LVIV, Ukraine (Reuters) -For Yevhen Fedchenko, the information war hit home when his aunt said she would not come to visit because she believed she would be beaten and killed in Ukraine for speaking Russian.
For Alya Shandra, it was her Danish then-boyfriend’s decision to abandon a visit to Kyiv because he thought there were Nazis in Ukraine.
They both became so angry at the refusal of their loved ones to set foot in Ukraine because of what they had read, heard or watched about the country in 2014, when mass protests in central Kyiv toppled an unpopular pro-Russian president, that they decided to find ways to challenge a narrative they rejected.
Both became part of a vanguard of volunteers fighting “Russian propaganda”, which for years had spread inside Ukraine and beyond, keeping the country all but locked within a narrative most dismissed but struggled to counter.
Eight years of practice in countering disinformation, they say, prepared them for Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine.
It also showed them how to fight, at home and abroad, the allegations that Ukraine harbours neo-Nazis bent on the destruction of its Russian-speaking population, and to present a narrative that the country, a former Soviet republic, wanted to develop independently.
Fedchenko helped co-found StopFake, a factchecking service, in March 2014 with colleagues and students at the Kyiv-Mohyla journalism school to “debunk just piece by piece” Russian disinformation and fake news. Shandra helped organise EuroMaidan Press, an English-language online newspaper, to try to offer foreign audiences articles and analysis penned by Ukrainians.
“We did a lot of things in those eight years and we learnt a lot about disinformation…We were absolutely sure about when it (the war) was going to happen,” Fedchenko told Reuters by telephone from his new, and what he hopes will be a temporary, home in western Ukraine, largely spared by the invasion so far.
“There had been an absolutely huge uptick in all those (Russian) narratives, all the boxes are checked and everything was set for the war.”
Fedchenko said there is little new in the narrative now – a repetition of the lines that drove him to set up his organisation during the protests which became known as the Maidan Revolution, or revolution of dignity, that ousted then-President Viktor Yanukovich after he broke a promise to develop closer ties with the European Union.
The only difference was the pace had quickened after Russian President Vladimir Putin wrote in an essay in July last year that Soviet leaders invented a Ukrainian republic in 1922 and that post-2014 Ukraine was indulging neo-Nazis.
On Feb. 24, Putin launched what he called “a special military operation” to “strive for the demilitarisation and denazification of Ukraine”. Ukraine, a parliamentary democracy, says it was invaded without provocation.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, now dubbed the “communicator-in-chief” who has been crucial in rallying international support for Kyiv through daily video messages, rejects that, saying Russia intends to destroy his country in an assault on democracy that goes beyond Ukraine.
YEARS OF WAR
Both Fedchenko and Shandra, like many Ukrainian volunteers who now buy medical supplies for the army and help with food deliveries, cut their teeth in the 2014 revolution, a months-long street uprising that ousted Yanukovich.
They stepped in to occupy a vacuum left by government. More nimble than the state, they formed networks and used new technology to fight what they call Russia’s propaganda machine.
In 2014, one of Fedchenko’s most memorable “debunks” was the report that Ukrainians had crucified a young boy in the eastern town of Sloviansk as his father was a member of Russian-backed separatists that had carved out two self-styled statelets there.
In the current war, it’s an allegation made on March 9 that Ukraine planned an offensive against that region, what Russia calls the “Donbass republics”. The documents produced, StopFake said, actually referred to a joint training session of the army and the National Guard in the Lviv region of western Ukraine.
After seeing Ukraine lose Crimea to annexation by Russia in 2014, watching Russian-backed separatists declare two mini-republics in the east, and then losing a government when Yanukovich was toppled, they say they had little choice.
“At that time (in 2014) I was like 20 something. I was starting to understand that something wasn’t right in my country…, so when Euromaidan (the revolution) came around I basically abandoned everything I was doing,” Shandra told Reuters in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv.
Recounting how her boyfriend of the time refused to visit her in Ukraine because of “Nazis”, she said: “It so shocked me that I decided I had to do something about it…, because it was incomprehensible how he could believe (the propaganda) over me”.
She helped set up Euromaidan Press and after going for a year without a wage, got initial help from Dutch human rights activist and historian Robert van Voren, and then later a grant from the International Renaissance Foundation, founded by hedge fund billionaire and philanthropist George Soros.
Alongside other media organisations in their “little club”, which also includes Ukraine’s Krytyka Magazine and the investigative website InformNapalm, they help foreign media find Ukrainian contacts to make sure their voices are heard.
‘AURA OF CREDIBILITY’
Colin Alexander, senior lecturer in political communications at Nottingham Trent University in England, said Ukrainians had begun to do messaging in a way that buttressed their own credibility.
“Over the last four-five years, particularly since Zelenskiy came to power, you see this real emphasis on – to hell with what the Russians say and let’s build up our own aura of legitimacy.”
Readership figures are hard to come by and Shandra admits hers is not the biggest outlet, but StopFake has become a third-party fact checker at Facebook. For Fedchenko, becoming a public figure has also brought difficulties. He was accused of having neo-Nazi leanings by Ukrainian online outlet Zaborona – an allegation his company, and he, denies.
He still hasn’t spoken to his aunt, who lives in Russian-annexed Crimea, but is some ways grateful that her refusal to visit him spurred him to fight propaganda.
Fedchenko even tried to reach listeners in Crimea with weekly podcasts on the radio, and those in the breakaway Donetsk and Luhansk regions with a free monthly newspaper “Your Right to Know”, and radio and TV programmes.
The newspaper folded three years ago, while the television shows stopped when the war started because fearful staff moved away from Kyiv where the production facilities were. Fedchenko hopes they will start up again.
“I think this is one of the key answers why even if we are not winning the information war, we are definitely not losing the information war because we were working it on a daily basis for all those eight years and it became part of our life.
“Probably not the best part of your life when you are just debunking someone’s lies, and you just need to read it all the time and you’re immersed in all this shit,” he said.
(Reporting by Elizabeth PiperEditing by Mark Heinrich)