In 2014, in the aftermath of the Euromaidan protests in Ukraine, the vacuum of reliable information in the Ukrainian media was filled by a deluge of misinformation and propaganda from Russia. To counter this, a small group at the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy in Kiev started StopFake, a media organization devoted solely to debunking fake news and Russian propaganda. Today, three years later, StopFake is a multi-platform media outlet with a nightly TV show broadcast on 30 local channels, a weekly radio show, and a strong social media following.
Brooke talks to Yevhen Fedchenko, co-founder and current editor-in-chief of StopFake, as well as director of the School of Journalism at Kiev-Mohyla Academy. He says that StopFake's goal isn't just to debunk fake news -- it's to make news consumers smarter and more critical of their news.
You can find StopFake's fake news "detection tools" here.
Theme From 8½ by Nino Rota
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Right now, there’s a lot of noodle removal underway in Russia's neighbor, Ukraine. In 2014, to counter the spirit of popular revolution against Russian control, Ukrainian media was rife with misinformation and propaganda pouring in from Russia. Fake news filled the vacuum of reliable information about what was happening on the ground.
One group of volunteers at the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy’s School of Journalism got together and started StopFake, a media outlet that would tackle the fake news head on. What started as a blog with a few posts debunking Russian propaganda has in the past three years become a reputable news source for Ukrainians, with a nightly TV show broadcast on 30 local channels, a weekly radio show and a large social media following.
Yevhen Fedchenko was one of the co-founders and current editor-in-chief of StopFake and the director of the School of Journalism at the Kiev-Mohyla Academy. Yevhen, welcome to the show.
YEVHEN FEDCHENKO: Thank you for inviting me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What was your first story?
YEVHEN FEDCHENKO: Russian television was repeating all the time the story that thousands of Ukrainian refugees slid in from Ukraine to Russia, and we called to Russian Migration Service and asked how many Ukrainians asked for refugee status over there because still there was no war at that point. And so, the question is, why Ukraine would have refugees? So we started to check and it appeared that absolutely very few people asked for asylum in Russia for refugee status, so it was absolutely fake. And the intention of propaganda was actually to create the wave of refugees because if people would be watching television and see that everybody is trying to flee Ukraine, so they would just follow.
But there was an interesting follow-up to this story. Those people whom we interview said that, we don't have any refugees from Ukraine but we’ve been told from Moscow to prepare to the avalanche of Ukrainian refugees. So it was a very clear warning that something is up and probably military actions would be the next stage of the escalation of the conflict.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Okay, so let’s start with Russian propaganda. What were some of the characteristic themes and topics that you saw?
YEVHEN FEDCHENKO: The most widespread topics were the accusations that in Ukraine there is a coup d’état, not a popular uprising, that fascist junta came to power, that Ukraine actually is collapsing, and many other frames.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And one that I see throughout history, crucifying Russian-speaking children in Ukraine.
YEVHEN FEDCHENKO: That was the most interesting case for us. It was aired on prime time television in Russia and when journalists who produced the story were confronted and people demanded explanations, they said, it's not us journalists who should find facts supporting this story but that’s all you in the audience should prove that the story never happened.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] Do you have any actual proof that the fake news you've been seeing is coming directly from the Russian government?
YEVHEN FEDCHENKO: At the very beginning when we just were starting our website, we really might have doubts about that, but during three years we already collected more than one-thousand stories. And we see how the same frames are repeated all the time, how the same media organizations or so-called “media organizations” are engaged in manufacturing and spreading those fakes and how this propaganda is overlapping with the talking points from Russian government.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm. StopFake has been around for about three years.
YEVHEN FEDCHENKO: Yeah.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And you started the TV show only about a week into launching the project. How has it grown since then?
YEVHEN FEDCHENKO: The idea behind TV show was Russian propaganda is mostly using Russian television to spread propaganda, so it would be very logical to answer symmetrically in a form of TV show, which not only was debunking fake stories but explaining to ordinary people in the audience how fakes are produced, how they can identify them and what kind of an impact fake news can have on their lives.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So that they, themselves, would be able to distill the truth from this sea of BS.
YEVHEN FEDCHENKO: Right, absolutely. Our most read article ever is “How To Spot a Fake.”
Millions and millions of people read that and we are empowering them to understand what they can use to do that. For example, on our website we have a section called Tools, where we explain to ordinary people how they can become debunkers, themselves, how they can use different technologically-available tools or just some journalistic instruments to check their information.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You also show them how to verify YouTube videos and you even have a guide on how to do research on Russian public officials, using the Russian Internet. What are your indicators that it's actually having an impact? Is there any way to tell if they’ve actually become more media literate?
YEVHEN FEDCHENKO: We have some indicators which are quite promising. For example, we’ve seen from the polls that the audience of Russian television in Ukraine dropped to the historically low level of 8%, compared to 100% a couple of years ago.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] Oh.
YEVHEN FEDCHENKO: And among those 8%, only 3% are trusting what they are watching.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] Aha.
YEVHEN FEDCHENKO: People are much surer now what they are dealing with when they are watching Russian television.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It’s been widely reported that Russian propaganda has been flooding Europe in an effort to demean democracy –
YEVHEN FEDCHENKO: Mm-hmm. [AFFIRMATIVE]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: - and destabilize those societies and that it's actually having an effect. You’ve been partnering with NGOs in other European countries to look at Russian propaganda?
YEVHEN FEDCHENKO: We partner together because in every country our local partners are monitoring the local situation and they know local languages –
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm.
YEVHEN FEDCHENKO: - local media landscape, so they can look into what instruments they use, what patterns are behind. And then when we get together all that information, we can map and put it into the comparative perspective to see what is happening in different countries. And we find a lot of similarities. The Ukrainian toolbox is very widely used across the whole Europe.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Yevhen, thank you very much.
YEVHEN FEDCHENKO: Thank you so much for having me.
[MUSIC UP & UNDER]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Yevhen Fedchenko is one of the co-founders and current editor-in-chief of StopFake and the director of the School of Journalism at Kiev-Mohyla Academy. You can find the link to his fake news “detection tools” at onthemedia.org.
Coming up, what the founders thought about corruption.