The photograph, published on a Russian politics website and then spread quickly to many blogs, was said to show a morgue full of dead bodies in Slovyansk, Ukraine.
Frustrated by the misinformation being spread during the current crisis, a group of Ukrainian academics, journalists, and volunteers based in Kiev started the website StopFake.org in March. “I was sitting at home on Twitter and Facebook and couldn’t really figure out what was happening over there,” said Yevhen Fedchenko, the director of the journalism program at the National University of Kyiv Mohyla Academy. “I mean, it’s understandable when your country is under occupation by a foreign country, it is emotional. But journalists should still be journalists and still keep up with journalistic activities rather than just sitting around and getting excited about what had happened.”
Fedchenko posted in a Facebook group for students and alumni of Mohyla Academy, and a group of people gathered to brainstorm ideas about how to combat misinformation. “The thing everyone mentioned was the abundance of Russian propaganda — state-run, very aggressive, very primitive sometimes, and at the same time effective,” Fedchenko said.
Student Olga Yurkova came up with the idea for StopFake, which launched soon after in both Russian and English. Its primary targets: Russian speakers in eastern Ukraine, who receive a lot of their news from Russian television, and Western journalists.
Unlike fact-checking websites such as Politifact that focus on domestic news and testing the accuracy of statements made by politicians, StopFake focused primarily on news coming from another country — although they also correct and check Ukrainian media and politicians. The site debunks misattributed photos (such as these actually from Syria and Quebec, or this heavily Photoshopped one), invented news (including that The New York Times’ Jill Abramson was fired because of a story about Slovyansk), and misattributed videos. StopFake covers both news websites that officially report events as well as rumors spread over social media.
The “Report A Fake” button at the top of StopFake’s website has generated a lot of user submissions. Fedchenko says the button has helped the team of eight spot suspicious news in Russian regional media as well as English-language outlets, including Russia Today. Fedchenko says misinformation campaigns have become more sophisticated over the course of the conflict in Ukraine — what used to take a phone call or two to factcheck has now become more time intensive. He says that some items they suspect to be fake prove impossible to verify or factcheck — especially stories about ongoing fighting which are “very difficult to verify because of the nature of the war.”
Today — exactly three months after launch — the site has built a remarkably large audience: over 1.5 million unique visitors a month, according to Google Analytics, along with over 60,000 followers across social media platforms. About one quarter of the website’s readership comes from Russia, according to Iurii Panin, an instructor in TV news production at Mohyla Academy.
“This proved to us that there is an interest in Russia for unbiased news about Ukraine, and second, that there are very different audiences in Russia with very different perceptions of right and wrong,” Fedchenko said.
Panin works on the technical and financial side of the project. Through crowdsourcing, StopFake has raised over $8,000 in donations, with over 30 percent of PayPal donations coming from Russia. The donations are being used to improve the website and boost the quality of the site’s regular videos. Additionally, the team hopes to hire editors and factcheckers to deal with the high volume of tips they are receiving.
“In 2004, I saw there was a problem in Ukraine, no one was doing anything [about propaganda],” Panin said. “We lost these 10 years.”
A new generation of Ukrainian journalists has come of age since the Orange Revolution in 2004, including Margo Gontar, a recent master’s graduate of the Mohyla journalism program, who works as an executive producer at Espreso TV. On Sundays, Gontar volunteers her time along with Panin to produce a weekly video roundup of news StopFake has debunked during the week. One video was widely shared by Ukrainian media and received over 100,000 views.
News coverage of events in Crimea and fear of further Russian invasion spurred Gontar to attend the initial brainstorming meeting. She felt that as a group of journalists, they could use their professional skills in a useful way. (Another site not run by journalists, Fake Control, was also working to debunk news, but has not been updated since March.)
With the election of Petro Poroshenko as Ukraine’s new president, many Ukrainians are hopeful that a dialogue may be able to start with Russia. But regardless of how relations between the two countries evolve, Fedchenko sees StopFake as a long-term project.
“I don’t think we need to become just another Internet media covering all news,” he said. “So I guess we will stick to propaganda, because Russian propaganda did not start with the war in Crimea — it started much earlier. And even when active war subsides, I’m sure the propaganda will not go away.”