StopFake: In the trenches of Russia’s deadly information warfare

A project of a Ukrainian media NGO, founded in 2014 by Ukrainian university professors and students, is working to refute Russia’s propaganda and fake news about the ongoing war in Ukraine. Part academic research, part journalistic mission, StopFake’s aim is simple: truth.

As fake news stories go, the one at the end of January was so outrageous that Olena Churanova, a fact-checker for the Kyiv-based StopFake project couldn’t help but laugh. The story, carried on the so-called Z-channels of Telegram, Russia’s most popular social media platform, said that Ukraine had been reduced to paying its soldiers in ‘vouchers’ instead of the nation’s currency, the hryvnia.

Following the Soviet propaganda playbook, agitprop apparatchiks, who take their orders from the Kremlin, spun the story from a nub of truth.

Starting on 1 February, Ukraine changed the way its soldiers and other security forces pay is calculated. Far from paying its security forces in what would amount to chits, Ukraine standardised the pay rates and put in place a sliding scale for hazardous duty pay that takes account of the place, conditions and characteristics of where the individual is.

The quality of the picture of the ‘voucher’ on Telegram “was not even up to the level of a 15-year-old using Photoshop”, says Churanova, who has worked at StopFake since 2016, six years after taking her journalism degree at the Mohyla School of Journalism (MSJ), which is part of the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy.

As she showed in her article published on StopFake on 3 February, a simple Google image search revealed that the ‘voucher’ dates back to 2014 and shows a certificate testifying to the purchase of military bonds. To make it look like a ‘voucher’, the photoshopped version contains the words: “Certificate that is issued as payment for service in the Armed Forces of Ukraine.”

Yet, the forger skipped one of the most important steps in producing fake documents: verifying that the signature on the fake is valid. The signature is of Ukrainian finance minister, Oleksandr Shlapak, but he left the office at the end of 2014. Ukraine’s present minister of finance is Serhiy Marchenko.

“This one was really easy to debunk,” Churanova told University World News. “But debunking works better in the West than it does in Russia. The fakes are important because its [the Z-channels’] audience, Russians, want to believe in what they see. They are not going to check the information. They just see it on Telegram or other Russian social networks and they believe it.”

Last December, StopFake debunked a fake that said that the Ukrainian army did not have the men to fight the Russian army (in occupied areas of the Donbas in Eastern Ukraine) and were using teenage girls as snipers. “It’s ridiculous when you see it,” says Churanova. “You wouldn’t think that it is possible for somebody to believe in that bullshit.”

A fight for the truth

Formed in 2014 under the guidance of Dr Yevhen Fedchenko, who since 2005 had been director of MSJ, StopFake is a fact-checking service that focuses on Russian disinformation about Ukraine and Russia’s war against Ukraine that began in 2014, when Russia seized Crimea and Kremlin-backed insurgents seized parts of the eastern provinces of Luhansk and Donetsk.

At the time, Fedchenko told me that there were a number of fact-checking organisations in various countries, but they focused on domestic politics, checking on whether politicians kept their electoral promises.

“StopFake is very important for us as part of the activities of the school of journalism. As academics, we wanted to repurpose the whole approach of fact-checking, not for domestic purposes, but for external messages, meaning to focus on disinformation, including, especially, Russian disinformation.

“We correct the facts; we fight for the truth. From the academic point of view, we accumulate knowledge about disinformation and we publicise it. At this point, probably nobody knows more about Russian disinformation than we do because we’ve been constantly monitoring them for almost nine years.

“As journalists our work is part of the School of Journalism. It’s about research, which is what an academic institution does, but it’s also about a mission. As journalists, Ukrainian journalists, we have a mission to contribute to the country and to fight the information warfare Russia is conducting not only against Ukraine but against the whole world.

“Literally, we can say our information is saving lives. So that’s the highest point in journalism, when you can say that the information you publish will help in some way to keep someone alive.”

StopFake, which started with a small group of volunteers at MSJ, now employees 25 people, including eight fact-checkers, most with journalism backgrounds.

They are adept at using programs like Yandex (reverse image search), (which allows a reverse image or facial recognition search) and SunCalc (which allows an approximation of time of day based on shadows) and following the twists and turns of the narratives put out by the Kremlin on such platforms as Telegram.

Although Google Search and a few other programs allowed researchers to compare images and spot fakes, in the early days StopFake relied heavily on volunteers from around Ukraine.

“At first, we relied mainly on volunteers from throughout the country to send us links showing the fakes,” says Tetyana Matychak who, as a graduate from MSJ, joined StopFake shortly after the project began, and worked there for almost two years.

She is now an independent media expert and fact-checker, and one of the co-authors of Words and Wars: Ukraine facing Kremlin propaganda (Internews Ukraine, 2017), a study of the Ukrainian experience of dealing with Russian information warfare. “We also used programs like Google Images and TinEye to identify photos.”

One of the images debunked in the early days of StopFake purported to be of fighting either in Eastern Ukraine or Crimea, say Maria Kovalchuk, who worked as a volunteer at StopFake from 2014 to 2015 while pursuing a masters in literary studies at National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy and is now a PhD student at Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich studying Eastern European history.

The photo in question, she was able to prove, had nothing to do with Ukraine: it originated in Syria.

Today, there are a number of programs that identify faked photos and videos.

Nine years ago, says Fedchenko, there was no demand for this type of technology because disinformation and fake news were not major concerns. Five years later, when more media professionals were engaged in fact-checking activities and it became more of a policy issue because a lot of countries were worried about Russian disinformation, misinformation in general and, especially misinformation about COVID-19, the industry stepped up and produced a number of products.

“There are programs that fact-check images, both photos and videos, and sound. Some allow us to geolocate where the image comes from. Today, there are AI companies that are working to identify misinformation.”

Hybrid warfare

In his article “Kremlin Propaganda: Soviet active measures by other means”, published in the Estonian Journal of Military Studies in 2016, Fedchenko sketches the history of what political scientists and military planners call Russia’s ‘hybrid warfare’, which includes using media platforms to spread disinformation to its own people and its foreign enemies.

Soviet disinformation efforts, which could be considered ‘analogue’, included counterfeit pamphlets with airbrushed and altered pictures, and even entire issues of magazines and newspapers in which certain stories and pictures had been tweaked.

In “Kremlin Propaganda” Fedchenko quotes a speech given to Russia’s Academy of Military Science in 2013 – coincidentally the year Facebook logged its billionth user – by Russia’s chief of staff, in which Valery Gerasimov says: “The Kremlin’s advantage in the [digital] information age is that all Russia’s media outlets are under its control, allowing it to hammer its audience with one unified message.”

Three years later, Dmitry Kiselyov, whom Fedchenko identifies as Russia’s chief propagandist, wrote that the “primary form of warfare today’ is ‘information war’”.

“The core of the Kremlin’s propaganda, both inside and outside Russia,” Fedchenko writes, “is a postmodernist denial of everything. It is aimed at the total destruction of the entire liberal concept of Western society, including democracy itself … Russia does not have a single individual ideology,” other than to undermine “free media, fair elections … and the right of people to self-determination and self-governance”.

Following from Fedchenko’s reference to “postmodernist denial of everything”, a concept ascribed to deconstruction as practised by the late Jacques Derrida, it is not going too far to characterise Russia’s raison d’être and modus operandi using the words of the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, sometimes seen as the first deconstructionist: “The Will to Power”.

Distortion, Fedchenko writes in “Kremlin Propaganda”, is one of the most important techniques used in hybrid warfare. In 2015, for example, several Russian media outlets, including the fictitious Kharkov News Agency, distorted a New York Times article that “was about three Chechen battalions fighting alongside the Ukrainian army in the eastern part of the country”, giving it the tendentious title: “Nazi terrorist ‘death squads’ exterminate ethnic Russians in the Eastern Ukraine.”

From the 500 items they had debunked during StopFake’s first two years, Fedchenko reported in “Kremlin Propaganda”, the fact-checkers and analysts had identified “18 major fake narrative themes”. Among them were that Ukraine was a ‘fascist’ or ‘failed’ state, that the government was a ‘Western-backed junta’ and that the Russian annexation of Crimea and occupation of the Donbas has been legitimised by foreign governments, international organisations and foreign media.

Other major themes included claims that the Americans created both the AIDS and Zika viruses, that the European Union was disintegrating, and both the United States and the West were in general decline.

“These themes are still in use. But since the full-scale invasion in February,” Fedchenko says, “Russia has added specific military related narratives describing, for example, that Russia is winning. There is a huge amount of fake news relating to Western aid to Ukraine and how it is being sold on black markets.”

Soviet vs Russian narratives

The multiplicity of themes used by Russian propagandists differentiates the fake news analysed by StopFake’s analysts at MSJ from Soviet propaganda. Backed by its Marxist-Leninist ideology, Soviet fake news and propaganda was triumphalist about the Soviet Union and devoted to smearing the United States and the West.

In 1988, Russian controlled media reported that the CIA assassinated Swedish prime minister Olof Palme, Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi and had tried to assassinate Pope John Paul II. On 20 January 1988, four months before the 20th anniversary of his assassination and two days after Martin Luther King Day, a Russian newspaper carried the story that the FBI had assassinated King.

That same year, Russian media reported that the US was manufacturing ethnic weapons that kill only non-whites. StopFake debunked a clone of this story that said Ukraine had bred mosquitos that were trained to look for people with Russian blood and that inject poison into Russian bloodstreams when biting.

In contrast with Soviet propaganda, explained Maria Kovalchuk, the narrative Russia puts forward about Ukraine shares important traits with mythological narratives.

“Fake news stories do not follow the rules usually seen in narratives. If you have a narrative, normally it has to be more or less straight and consistent. Its elements do not contradict each other,” she says.

(Kovalchuk’s point can be grasped by considering a mystery novel in which the evidence leads the reader to assume that Mr A murdered the jeweller. Yet when, at the end, it turns out that Mrs B was the killer, the story remains internally consistent because the reader realises that all of the pieces of evidence that appeared to point to Mr A really pointed to Mrs B.)

Mythological thinking is different, as Kovalchuk explained by reference to the ancient Greek mythological system in which there are several versions of the deities’ origins (Chaos, Aphrodite etc) and the Ethiopic people of Dorzés discussed by New School for Social Research Philosophy Professor Chiara Bottici in her A Philosophy of Political Myth (2007).

The Dorzés believe that leopards will fast on Wednesdays and Fridays. The Dorzés see no contradiction in the fact that, irrespective of their belief that the leopards follow the precepts of the Coptic Church, they must watch over their livestock on Wednesdays and Fridays to protect them from leopards. Instead of cognitive dissonance, for the Dorzés, Bottici says, “a different truth is at stake each time”.

Similarly, Kovalchuk says, “in the case of Russian propaganda, we observe contradictory statements, which coexist in media discourses”.

While it is true that each faked story is internally consistent, taken as a group, Kovalchuk says, they are filled with contradictions. “On the one hand, Ukrainians are non-existent and passive; they don’t really have any agency. On the other hand, they are controlled by the West. They are Nazis. They are actively aggressive.”

Main narratives

According to Matychak, to support the narrative that Ukrainians are fascists, Russians photoshopped swastikas onto uniforms of Ukrainian soldiers and took phrases out of context from Ukrainian politicians.

The day I started writing this article (6 February), StopFake published a story that falsely claimed that Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy had called for “pre-emptive nuclear strikes” on Russia and another in which Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the recent law making Ukrainian the nation’s official language when dealing with the government “may lead to criminal prosecution” of husbands and wives having tea and speaking Russian.

Two other narratives concern the so-called Novorossiya, New Russia – broadly speaking, Luhansk and Donetsk, Ukraine’s eastern-most oblasts (provinces), and Crimea in the south. Several months after the full-scale invasion, it had become apparent that Russian forces could not occupy all of the Luhansk and Donetsk.

“So, the narrative changed. And they forgot about the other idea [occupying all of the oblasts] and started to speak only of the Donbas,” says Matychak.

Churanova made much the same point when discussing the narrative Russia was pushing in the first few days of the war. When, after the Russian convoy famously stalled in the mud and Kyiv did not fall in three days, the Russians changed the narrative because they had to explain to their people why Kyiv hadn’t fallen, she says.

“They changed the narrative and now the fight was not with Ukraine at all. Ukraine was just a puppet. We don’t decide anything. Everything is decided in the West,” she says, summarising this narrative.

Even though Matychak and others have used historical documents to show that far from Crimea having “been part of Russia during the whole of history [and that] Russia gained and lost it a number of times,” Russian Telegram and other social media platforms continue to parrot Russian President Vladimir Putin and Metropolitan Kirill, patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, in claiming Crimea is holy Russian ground.

The fourth main narrative Matychak pointed to is that since the Maidan Revolution, also known as the Revolution of Dignity, in February 2014, the country has been ruled by a pro-Western junta. The revolution in Maidan Square pushed president Viktor Yanukovych from power after he backtracked on agreements to start Ukraine’s entry into the European Union and, instead, tried to bring the country closer to Russia.

“In fact, we had legal elections, and we elected our president. We elected our parliament. But, they had to have a narrative to feel threatened, to justify Russia. So, we saw stories saying NATO wanted to occupy Ukraine. These stories were there to justify the threat to Russia.”

Given the world historic significance of what Russia’s social media channels were claiming NATO intended, LGBTQ issues are rather small beer. However, as speeches by Putin, Lavrov and Kirill indicate and a number of broadcasts on Russia Today (RT, translated by Julia Davis) demonstrate regularly, Russia’s leaders and its major television service use the LGBTQ community as a bête noire. So too, Matychak told University World News, do the purveyors of fake news stories.

“I remember in one case Russia photoshopped images into the photos of Kyiv’s Pride parade. Some of the photos came from Germany and some of them from other European countries, from gay clubs and [places] where gays and lesbians can make performances with some colourful clothing.

“We took these photos to the organisers of Kyiv Pride and they explained to us that they were not from the parade and what the goals of Kyiv Pride were.

“The faked photos were there to show Russians, and Ukrainians who didn’t know they were fakes, that Kyiv is decadent,” Matychak says.

Churanova provided a further gloss on this media obsession when she told me about a bogus story about a statue of two men kissing. “They have this narrative that explains why Russia is fighting with Europe, fighting to liberate Ukraine from Europe and the West, the Wild West that is trying to spread this wrong [that is, LGBTQ rights]. They think that it’s a fraud, the idea that every person is equal. And so they spread this narrative about what they call ‘gay Europe’.”

Russian audiences

Who, I asked in each interview, are these fakes aimed at and how are they presumed to work in the mass audience?

According to Matychak, StopFake’s analysis presumes four main audiences. The first are people who have never been abroad and watch only Russian TV channels. “They truly believe everything that Russian propagandists say. It’s easier for them. It is difficult to think critically; it’s just easier for them to trust what they see.”

The second group understands that they are being lied to. “But it’s overwhelming. They support their country because they are patriotic. They don’t want to be a part of the West. They want their country to be an empire. They think, ‘We know some of our politicians lie and some of our TV hosts lie. But now, everyone is lying. And we will support our liars’,” she says.

The third group understands that their politicians lie and their TV hosts lie. But they are afraid of saying anything. “They say, ‘We can’t leave the country because we know only the Russian language. We cannot leave our jobs. So, we just pretend that everything is going well’.”

The fourth and smallest group also understands that Putin’s government and the media lie and when possible, demonstrate against the government.

Preparing for criminal actions

Sounding like an MSJ professor teaching aspiring news writers about the importance of understanding the needs of their audiences, Matychak explained how StopFake’s analysts have been able to, effectively, reverse engineer the purpose of the stories they debunk by asking the question: “Why does Russia use this particular narrative today?”

If, for example, she says, the narrative emphasises Russia and Ukraine are not the same people, then the story is preparing to persuade the Russians that they have to kill Ukrainians. (Matychak’s point is not that Ukrainians and Russians are the same people; they are not. Rather, she is explaining how things work in the ecosystem of Russian media.) “When they are preparing to do something criminal, they start talking about the evil Ukrainians, about how Ukrainians are their enemies.”

Referring to a wider time span, Kovalchuk describes the same dynamic. “Starting in the late 20-teens, Russia’s narrative became more and more aggressive in how it associated Ukrainians with more dehumanising qualities,” she says.

Central to the faked images, such as Christmas ornaments with swastikas emblazoned on them, which were debunked last December, Churanova stresses, is manipulation of the audience’s emotions. “We don’t know the beliefs of the audience. But, we can see that the fake stories are designed to act on an emotional level.”

The story of the teenage girls fighting the Russian army is ridiculous, she says. “But they spread the story so people will respond on an emotional level [to the idea] that Ukraine is so low on soldiers it is using young girls to fight.”

Also working on the emotional level are the stories that stoke fears in Europe, Kovalchuk said, pointing to a number of altered photos that supposedly show that Ukrainian refugees in Europe cannot follow their host nations’ rules. At the same time, the Russians produce fake stories that show that people in these countries do not want the Ukrainians to seek refuge.

Kovalchuk spoke directly to the impact of these bogus stories that are often repackaged on RT, which was banned in Germany in February 2022. RT’s production values compare favourably with CNN, BBC and other global channels, which adds to its danger, she says, because it makes RT seem a legitimate television service.

“Even though it is financed by the Russian government, RT is perceived by many as a source of a second opinion about the conflict, about giving a second opinion here in the West. It’s not very popular, but in some circles with sympathies for Russia, it is seen as an absolutely credible source of information,” Kovalchuk told University World News.

Reputational attacks

In July 2020, four months after Fedchenko and the StopFake staff celebrated the good news that they had received one of the most coveted recognitions a fact-checking service can – Facebook’s third party fact-checker partnership – StopFake was fighting for its reputation. Zaborona, a (supposed) grassroots website, accused StopFake of neo-Nazi sympathies for having taken down a photo of neo-Nazis Zaborona had posted to Facebook .

According to Fedchenko, the accusation was absurd, starting with Zaborona’s technical claim. As do other fact-checkers for Facebook, StopFake has access to parts of the platform’s algorithm, but it does not have the technical ability to delete anything from the platform; instead, it can flag issues. Yet, Fedchenko says the accusation of protecting neo-Nazis stung and threatened the project’s reputation.

To clear StopFake’s name, Fedchenko requested an investigation from Ukraine’s Independent Media Council. The council’s investigation found that Zaborona’s story titled “Facebook blocked Zaborona for criticising neo-Nazis” was guilty of “unjustifiably and [with bias] discredit[ing] the StopFake project as a fact-checker, and misleads readers about the existing mechanism of interaction between fact-checkers and the Facebook platform”.

It turned out that Ukrainian fact-checkers of the social network are close friends with them.

Fedchenko also requested that the International Fact-Checking Network (IFCM) that is part of the non-profit Poynter Institute based in St Petersburg, Florida, in the United States, move up its yearly audit of StopFake. The IFCM also exonerated StopFake.

“We opened all of our documents, our structure and staff, our finances and everything else to the IFCM. We showed how we reach our independent conclusions.”

Recently, a poll showed that StopFake was known and trusted by 16% of Ukrainians. “This figure is very important,” says Fedchenko, “because it means that 4/25ths of Ukrainians not only know of us but trust us. The next closest institutions were around 1%.”

How to predict a war

Towards the end of our interview, I asked Fedchenko whether StopFake’s analysts had seen a literal military build-up, so to speak, comparable to the one military analysts saw on the ground in the months leading up to the full-scale invasion on 24 February of last year.

He divided his answer into two parts. The first underscored a fact often forgotten by those outside Ukraine. “In our timeline, the war started in 2014 with the seizure of parts of Luhansk and Donetsk and the occupation of Crimea. It has never ended.”

And, indeed, Fedchenko told me, produced this example of gallows humour: “So at some point after 2014, people would say we should not do that [that is, receive weapons from the West] because ‘Putin will start a war against us’.”

After which, Fedchenko added: “But Putin had already started against us, against the principles of how the world is organised, its legal principles.”

Early last year, however, StopFake noticed that the narratives about the artificial nature of the Ukrainian state, about the non-existence of the Ukrainian people, had become more open. On RT, which Fedchenko says is an important barometer of official Russian opinion and provides the background against which fake stories should be read, these talking points were repeated almost daily.

At the same time, StopFake’s analysts saw more, and more open, statements of ‘genocidal intentions’ and the need to ‘annihilate Ukrainians’ and about the Ukrainian government being filled with Nazis.

StopFake’s analysis of this data, Fedchenko says, led them to the conclusion that “a full-scale war would start soon”.

Fedchenko’s words and tone reminded me of the words that appear at about the midpoint of Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, chiselled into the white marble walls of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC: “And the war came.”