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14 March, 2020  ▪  Ніна Кур’ята

The battle of the narratives

Western media often repeats propaganda from Russia. Why is this?

“Ukraine is not a real country,” “There’s a civil war going on in eastern Ukraine,” “Rightwing radicals have taken over the government in Ukraine”... These are just a few of the memes that Russia has promoted for the last 6 years, and the narrative has made its way all over the world. Russian media products are being consumed not just in Russia, but also by Russian-speaking audiences in Europe, the Americas and elsewhere. Indeed, for some immigrants it’s their only source of information because they often know the language of their new homeland poorly. And so they don’t bother looking at local news or listening to serious analytical programs, preferring the comfort of long-familiar faces on the screen.

The next level of disinformation, in addition to anti-Ukrainian narratives that echo from top officials and are repeated by news agencies are everyday fakes. These are stories under headlines such as “Starving Ukrainians take bread away from pigeons” and “Ukrainians are allowed to sell their organs for money.” This forms a much larger cross-section of the disinformation pyramid, it appeals to the emotions, and people spread this kind of story easily without stopping to think or to verify. Of course, if the viewer is sitting at the TV in Denmark or Germany, it’s not so easy to check on the veracity, either. The generation, support and spread of fakes by troll and bot farms has become an entire industry that is kept going on enormous budgets. Needless to say, it’s all, in the case of Ukraine, in the interests of Russia. Because the mass of viewers is not especially media-savvy, it swallows all of this, having been primed by messages such as “Ukraine is a fake state where banderites kill children wearing orange-and-black striped ribbons.”

Ukraine’s information opponents are very powerful and skilled in producing propaganda. Dozens of channels and sites keep pouring out information to serve Moscow’s purposes—not only in Russian but also in English and many other languages, just as soon as the opportunity arises. And so you have it that the Euromaidan was an “unconstitutional coup,” the Crimean pseudo-referendum somehow “took place spontaneously,” “the Russian army is not present in Donbas,” and the armed proxies are “rebels” or “local militias who are standing against the fascists in Kyiv.”

Such messages are not just one-time fakes like the story of the “crucified boy,” but thoroughly thought out, oft-repeated lines that can be heard from Russian presenters and high-level officials, including President Vladimir Putin himself. Who was it, after all, that once told George Bush that Ukraine was a failed state? Who constantly spoke about “the oppression of Russian speakers,” called the Maidan an “overthrow,” and said the war in the Donbas – which started with the capture of Sloviansk by a Russian GRU operative called Igor Ghirkin and his armed thugs – “a domestic conflict, a civil war”? It’s clear that he continues to describe the processes going on in Ukraine the way he sees fit at closed meetings with world leaders. In the meantime, anything he states publicly as a head of state at international gatherings is reported on and broadcast on international news channels. 

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To be able to separate the truth from his lies, the listener has to know the history of the conflict and to have been paying attention to the situation. Meanwhile, editors and journalists make mistakes or fail to look into a statement deeply enough. For instance, a statement such as “After the unconstitutional overthrow and the annexation of Crimea, a civil war started in the Donbas” would have to be parsed in its entirety, with explanations and corrections provided, yet these are the kinds of messages Ukraine’s political opponents make use of constantly. And so there have been times when such phrases as “civil war” or reports about ISIS militants fighting on Ukraine’s side in the Donbas find their way into the pages of even very authoritative western publications.

Another reason why western sources make such fundamental mistakes is because many were used to having only a bureau based in Moscow from soviet times – and many still do – and they are used to always interpreting events in other former soviet republics through Russian eyes. Even correspondents who actually travel to Kyiv with completely good intentions to write an honest report or shoot a story on Ukrainian issues showing a variety of aspects are most likely going to prepare by reading Russian-language sources. Few foreign correspondents know Ukrainian and so Russian remains more “universal” for most expats living in the republics, including Ukraine.

Of course, good professionals know which are the propaganda sources that aren’t worth listening to, but fakes and the untrue “party line” on Ukraine continue to be disseminated by Russian news agencies. According to the StopFake anti-disinformation project, RIA Novosti was in third place for disseminating the most lies over 2014-2017, while TASS, the old soviet agency, was only 8th.

Of course, it’s easy enough for a publication to make a genuine factual mistake in the rush to publish quickly. Yet, not all material about Ukraine published in the western press that is distorted by Russian propaganda can be chalked up to ignorance or casual mistakes. Yevhen Fedchenko, director of the School of Journalism at Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, says that many western journalists are themselves engaged in establishing such an image of Ukraine.

“We talk about nationalism here as a positive phenomenon in our struggle for independence, while western journalists today don’t understand this paradigm at all,” Fedchenko explains. “In short, we have different connotations for this word. They don’t understand that the folks who are dying at the front are Ukrainian nationalists, freedom fighters who can and often are Russian-speaking Ukrainians, Russians, Jews, Armenians and so on. They often base their notion of nationalism on a post-colonial calculus that says that nationalism is bad because it is against empire, while they themselves are often representatives or descendants of empires. Those western journalists who grew up on soviet studies also don’t like decommunization. You can find a lot of articles in the western press about the destruction of monuments to soviet figures that refer to these statues as works of art.”

Such journalists are very helpful to Russia in promoting its symbols in the global news environment, says Fedchenko. “Right now, Russia has weaponized the subject of World War I and it’s clearly prepared to continue to promote its version for a long time until it ‘sells’ it to the world,” he points out. “Once that happens, who’s going to cast doubts on their ‘one true’ narrative?”

What’s more this kind of information war at the global level has very local and concrete consequences. For instance, the 24-year sentence handed down to National Guardsman Vitaliy Markiv, who was accused of killing Italian photographer Andrea Rocchelli. According to Ukraine’s interior ministry, Rocchelli was outside Sloviansk during military action without accreditation. But the trial took place in Italy, and the rhetoric around Markiv was anything but neutral and a video from the Russian propaganda channel Russia Today was included in the evidence.

“We can’t confirm to what extent this influenced the decision of the court, but we know for sure that these materials were included in the evidence and the trial itself took place in that kind of atmosphere,” says media lawyer Liudmyla Pankratova.

Yet another consequence of Russia’s information campaign against Ukraine was the recent scandal when the British police including the country’s coat of arms, the Tryzub or trident, in its anti-terrorist guidelines as a “radical right-wing” tattoo. “If someone keeps repeating long and loudly enough that fascism is in full flower in Ukraine, the rest of the world will, sooner or later, begin to believe it,” says Fedchenko.

What can Ukraine do to fight this? Propaganda costs money and it’s not an ethical form of communicating. For now, Ukraine has a handful of dedicated fighters against fakes, who set the record straight in several languages. However, this only works for those who care enough to try to get at the truth. What about the rest, the massive passive audience? How do you fight messages about a “failed state” and “civil war” coming from the mouths of top officials in Russia at the international level? How do you tell people the truth about your country? This is the work of journalists, both Ukrainian and international ones working in Ukraine. But Ukraine-fatigue is yet another obstacle: in the six years that the war in eastern Ukraine has dragged on, any number of videos have been made, about the fighters, about the people living along both sides of the frontline, about children whose digits have been blown off by mines, about those suffering from PTSD. Finding a new angle is not that easy.

There’s only one way out of this dilemma: continue the work, persuade editors that, as long as there is a war, it’s an important topic and it’s also important to show the other side of life in Ukraine. For instance, about the fact that most Ukrainians consider themselves a united nation as recent polls have confirmed, or about the success of individual Ukrainians in technology and business, which few know about.

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Ukraine will never be the kind of ongoing priority for any western press the way it is for its own media providing news in a variety of languages. Until recently, this was being done by UA/TV, but, says Culture Minister Volodymyr Borodianskiy, not very effectively. His answer is to reformulate the channel into one that will provide information and entertainment for the occupied territories.

Has Ukraine, then, won the information war on against Russia’s anti-Ukrainian messages in the international arena? No. Will it beat them at their own game in occupied Donbas? The only answer is a meaningless one: time will tell. As Fedchenko points out, “Narratives are built around identity, and if we don’t instill our own identity in our consciousness ourselves, someone else will write the story.”

By Nina Kuryata

Translated by Lidia Wolanskyj

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