By Yuriy Lapayev, for Tyzhden.ua
Weekly Magazine, № 31 (663), July 29 2020.
More than five years ago, Ukraine attracted the attention of world media. It was not about Russian aggression, but Ukrainian resistance to this attack on its information environment. It was then that the StopFake project emerged, which aimed to combat Kremlin propaganda and disinformation. Almost simultaneously, another equally well-known volunteer project InformNapalm was created, which also refuted the fake about the absence of Russian troops in the Donbas. Since then, scouts-volunteers from this international community have been able to gather a unique cache of evidence based data about regular Russian troops’ participation in the annexation of Crimea and the war in the Donbas, their materials reported to the NATO Parliamentary Assembly and other influential sites. Today, StopFake and InformNapalm are again in the spotlight, including by the foreign press, who mostly cover the events in Kyiv from Moscow. They are in the spotlight for completely different reasons. Both projects came under attack, either planned or accidental, ostensibly trying to shut the mouths of Ukrainian volunteers as much as possible. The scandal around StopFake started with a specific scenario. An infamous article in “Zaborona” about the alleged connections of Marko Suprun (one of the StopFake presenters) with far-right groups largely reproduced the “investigation” made by the authors of the pro-Russian publication in Ukraine called “Strana.ua”. However, the editors of the “Zaborona” consciously or unconsciously, did not consider it and went ahead with the publication.
It is somewhat reminiscent of the fake situation when an alleged American officer made a revelation in which he ruthlessly criticized the Ukrainian military. Then the “news” first appeared on August 23, 2019, on the “DPR / LPR” information resources, but did not receive the requisite reaction for the Kremlin because it was interrupted by numerous positive reports about the March of Defenders of Ukraine. Then in a few days, the material was published again on “Strana.ua” and through hacking of “Novoe Vremya” and “Depo”. As in the case of the “American officer”, which did not exist in nature and was invented by fake authors, a propaganda technique called “labeling” was used against StopFake, when the victim of an information attack is given a certain rich emotional characteristic and a certain perception in society. According to the same principle, in 2014, the Kremlin propaganda machine used the term Nazi-fascists to describe particiapants in the Maidan and the first volunteers that went to the east, and then it was applied to all the Ukrainian security forces. For people brought up on soviet books and movies for years, such a label is as clear as possible; it causes an apparent adverse reaction, therefore, it is very effective.
However, when we talk about StopFake, this label is intended not only for Russian or Ukrainian audiences. Its danger is that the scandal surrounding the editor of “Zaborona” Kateryna Sergatskova turned out to be a perfect story abroad. The unfortunate journalist has been the victim of harassment by the brutal far-right, who also threaten the freedom of speech – what could be more convincing for the refined liberal media? Various respected human rights activists, such as Human Rights Watch and Shaun Walker, did not immediately understand the situation and began to sound the alarm.
It seems that the initiators of the attack against StopFake had a double purpose. The first purpose is to discredit the first Ukrainian independent organization that joined the Facebook team as a third-party fact-checker. This partnership program was initiated by Facebook after the scandals surrounding the 2016 US presidential election and now has more than 50 partners worldwide, including such well-known news agencies as Reuters or Agence France-Presse. StopFake’s participation in this program may now be jeopardized; an investigation has been launched. At this point, the Ukrainians are accused of non-compliance with the the Code of principles of the International Fact-Checking Network in terms of impartiality, but despite the lack of proof, the fictitious ties with the “far rights” also act as a red flag. Planned or unintentionally, the scandal clearly plays into the hands of the Kremlin, creating another plot for a series about “fascist Ukraine,” thus depriving the already limited international support for Kyiv.
Second, StopFake has always been a volunteer, non-governmental community that existed only by donations and grants. The message about the support of the “fascists” can hit hard on the desire of donors to provide financial support to the project, which is likely to significantly limit its capabilities (for example, reduce the number of language versions of the site or frequency of their update) or stop it altogether. It is in line with the Kremlin’s plans: the fewer people, especially abroad, that know about the themes and methods of Russian propaganda, the easier it will be to spread it. Furthermore, not only in Ukraine but all over the world. In fact, by smothering Ukrainian projects, the West is depriving itself of supporters in counteracting Russian aggression.
So far, there is no clear and unequivocal evidence that the Russian security agencies commissioned the scandal surrounding “Zaborona”. There is no evidence of Kateryna Sergatskova’s recruitment. Since 2014, a large group of Russian opposition liberals has landed in Ukraine, seeking to teach Ukrainians how to build democracy (although this is more like an attempt to build “another Russia” here). These are probably the remnants of postcolonial consciousness when all the representatives of the once-dominant people are considered to be genius and infallible. Before 2014, this was a common practice for the Ukrainian business environment, when different trainers and coaches came from Moscow or St. Petersburg. The scale of projects, in the three times bigger Russia, was testimony in favor of these mentors. But how does one explain, logically, the outsized popularity of masterclasses about development of the state by failed revolutionaries who have not succeeded in their own country?
The actions against InformNapalm differ slightly in methods, but the result is almost the same. Facebook regularly blocks the accounts of the international community volunteers and its speakers mostly for somewhat contrived reasons or after complaints from Russia. Almost simultaneously with the scandal surrounding Sergatskova, on July 4, the mass blocking of InformNapalm’s Twitter accounts began. In particular, the multilingual page was blocked, having been online since 2014 and over 13.5 thousand readers, including international organizations, foreign experts, journalists, and politicians. This attack could be some response to community reports against propaganda by the Russian Foreign Ministry on social media. Despite numerous appeals from diplomats and experts, only the main page of the community was unblocked ten days later, and the rest remained banned. As InformNapalm founder Roman Burko noted in his comment to ‘Tyzhden’, Russian troll factories and intelligence services were using any imperfections in the social media blocking system to silence the community completely. “These attacks are constantly happening and evolving,” he said. Russian trolls have tried to promote a separate label, to deter respected international media from cooperating, stating InformNapalm to be so-called black hackers – meaning criminals or intelligence services operatives (although in fact, it is an open community of OSINT volunteers from around the world, collecting data from open sources, that Russian media then in a panic calls “top secret information”). They did not forget to impose the idea of the allegedly ultranationalist orientation of the resource. “It is a pity that the West does not know how to react to such hybrid defamation and is happy to be swayed by the special operations,” said the volunteer.
According to Burko, it cannot be dismissed that the attacks against InformNapalm and StopFake are coordinated from Moscow, as they are extremely beneficial to Russia. The Kremlin needs to deprive Ukraine of its voice, especially when it comes to conveying Western experts’ information. It is much easier for a certain part of Western society to believe in the domination of far-right radicals in Ukraine than to notice them in their own countries. It is easier to report harassment of certain journalists without noticing others. Almost simultaneously with the ‘Zaborona’ scandal, Texty.org.ua published an investigation on the influence of Telegram channels that show signs of being administered from the Russian Federation on the actions of Ukrainian politicians, in particular representatives of the ruling Servant of the People party. Immediately after the publication, the author of the research, Lyubov Velychko, began to receive very real threats. In her Facebook account, she commented: “I understand that my work is very disadvantageous for the Russian intelligence services. And so they put pressure on me, throwing lies and fakes at me. But I don’t care. I will continue to work because I love Ukraine.” However, this case has gone unnoticed by human rights activists; for some reason, they are reluctant to notice violations of pro-Russian forces. Similar behavior was observed by the OSCE representatives, who criticized the decision of the Ukrainian authorities to block Russian TV channels and social networks, but did not see the reasons behind it. Ukraine was accused of arresting the head of “RIA Novosti-Ukraine” Kirill Vyshinsky and attempting to arrest the editor-in-chief of “Strana.ua” Ihor Guzhva, however, their subversive activities against our state were overlooked; the detention of Stanislav Aseyev in the DPR went almost unnoticed. Unfortunately, the Kremlin can effectively use Western democracy and freedom of speech to its advantage. It is much easier to fight imaginary fascists than the real ones.
By Yuriy Lapayev, for Tyzhden.ua
Weekly Magazine, № 31 (663), July 29 2020