Evolution of Russia′s informational warfare in Ukraine: Interview with Olga Yurkova of Stopfake | #speakup barometer | Ukraine | DW | 02.07.2019

Visit the new DW website

Take a look at the beta version of dw.com. We're not done yet! Your opinion can help us make it better.

  1. Inhalt
  2. Navigation
  3. Weitere Inhalte
  4. Metanavigation
  5. Suche
  6. Choose from 30 Languages

#speakup barometer | Ukraine

Evolution of Russia's informational warfare in Ukraine: Interview with Olga Yurkova of Stopfake

Since the 2014 Maidan revolution, Ukraine has been the primary target of Russian informational warfare. While the Kremlin has kept up its fake narratives, open lies are evolving into more subtle forms of manipulation.

#speakup Barometer Ukraine Olga Yurkova

Olga Yurkova of Stopfake has observed that the outright lies have receded in favor of more subtle manipulation.

Russian fake news and propaganda have been a constant presence in post-Maidan Ukraine. #Speakup barometer talked to Olga Yurkova about how it has shaped public discourse and digital participation in Ukraine. Yurkova is co-founder of Stopfake, a debunking initiative working against Russian disinformation.

#speakup barometer: What kind of challenges does Ukrainian society face with regard to Russian disinformation?

In the five years of Stopfake's existence, fake news and propaganda have not decreased, but have changed in character. Initially, they spread obvious lies – like the one about a crucified boy in the Donbass region, or the “news” that every Ukrainian soldier was promised a piece of land in Donbass with two slaves. Now the outright lies have receded in favor of more subtle manipulation, which is much more difficult to identify and which people are more inclined to believe. In the past, most Ukrainians used to be very skeptical towards fake news.

What kind of challenges does Ukrainian society face with regard to Russian disinformation?

In the five years of Stopfake's existence, fake news and propaganda have not decreased, but have changed in character. Initially, they spread obvious lies – like the one about a crucified boy in the Donbass region, or the “news” that every Ukrainian soldier was promised a piece of land in Donbass with two slaves. Now the outright lies have receded in favor of more subtle manipulation, which is much more difficult to identify and which people are more inclined to believe. In the past, most Ukrainians used to be very skeptical towards fake news.

Screenshot Ukraine Stop Fake

Screenshot of stopfake.org

What does this form of manipulation look like?

Propaganda has become more complex and more difficult to dispel. One of the recurring narratives is the fake news that Ukraine is heading for state bankruptcy. Russian media outlets quote experts, studies and rating agencies. Lately, Ukrainian media have started to pick up these stories– not out of bad intention, but because they lack the professionalization to identify it as fake news. They simply don't check the sources. But this means that Russian fake news has been transformed into Ukrainian "real" news. And if it is printed without reference to the source, nobody will be able to recognize it as such.

Which topics does Russian informational warfare focus on?

When we conducted a study with Stopfake in 2016 on 500 different fake news items, we found 18 different narratives nurtured by Russian propaganda. In 2018, with an even bigger sample of 1,000 articles, we found all 18 narratives still present. They include Ukraine as a fascist state, its army as either brutal or weak, discrediting Ukrainian authorities or depicting the country as a failed state. These narratives are fed weekly – sometimes even daily – with new fake news items, so they remain present in the public space.

Do you think blocking Russian social networks and media outlets is an adequate response by Ukrainian authorities?

Russian media outlets are blocked because they violated Ukrainian laws by spreading hate speech and incitements to violence. The ban is regularly extended as media outlets continue to spread the same messages. Russian social networks were blocked because Russian secret services can access them and thus endanger Ukrainian users. The Ukrainian state had to weigh security versus freedom of speech; in this case, security concerns were more important. At the same time, the ban is rather symbolic because it is pretty easy to circumvent.

There is also a concern that hate speech is spread by the Ukrainian media.

Some experts qualify calling Russia an occupying force as hate speech. But I do not agree with this. As citizens of Ukraine, we cannot be neutral towards Russia. When Russia occupies a part of our country, they are occupiers. When we are at war with Russia, Russia is an enemy. Experts qualifying this as hate speech assume too neutral a position.

How does Russian informational warfare impact debate and participation online within Ukraine?

The problem is that Russian trolls and bots are having an impact on this debate. If someone writes a post that the Russian side does not like, their account is attacked by bots that issue mass complaints to Facebook, which leads to the blocking of the account. Many activists therefore operate several accounts to avoid being silenced. Nevertheless, Ukrainian society remains very active, although meaningful debate has receded into closed groups. Historically, Facebook was the platform for debate in civil society. Today, society is more segmented: Trust on the Internet exists only in closed groups of members with similar backgrounds. This does not stop Ukrainians from posting their opinions publicly on social media, though.

The #speakup barometer is a DW Akademie project that examines the connection between digital participation, freedom of expression and access to information. Learn more at www.dw.com/barometer