By Elizabeth Piper
LVV, Ukraine (Reuters) – According to Yevgen Fetchenko, the information war came home after his aunt told him he would not come to see him because he believed he would be beaten to death in Ukraine for speaking Russian.
According to Alya Shandra, it was her Danish boyfriend’s decision to abandon the visit to Kiev because she thought there were Nazis in Ukraine.
In 2014, when mass protests in central Kyiv overthrew the infamous pro-Russian president, they were both outraged that in 2014 their loved ones refused to set foot in Ukraine because of what they had read, heard or seen about the country. Find ways to challenge a story they rejected.
Both became part of a group of volunteers fighting the “Russian campaign” that had spread throughout Ukraine and beyond for many years, keeping the country locked into a story, but struggling to resist.
They say eight years of training in dealing with misinformation prepared them for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24.
It showed them how to counter the neo-Nazi accusations that Ukraine was bent on exterminating the Russian-speaking population, both domestically and abroad, and that the former Soviet republic wanted to grow independently. .
Fetschenko, along with colleagues and students at the Kyiv-Mohyla School of Journalism in March 2014, helped set up a fact-checking service called StopFake. Shandra helped organize EuroMaidan Press, an English-language online newspaper, to try to provide foreign audiences with articles and analyzes written by Ukrainians.
“During those eight years we did a lot of things and we learned a lot about misinformation. We were sure when it (the war) would happen,” Fetchenko told Reuters from his new phone. It is believed to be a temporary home in western Ukraine, which was largely avoided by the invasion so far.
“There was a great upsurge in all of those (Russian) descriptions. All the boxes were checked and all set up for war.”
Fetschenko now says that there is nothing new in the story – the repetition of the lines that prompted him to set up his organization during the struggle known as the Maidan Revolution or the Revolution of Dignity, which was ousted after it broke with then-President Viktor Yanukovych. Promise to develop closer ties with the European Union.
The only difference is that the pace has accelerated since Russian President Vladimir Putin wrote in an article in July last year that Soviet leaders had discovered the Ukrainian republic in 1922 and that Ukraine was engaging in post-2014 neo-Nazis.
On February 24, Putin launched what he called “a special military operation” to “fight for the militarization and annihilation of Ukraine.” Ukraine, a parliamentary democracy, claims to have occupied without provocation.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, now known as the “spokesman-leader”, who has been instrumental in mobilizing international support for Kyiv through daily video messages, has rejected it, saying Russia wants to destroy his country in an attack on democracy that goes beyond Ukraine.
Years of war
Both Fedchenko and Shandra, like many Ukrainian volunteers who now buy medical supplies for the military and help with food distribution, cut their teeth during a month-long street uprising during the 2014 revolution that ousted Yanukovych.
They tried to occupy the vacuum left by the government. Faster than the state, they build networks and use new technology to call Russia’s propaganda machine.
In 2014, one of Fetschenko’s memorable “dips” was crucified by Ukrainians in the eastern city of Slovenes because his father was a member of the Russian-backed separatists.
On March 9, it was alleged that Ukraine was planning an offensive against the region, which Russia calls the “Donbass Republics” in the current war. Stopfak said the prepared documents actually refer to the joint training of the military and national guards in the Lviv region of western Ukraine.
After seeing Ukraine annex Crimea to Russia in 2014 and Russian-backed separatists declaring two small republics in the east and losing a government when Yanukovych was overthrown, they say they have no choice.
“At that time (in 2014) I was in my 20s. I began to understand that something was wrong in my country …, so I gave up everything I was doing when it came around to Euromidean (revolution).” Sandra told Reuters in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv.
Describing her boyfriend’s refusal to see her in Ukraine because of the “Nazis”, she said: “I was shocked that I decided to do something about this … because I did not understand how he believed. Campaign against me”.
He helped establish the Euromaidan printing press and received the initial assistance of Dutch human rights activist and historian Robert von Warren, without pay for a year, and later received a grant from the International Renaissance Foundation founded by hedge fund billionaire and philanthropist George Soros. .
Foreign media outlets help find Ukrainian contacts with other media outlets in the “Little Club”, including Ukraine’s Critica magazine and the intelligence website InformNapalm.
‘The Light of Credibility’
Colin Alexander, a senior lecturer in political communications at Nottingham Trent University in the UK, said the Ukrainians were beginning to send messages to assert their credibility.
“You see this real significance in the last four-five years, especially since Zhelensky came to power – we will go to hell with what the Russians say and create our legal light.”
The number of readers is hard to come by and Shandra admits that it is not her biggest store, but StopFake has become a third-party fact checker on Facebook. For Fetchenko, becoming a public figure has also brought difficulties. He was accused of being neo-Nazi by the Ukrainian online outlet Zaforona – his company denies the allegation.
He has not yet spoken to his aunt, who lives in Crimea, which is annexed by Russia, but is thankful in some ways for inciting him against the campaign because she refused to see him.
Fetschenko sought to reach listeners in the Crimea through weekly podcasts on the radio, as well as the free monthly newspaper “Right to Know” in Donetsk and the Luhansk region, as well as radio and television programs.
The newspaper collapsed three years ago, and at the same time television shows were stopped when the war broke out because frightened workers fled Kiev, where production facilities were located. Fetchenko hopes they will start again.
“I think this is one of the key answers to the fact that even if we do not win the information war, we will definitely not lose the information war because for those eight years we worked on a daily basis, it became a part of our lives.
“Probably not the best part of your life when you wipe out someone’s lies, and you should always read it, and you are immersed in all of this,” he said.
(Reporting by Elizabeth Piper Editing by Mark Heinrich)