 300 million students have had to study the doctrine, from elementary school into university. And in some cities, even that doesn't seem to be enough. Shanghai announced that its students from third to fifth grade would only take final exams in mathematics and Chinese, de facto deleting English as an examination subject. Beijing, in the meantime, announced that it would ban the use of unauthorized foreign textbooks in elementary and middle schools.

⚠️ But how does a country that enchants its youth with socialist ideology and personality cults rise to become a world power? Isn't giving up English as a global language the quickest way into isolation? The educational reform comes at a time when Beijing is brutally disciplining many areas of public life, from tech giants to the entertainment industry. It has made it difficult for Chinese technology companies to go public abroad, and some media have reported that a blanket ban on IPOs in the United States is on the cards in the next few years.

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"I'm a footballer and I'm gay."

— Australian soccer player Josh Cavallo said in a video accompanying a tweet in which he revealed his homosexuality, becoming the first top-flight male professional player in the world to do so. The 21-year-old said he was tired of living "this double life" and hoped his decision to come out would help other "players living in silence."


Why this Sudan coup d'état is different

Three days since the military coup was set in motion in Sudan, the situation on the ground continues to be fluid. Reuters reports this morning that workers at the state petroleum company Sudapet are joining a nationwide civil disobedience movement called by trade unions in response to the generals' overthrow of the government. Doctors have also announced a strike.

Generals in suits At the same time, the military appears firmly in control, with deposed Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok allowed to return home today after being held by the coup leaders. How did we get here? That's the question that David E. Kiwuwa, a professor of international relations at the University of Nottingham, takes on in The Conversation:

"Since the revolution that deposed Omar el-Bashir in 2019, the military have fancied themselves as generals in suits. They have continued to wield enough power to almost run a parallel government in tension with the prime minister. This was evident when the military continued to have the say on security and foreign affairs.

Economy as alibi For their part, civilian officials concentrated on rejuvenating the economy and mobilizing international support for the transitional council. This didn't stop the military from accusing the civilian leadership of failing to resuscitate the country's ailing economy.

True, the economy has continued to struggle from high inflation, low industrial output and dwindling foreign direct investment. As in all economies, conditions have been exacerbated by the effects of COVID-19. Sudan's weakened economy is, however, not sufficient reason for the military intervention. Clearly this is merely an excuse."

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471 million euros

Rome's Casino di Villa Boncompagni Ludovisi, better known as Villa Aurora, will be put up for auction in January for 471 million euros ($547 million). The over-the-top price tag is thanks to the villa having the only known ceiling painting by Renaissance master Caravaggio.

✍️ Newsletter by Hannah Steinkopf-Frank, Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

Who wants to start the bidding on the Caravaggio villa? Otherwise, let us know what the news looks like from your corner of the world!!

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