KIEV — 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 — minus the fire, smoke and hand grenade splinters, of course. Other photos weren't taken in Ukraine at all but instead in Chechnya — 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."