Ukrainian society retains spirit of debate despite disinformation and trolling | #speakup barometer | Ukraine | DW | 01.07.2019
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#speakup barometer | Ukraine

Ukrainian society retains spirit of debate despite disinformation and trolling

In recent years, the fight against Russian propaganda has shaped the debate about the Internet in Ukraine. Ukrainians are quite aware of the dangers of disinformation and the need for more media and information literacy.

DWA DW Akademie speakup barometer

The level of digital participation of society in Ukraine is advanced.

Key Findings

— Ukrainian society is very active on social media. However, meaningful debate has increasingly moved into closed groups.
— As part of its informational warfare, Russian propaganda works with about 18 narratives against Ukraine. However, fake news stories resort to much more subtle manipulation which is harder for readers and journalists to detect.
— ​​​​​Ukraine has blocked major Russian social networks and roughly 200 websites. The presidential decree blocking these websites is controversial within the media community.
— ​​​​​Media and information literacy has become a focus of public debate.


The setting is basic: Stop Fakerecords its weekly program on fake news at the control desk of a TV studio. In front of a blurred wall of TV screens, host Viktoriia Romaniuk attempts to debunk the latest Russian hoaxes about Ukraine. First topic of this episode: Russia’s disinformation campaign against the new law on Ukrainian as the state language.

"The law has been received both with applause and criticism," Romaniuk summarizes the debate within Ukraine. "But Russian media has stirred up a storm of outrage. The propagandists said the law contradicts the Ukrainian constitution." Then she starts to dissect, piece by piece, how Russian state media has manipulated the facts to reach its conclusion.


18 narratives against Ukraine in use by Russian propaganda

The notion that the Russian-speaking part of Ukrainian society is oppressed is among the most common narratives that Russian state media uses in its disinformation campaign against Ukraine, says Olha Yurkova, co-founder of Stopfake, a civil society initiative formed in the wake of the Maidan protests, when journalists from different media outlets joined forces to debunk fake news spread by pro-Russian sources.

Fighting against Russia’s informational warfare campaign has been a challenge for Ukraine in a time when the country is trying to reach a new consensus on its future. Research (Stop Fake2018) conducted by Stopfake shows that Russia continues to use 18 different narratives against Ukraine, such as the ostensible state discrimination against Russian speakers. The Kremlin’s media machine regularly supplies each of these narratives with new stories. "Propaganda and fake news haven’t decreased in the last five years," says Yurkova. "But blunt lies have given way to more subtle forms of manipulation."


Russian web services blocked in Ukraine

In 2017, then Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko issued a decree blocking access to major Russian Internet services, such as the social networks Vkontakte and Odnoklassniki, as well as the search engine Yandex and, for three years. A year later, 200 websites were also blocked, among them Russian state media, and news outlets from the unrecognized People’s Republics in eastern Ukraine. Both decisions continue to be heavily debated within Ukrainian civil society.

Summer Media Camp für Bürgerjournalisten Ukraine

Summer media camp for citizen journalists

"Vkontakte and Odnoklassniki were used to organize special operations against Ukraine," says the media expert Tetyana Lebedeva. "The blocking is a component of our security policy." According to her, Russian social networks were used to disseminate hate speech and appeals to topple the Ukrainian government. "Who could condemn a state for banning this?"

Vitalii Moroz from Internews Ukraina, a Ukrainian media NGO, does see users’ rights violated by a decision that was "more illegal than legal."  Furthermore, he points out that the presidential decree is only binding for state authorities. In fact, many Internet service providers have not blocked the websites in question, allowing many Ukrainians to continue accessing them. Still, Moroz considers the decree to be important. "The Ukrainian government sent a political message," he says. "Be aware of Russian websites. They can endanger you and your families."


Infringement of digital rights

Vita Volodovska, a lawyer at the Digital Security Lab (Facebook Link)Lab in Ukraine, remains more skeptical. "Everyone says: We are only blocking Russian websites – where is the problem? The problem is that we are building a mechanism that allows the president and the security service to decide whom to block." Volodovska points out that the decision did not contain any explanation for why any given site was blocked. She sees blocking social networks in particular as an infringement on digital rights, because it affects the right of access to information as well as the right to disseminate information.

As many Internet service providers refuse to implement the blocking, Vkontakte remains popular among social network users in Ukraine, albeit with a falling market share. With regard to the influence of Russian propaganda, Olha Yurkova points out yet another challenge for Ukrainian society: As disinformation becomes subtler, she sees more fake news stories being picked up by Ukrainian media outlets, due to a lack of professionalization. "Then, nobody realizes anymore that the story initially came from Russia," says Yurkova. "To debunk this subtle manipulation, you have to be a professional journalist." Blocking Russian websites won’t solve the problem; at the same time, trust in the media has been falling, according to recent polls.


Challenges to media and information literacy

Summer Media Camp für Bürgerjournalisten Ukraine

Summer media camp for citizen journalists

In this informational environment, media and information literacy (MIL) has gained much more attention in Ukrainian society in recent years. Ukraine’s education system, inherited from the Soviet Union, traditionally did not put a strong emphasis on critical thinking. Thus far, MIL has only been integrated into the curricula at the primary school level. Currently, public hearings on the question of MIL for middle and high schools are underway. Maryna Dorosh, a MIL expert at the NGO Ukrainian Media and Communication Institute in Kyiv, sees a huge challenge in the training of teachers who have to then give the MIL classes.

Many of Ukraine’s challenges in terms of disinformation and preserving a meaningful public debate are not unique to the country but are more virulent. "Ukraine is a front-line state," says Tetyana Lebedeva. Nevertheless, most experts characterize Ukrainian society as very politically active and outspoken. Many cities have Twitter or Facebook groups in which users post funny images from everyday life – from a subway train running late, to a tram that has had an accident or dirty toilets in a metro station. In Kharkiv, over 13,000 users follow the city's Twitter feed. Other groups focus on specific neighborhoods in the city.

But things are changing. "Facebook used to be a platform for civil society to discuss various issues," says Olha Yurkova of Stopfake. With the rise of trolls and bots active in Ukrainian social networks, however, people have lost the trust necessary to engage publicly in this kind of discussions. Today, debate has increasingly moved into closed groups.


What experts say:

Tetyana Lebedeva, Independent Association of Broadcasters, HAM:

Tetyana Lebedeva sees a big challenge in increasing media and information literacy in Ukrainian society as a whole. "It is very difficult to verify information that is published on the Internet. The same applies to our oligarchic television stations."

Olha Yurkova, co-founder of Stopfake:

"Bots are the main problem when it comes to destroying trust on the Internet. Today, trust exists in closed groups among friends, and not in open ones. People will post their opinion publicly, but there is no trust anymore. We are witnessing an atomization of society on the Internet."

Vita Volodovska, Digital Security Lab:

"The blocking of websites violates our right to access to information. The problem is that the blocking is not properly explained. There are no clear criteria according to which decisions on blocking are made."



— Implement wide-reaching media and information literacy programs for Ukrainian society
Ukraine has a very active civil society that is able to reach parts of the population that cannot be reached via the educational system. Improving Ukrainians’ MIL skills will make the country even more resilient to Russian fake news and propaganda.

— Increase public pressure on big Internet companies to assume responsibility
Facebook has been criticized for closing down fake accounts too slowly, while the complaint function continues to be used by trolls to block the accounts of Ukrainian activists. At the same time, Facebook does not have an office in a country whose security depends in part on the social network.


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