Ukraine’s Gwara Media Fights For Truth in Kharkiv
By Brian Dooley
Despite what United States Senator Hiram Johnson declared in 1918, truth wasn’t the first casualty of the Russian war on Ukraine. Russia had been pumping out disinformation about Ukraine for years, at least since its 2014 invasion of the country.
Awareness of Russia’s propaganda tactics meant that Ukraine and many other countries were already warning the world about lies Russia was planting in the months leading up to its invasion last February. In the course of the war, fact checking organizations have worked to quickly debunk Kremlin disinformation.
Journalism monitor NewsGuard, which produces trust ratings for more than 7,500 news and information websites all over the world, revealed how pro-Russian disinformation flooded social media feeds in the United States in early 2022, despite platforms’ increased moderation efforts.
It has a dedicated Russia-Ukraine Disinformation Tracking Center, covering 329 websites that spread war disinformation and the top myths they publish.
Madeline Roache, managing editor of NewsGuard in London, is a journalist specializing in Russia and eastern Europe. “There’s been an onslaught of Russian propaganda over the last year, pushing various false claims, including that the Ukrainian authorities committed a genocide against Russian-speaking Ukrainians, and assertions that Nazi ideology is driving Ukraine’s political leadership,” she said. “The resources behind the Russian propaganda machine aimed at international media are enormous.”
The information war is being fought on a global and local levels. The eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv, just 25 miles from the Russian border, has been bombarded with disinformation since the first days of last February’s invasion.
Local independent digital outlet Gwara Media has mounted an intense and impressive campaign to counter the huge waves of disinformation from Russian propaganda outlets.
“We saw all this propaganda in the early weeks of the invasion, like saying that Kharkiv had run out of food and water, and that the city had fallen to the Russians,” said Gwara Media’s managing editor Serhii Prokopenko. “This was all over some Telegram channels, and from radio stations broadcasting from Belgorod and other Russian cities. We had to do something, so we called for volunteer fact-checkers.”
Hundreds of people applied, keen to help protect the truth. “We took on 100, and they worked in a call center, but it was overwhelming. We were getting thousands of requests a day — up to 5,000. People were asking if all sorts of rumors were true. By the end of April, we had to stop for a week and reorganize.”
Verifying facts in war, so close to the front with fighting raging all around the city for months, was hugely challenging, but Gwara Media provided a vital public service. It’s website reports that its fact checkers have even been able to verify the identity of Russian units and individual soldiers who invaded the Kharkiv region.
Gwara Media set up the bot Perevirka (Ukrainian for audit) to detect fake news, processing over 66,000 requests from people. They invite people to submit to their website “any news in Ukrainian or English, and within 24 hours you will find out whether you can trust the chosen publication.”
The bot also analyzed trends in disinformation. During August and September 2022, they processed 7,600 requests to verify reports, including those designed to spread mass panic. One example was this: “The Kremlin will take revenge for Crimea. Will strike with a local nuclear weapon. 3-4 days.”
It gave 2,546 requests the designation of a “Lack of Evidence.” These narratives include rumors of Russian President Vladimir Putin having various fatal illnesses.
Prokopenko says they’re now getting about 100 requests a day about disinformation, processed by six-person teams that work around the clock to answer questions about a range of issues, including “a lot of credit card and lottery scams, or false offers of money from the UN, as well as fake news from Russian propaganda.”
Even if much of the ground fighting is frozen for the winter, the propaganda war goes on.
“This battle over facts will continue and possibly even intensify in the year ahead,” said Roache. “The sheer volume of propaganda material produced every day means it’s a constant struggle for fact checkers, but we’re also getting better at countering the disinformation. This isn’t a one-sided war, we can fight back with the truth.”