Ukrainian fact-checkers Stop Fake: ‘Fake news is a weapon of war’

Ever since fake news troubles the West, the Ukrainian fact-checkers of Stop Fake are welcome guests at journalism conferences and in the corridors of power in Western Europe. A critical talk about fake and real news, and what we can learn on the frontline of the information war.

© Pieter Stockmans

Margo Gontar with her colleague Marko Suprun in the television studio of Stop Fake

Margo Gontar stands in front of the Chromakey-screen. She has just finished working on the texts for the news broadcast of Stop Fake. Or better: the fake news broadcast. Every week journalists here give an overview of the disinformation about Ukraine that has appeared in all kinds of Russian media. The show airs on the private chain Hromadske TV. Kyiv Post publishes the English broadcast.

Gontar is one of the founders. She was a producer at Espreso TV, the television chain that has live-streamed the images of the uprising of 2013 worldwide. She was a guest at the International Journalism Festival together with journalists of the big American and British media, and journalists of the Russian opposition media. She has just returned from a lobby visit to the Swedish parliament.

‘We might as well do a satirical show like The Daily Show: there are so many laughable fakes,’ her colleague jokes.

Alina Mosendz leads the Spanish department of Stop Fake. She keeps track of how Russian disinformation about Ukraine gets through to Spanish and Latin-American media.

Stop Fake uses the television studio where students of the Kiev Mohyla University practise television production. Stop Fake is a project of professors and graduated journalists from this renowned university, one of the oldest in Eastern Europe. Throughout history different authorities, also the Soviet-Union, have closed it repeatedly. Today there is a flag of the United Nations in the television studio.

Gontar was about to quit journalism when suddenly the uprising started. ‘Yevgen Fedchenko, the director of the Kiev Mohyla School of Journalism, launched an online call. Who would want to get involved in creating a journalism collective that would unmask fake news as a weapon of war?’

© Pieter Stockmans

Most of the news broadcasts of Stop Fake end with this text.

What was your response?

Margo Gontar: I didn’t hesitate. If the need had ever been so high to do something for my country, it was at that moment. More than one hundred people were killed in the streets of Kiev. And something everyone thought could never actually happen, did happen: Russia invaded Crimea and annexed it. That was an eye-opener to me, a kind of 9/11-moment. As if a sensational action movie or a nightmare had become true.

Then a sense of optimism followed: president Yanukovych had fled and we could begin to rebuild the country. This lasted about one week and then Russia invaded the Crimea. This act of aggression was supported with fake news: that the Russians in the Crimea were persecuted. It was spread internationally by Russian press agencies.

‘Some people believe fake news over fact-checkers and this shows that disinformation is effective.’

Three years have passed. Ukraine is in the middle of the information storm. Isn’t there a risk that Ukrainian fact-checkers are seen as a propaganda channel of the other side, rather than as journalists who explain the conflict.

Margo Gontar: During a debate on Russian soft power at ‘De Balie’ in Amsterdam I got this reaction from the audience: ‘Fake News has become a trendy topic. That is why I distrust anyone who claims to unmask fake news.’ I thought that was striking. Why doesn’t he first and foremost distrust the fake news itself?

He asked me how one can tell if something is fake. Well, by checking the facts. That is what we do. With a team of about 30 journalists we do a fact-check for every fake, by tracing and questioning the original sources. In that way we try to find definitive evidence for the fakeness of the news. This is called debunking. Some people believe fake news over fact-checkers and this shows that disinformation is effective.

The purpose of fake news

Obviously it has to do with the fact that certain leaders, such as the American president Trump, have used the label fake news for media that are opposing them. Ever since, the label “fake news” is all over the place.

Margo Gontar: You are right. Fake news sells. The issue has become mainstream in the academic and media world. One can tell from the number of conferences that are being organised about it. I am being invited more and more. But at least it is on the agenda.

But people no longer know who is right, what is fake and what is real. The purpose of spreading fake news, and labelling others as “fake news”, is causing citizens to lose their sense of citizenship. Trump accuses CNN in order to undermine the public trust in this mass medium. CNN also accuses Trump of fake news. In the long term people stop getting involved because they don’t believe anything anymore. That destroys civil society.

Margo Gontar: That sounds like a rather precise description of the purpose of disinformation. Hurray! I can lean back, I don’t have to take responsibility, I can just distrust everything and everyone. That is comfortable. The intention behind pointing at scapegoats: creating intellectually lazy citizens. You no longer have to think, truth doesn’t exist anyway.

What these rulers are doing is opening minds to their own propaganda. They turn critical citizens into submissive subjects. It is very difficult to get such people out of the comfort of their lazy couches.

Why did you want to start Stop Fake now? Hasn’t there always been propaganda?

Margo Gontar: Ever since the annexation of the Crimea, Russian disinformation reached new heights. We realised that it was a part of the effort in the war. More than thirty candidates accepted Fedchenko’s call. Let’s do this, was their response.

Do you reach a lot of people? The Russian press agencies reach millions of people with their departments in different countries. You only have thirty journalists.

Margo Gontar: Not everyone has to visit www.stopfake.org. Journalists have to do that, to avoid mistakes in their news coverage. We founded Stop Fake as a fact-checking service that can be used by other journalists. When you unmask “news” as propaganda, journalists won’t use it any longer as a legitimate source for “the other side of the story”.

Alina Mosendz: When Russian media target Europeans with propaganda, we have to do the same with our debunking. That is why Stop Fake follows the news in ten languages. At the end of last year we opened a German and a Czech department. 55% of our website’s unique visitors are visiting from outside of Russian speaking countries.

Margo Gontar: And because fake news is a weapon of war, our work goes further than journalism. We collect evidence of the fact that Ukraine is being attacked by Russia in a hybrid war.

‘When you look at each fake message separately, you can’t see the pattern. When you collect them, you can see a weapon appearing.’

What can you do with that evidence?

Margo Gontar: One day we can present it in court. And they create awareness of the fact that wars nowadays are waged in a hidden way, so that the aggressor doesn’t have to admit openly that he is active in another country. When you look at each fake message separately, you can’t see the pattern. When you collect them, like we do, you can see a weapon appearing.

Any country where the Russian foreign policy has an interest can become the target of propaganda in a hybrid war. Russia tested it on Ukraine.

In the Crimea, the 2014 referendum came with a disinformation campaign. This tactic was used two years on in the Dutch referendum on Ukraine and in the Brexit campaign.

Margo Gontar: And during the American presidential elections. CNN heard about us after they themselves had been accused by Trump of being fake news. We had been working on this topic for two years already. Now Americans and Europeans come to us for advice.

So far, so good, that time is over in Europe. Also in the West, leaders could start making use of propaganda more often to consolidate their power. You have forgotten that things can become really bad and that sometimes you have to step in to defend freedom and democracy.

Is the West truly awake? Or are we still living in the illusion of a former era of stability, democracy and safety?

Margo Gontar: Looking at the means the EU Stratcom Task Force has to counter the continuous Russian disinformation campaigns, one would think the EU is still asleep. They barely have ten employees in Brussels, while the Russian media have big budgets abroad.

What does that say about the EU?

Margo Gontar: That there is no unity in the EU when it comes to how and if we should tackle Russian propaganda.

Alina Mosendz: Have you heard the discourse of Isquierda Unida and Podemos in the European Parliament? ‘We will continue to use RT as a source of information’, they said in a debate about propaganda from ISIS and Russia. But if RT brings 60% fake news and 40% real news, can they separate the fake from the real?

***

Case study: visa liberalisation

© Pieter Stockmans

 

‘Russian disinformation is most active on the integration of Ukraine in the EU’, says Alina Mosendz. ‘The flow of fake news messages about the visa liberalisation for Ukraine started in January 2016. Not a coincidence: at the end of December 2015 the European Commission stated that Ukraine had met all the conditions to get the visa liberalisation.’

‘At least once a month we saw, simultaneously with the developments in the negotiations, disinformation appearing to undermine the process. They wanted to make sure that Western journalists were also injected with disinformation, next to the real information about the process.’

Can you give examples?

Alina Mosendz: First fake, January 2016: “The EU says they want to grant Ukraine a visa liberalisation, but the EU member states already deny many Ukrainian visa requests. That’s why it will probably come down to nothing.”

Wrong. We looked up the official numbers. EU member states refused only 2% of the visa requests from Ukrainians. Ukraine is in the top three of countries whose citizens got the most visas from EU member states. More and more Ukrainians got multi-entry Schengen visa starting from 2013. This points at increasing trust.

Second fake, April 2016: “The Netherlands voted against the association agreement with Ukraine. Europeans don’t want a visa liberalisation for Ukraine either.” Wrong. They are two separate documents, negotiation and voting processes.

‘In the French election 35% voted for the extreme right. In Ukraine, only 5%. And the French aren’t all “fascists” and Ukrainians are?

The feelings that were exploited in the Dutch referendum campaign were in fact about the fear of Ukrainian migrants.

Alina Mosendz: Russian media noticed that these were the emotions that no-camp was spreading against the EU, so they brought messages that confirmed or reinforced these fears as big news. They are following up on the arguments of extreme right and radical left in the EU and bring those in the news as representative for the entire country.

When Wilders says something, they think of a headline: “The Netherlands are against…” The same goes with Le Pen. They are heroes for Russia, not fascists. In the French election 35% voted for the extreme right. In Ukraine, only 5%. And still the French aren’t all “fascists” and the Ukrainians are. Where’s the logic?

When Ukrainian far right militants intimidate police, parliament and judges, their real influence is bigger than their small weight in parliament. They are damaging, because they help Russian news to bring the story that all of Ukraine is fascist.

Alina Mosendz: Yes, that is true. Good. Third fake, june 2016: “EU gives weakened visa liberalisation to Georgia and Ukraine.” Wrong. We found out that they wrongly cited the German newspaper Die Welt. Die Welt wrote about debates in the European Parliament about the reasons why the EU will be able to temporarily suspend the visa liberalisation.

Later Russian media used the term “weakened” also to feed the disappointment of the Ukrainians because visa liberalisation does not mean the right to work in the EU. But the visa liberalisation was never about the right to work. Russian media suggested that the EU was cheating on Ukraine.

That isn’t fake news, but rather twisting of the facts and disinformation?

Alina Mosendz: At least it is manipulation. Here we saw one of the most utilised methods in Russian disinformation: they cite a renowned European source to make it look like it is not the Russian media who are saying it, but the Western-European media.

Fourth fake, September 2016, Sputnik: ‘Czech unions demonstrate against the visa liberalisation for Ukraine.” Wrong. It was not the big unions, but communist activists.

Russian media are well aware of all the debates in the EU. With the integration of new countries, problems arise. Labour unions are concerned. The chance that Ukrainians will use the visa liberalisation to find work is real.

Alina Mosendz: That’s right, but bringing false news to exaggerate the stories that feed those concerns, that is disinformation. Fifth fake, November 2016: “European Parliament names the countries that are against the visa liberalisation for Ukraine: Belgium, France, Germany and Italy.”

Wrong. Parliament had not yet reached an agreement about the suspension mechanism. Belgium wanted to build in more guarantees, but wasn’t against the visa liberalisation itself.

‘If Western-European politicians only emphasize the negative, they create a dreamed opportunity for Russian media.’

The Belgian secretary for asylum and migration Theo Francken did say that he was a “cold lover” of the visa liberalisation. From sources close to the negotiations we know that Belgium, indeed, was opposing for a long time.

Alina Mosendz: Isn’t negotiating by definition finding a way out of disagreement? Russian media made it look like the European Parliament was hopelessly divided. That wasn’t the case: finally a large majority in the European Parliament approved the visa liberalisation.

The Belgian secretary could at least have added that he was pleased that Belgium’s concerns were taken into account and that the visa liberalisation would lead to more strictly guarded borders. If Western-European politicians only emphasize the negative, they create a dreamed opportunity for Russian media.

Or if Ukrainian politicians only emphasize the positive points without them coming through.

Alina Mosendz: Exactly. President Poroshenko can be quite dumb at times. The evening before the EU-Ukraine summit in November 2016 he promised that the visa liberalisation would be signed during the summit. That didn’t happen. Because of his naive eagerness to claim this “big win over Russia”, he undermined the faith of the Ukrainian people in the government and in the EU, and he helped Russian propaganda. A month later it happened.

© Pieter Stockmans

Stop Fake journalist Marko Suprun reads a news message on visa liberalisation in the television studio.

A next fake?

Alina Mosendz: Yes, sixth fake, December 2016: “Ukraine accuses EU of betrayal”. That appeared in different Russian media. Wrong. They cited the Ukrainian minister Olena Zerkal in the Financial Times. In this interview, the original source, there is no mention of betrayal.

Only this: ‘We have met all of the conditions. If the EU doesn’t deliver now, the faith of Ukrainians in the EU will be damaged.’ Diplomatic. Russian media changed this into an insurmountable diplomatic conflict between Ukraine and the EU. Can you see how they twist a few words into a big scandal?

‘They twisted normal diplomatic language into an insurmountable diplomatic conflict between Ukraine and the EU. Can you see how they turn a few words into a big scandal?’

The next fake only came in March 2017.

Alina Mosendz: Maybe they were busy with the negotiations on the visa liberalisation for Georgia, in its final phase. But then suddenly, seventh fake, March 2017: “The visa liberalisation will open EU doors fotor Ukrainian prostitutes and radicals.”

The eternal suggestion of Russian propaganda: all Ukrainians are fascists and the women are prostitutes. Such stereotypes leave deep marks and influence Western-Europeans in their image of Eastern Europe. It even leads to alertness at the border. Sometimes I got questions from the EU border control officers who suggested I was a prostitute.

A month later the European Parliament approved the visa liberalisation.

Alina Mosendz: Eighth fake, April 2007: false reasons why it would be suspended showed up everywhere. For example: if corruption would not decline.

Rolling back of anti-corruption reforms is a reason for suspension. Transparency International Ukraine has lobbied for this.

Alina Mosendz: Indeed, reforms that were done to get the visa liberalisation. But that is only about the creation of anti-corruption institutions. For example, the visa liberalisation can be suspended when the independence of those institutions is harmed, but not when “corruption doesn’t decline”.

Is that imprecise journalism, or disinformation?

Alina Mosendz: I am afraid it is the second. In the same month another strange fake appeared on Buzzfeed America: “Ukraine and Turkey reached an agreement on the creation of three refugee camps for Syrian refugees in Ukraine”. The suggestion was: by opening the borders between Ukraine and the EU, all those refugees would travel onwards to the EU. In the months before, Russian media had also written that Ukraine could become a new migration route to the EU.

So many mistakes. That agreement with Turkey is fiction. And the visa liberalisation doesn’t open the borders, on the contrary. Ukrainians still have to show documents at the border. In fact, Ukrainian border control has only strengthened under the visa liberalisation.

© Pieter Stockmans

Alina Mosendz leads the Spanish department of Stop Fake. She investigated all the messages in Russian media about the visa exemption for Ukraine.

***

Propaganda under the guise of real news

The integration of Ukraine in the EU is an important theme of Russian disinformation. That shows that Russia itself sees this integration as a part of a geopolitical conflict.

Alina Mosendz: Were the Belarusian opposition ever to grow to Maidan-levels and were Russia to invade Belarus, then the EU would also speed up work towards a visa liberalisation and an association agreement for Belarus. This is a part of the hybrid war.

Which lessons have you learned from this? How does fake news work?

Alina Mosendz: Disinformation minimizes or twists news that is positive to the adversary, and maximizes or exaggerates negative news. So that Russians believe that Ukraine and the EU are failing.

For Russians, the Russian media fakes go crazy, with messages that Norwegians are gays and child molesters. A mix of homophobia and fake news. Or that Macron would be gay. Read between the lines: getting closer to Western-Europe will lead to “gay-decadence” in Ukraine, you should be happy that we don’t have that in Russia. For Westerners, they use more sophisticated half-truths. They bring their propaganda under the guise of real news. That is more dangerous, because it is more difficult to identify.

‘They bring propaganda under the guise of real news. That is more dangerous, because it is more difficult to identify.’

What do you notice in the Spanish media?

Alina Mosendz: That Russian press agencies know very well which messages resonate in Spain. For example: a Ukrainian football player, who played for a Spanish club, was wearing a t-shirt with the Ukrainian trident on it. Scandalous, a Nazi-sign! But it is just our national symbol on our passports.

Purpose: to make the Spanish people distrust Ukraine. Disinformation doesn’t need a lot to change an entire image. If you can show the Spanish people that Ukrainians are fascists, you touch on the sensitivities around Franco.

Another example: Spain is having a problem with migration from Morocco. There is an economic crisis and poverty. So let’s suggest that Ukrainian migrants will come to Spain with the visa liberalisation, let’s play on the anger about “migrants getting more advantages than the Spanish people”. Then you can pit the Spanish poor against the migrants.

Do you mean that the Spanish media use news from Russian press agencies?

Alina Mosendz: Of course. In Spanish and Mexican media I found a lot of messages about so called ISIS training camps in Ukraine. For example in Diario Valencia, a big newspaper. Source: “CNN”. But it was a literal copy of a news message by the Spanish department of Sputnik. Without any evidence they presented it as a fact. The newspapers saw Sputnik as a normal press agency like AFP. Especially Venezuelan media often work with Russian press agencies.

Sources of the radical left often use RT and Sputnik, especially about Syria.

Alina Mosendz: In Syria a good government is fighting bad rebels. In Ukraine a bad government is fighting good rebels. Strange, isn’t it? Speaking of those good rebels in the East of Ukraine. European parliamentarians visited those “good rebels” in Donetsk. The Spanish communist newspaper Publico wrote that Ukraine had asked Italy to arrest and extradite them.

Wrong. European parliamentarian Eleonora Forenza of the Italian party Rifondazione Comunista had organised a trip to Donetsk. That is against Ukrainian law, but Ukraine didn’t ask the participants to be “extradited”. We checked on the official communication between both ministries of Foreign Affairs. Ukraine had asked the Italian embassy to “take measures”. Not a word on arrests or extradition. Russian media twisted it: bad Nazi-Ukrainians want to arrest good communists who bring humanitarian aid to the victims in Donetsk.

Click the camera icon on the photo below to read the background story.

© Pieter Stockmans

‘…Christelle Néant of Donipress, the state press agency of the People’s Republic Donetsk…’, says Margo Gontar. By coincidence MO* followed the French Christelle Néant and Donipress last summer in the separatist pro-Russian “People’s Republic of Donetsk”. Donipress isn’t a big national press agency of the self-proclaimed authorities in Donetsk. It is an initiative of foreign activists that went to Donetsk out of sympathy for the cause. It was founded by the Finnish Janus Putkonen and attracted radical right en leftist Europeans. Only later it was recognized as a state medium, but until today it is a small propaganda-site. Maybe Stop Fake overestimated their importance. Gontar adapts her lines, but would rather not add that Néant is French. ‘That would give them authority. Especially now that Marine Le Pen has scored high in the French election, this is dangerous. In Russian media Le Pen’s statements are often presented as the voice of all of France.’

When you are of service to journalists and the public debate in those countries, do you receive funding of those governments?

Alina Mosedz: We don’t receive a lot of financial support. I don’t lobby the Spanish government. I do expand my network of Spanish journalists. I know them, they know me. I inform them about mistakes, they appreciate that. We have a constructive relationship.

As an NGO we don’t have structural funding. I worked as a reporter at a news agency on presidential topics. In 2016 our Spanish department got funding for a year. So I could work fulltime for Stop Fake.

Margo Gontar: The British embassy in Kiev, the International Renaissance Foundation of George Soros, the Czech ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Sigrid Rausing Trust. They are funding us at the moment.

Now Ukraine is entering in the sphere of influence of another superpower. Is that better?

Margo Gontar: We don’t just want to be a toy of the West. It isn’t because Japan integrated into Western politics and economy that Japanese culture is gone. At this moment, because we can’t be with Russia, we have to be with the West. Psychologically it is difficult to be on our own right now. Ukrainians need to have an identity, to define themselves in this new Ukraine.

Alina Mosendz: The monument of the motherland doesn’t look at “mother Russia” anymore. To Europe? Maybe. See that look on her face? She is ready to fight. She holds the sword and the shield in the air. She protects us from Russia. The Ukrainian trident should replace the hammer and sickle on the shield.

Translation by Eileen Coolen

© Pieter Stockmans

The “Monument of the Motherland” at the National Museum of the History of Ukraine in the Second World War.

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Jim

Last year we did a project where ukrainians exposed Russian fake news and Russians exposed fake news in the Ukraine media in one group together. The results were very productive: It helped participants from both sides to understand that they should always take a critical attitude towards the mainstream media (in whatever country) and make further investigations by themselves to find out the facts and the real truth. It helped them to realise that they must talk with people face-to-face from the “other side” if they want to break down all the stereotyping, propaganda and enemy images. I believe that the vast majority of people on both sides want to see a peaceful solution to the conflicts and stop all the violence and that is only possible through talking and diplomacy.

Pieter Stockmans

Thank you for this comment. Do you have a link to more information about that project?

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