Don’t get played by Russian propaganda, Ukraine warns Western journalists

Western journalists are being manipulated by a systematic and sophisticated digital disinformation campaign into unwittingly repeating and enabling Russian pro-war propaganda, an online conference has warned.

That was the overarching message of the Voices of Freedom event, hosted by the PR Army of Ukraine, a body set up to challenge and refute what it says are Kremlin lies and half-truths being spread across the internet.

“A fifth of articles in foreign media about Ukraine use Kremlin-controlled media like Sputnik or Ria Novosti as the information source. By doing so, foreign media unintentionally amplify malign narratives of so-called Russian media with no connections to journalism but a proven record of spreading genocidal rhetoric,” Ksenia Iliuk, strategic communications expert at LetsData, told the conference.

The data analyst used artificial intelligence (AI) to conduct its investigation of Russian disinformation, while the PR Army monitors international news sources daily to check if bloggers, experts, and journalists are being unduly influenced by the Kremlin.

"Journalists are being intentionally manipulated."

PR Army of Ukraine

In the month leading up to the Voices of Freedom conference, LetsData said it had detected more than “7,000 articles with disinformation, manipulations and Russian clichés, despite the continuous efforts of various organizations to improve the situation,” according to the PR Army.

Iliuk warned that such writing constituted “unethical” journalism, because it legitimizes Russia as a valid source of impartial information while bringing its pro-invasion propaganda to a wider audience.

Media and communication experts attending Voices of Freedom “agreed that journalists are being intentionally manipulated,” said the PR Army.

It added: “Russia has violated all norms of international law, and is waging a brutal information war. In this case, it's impossible to be impartial. Therefore, the panellists agreed that objectivity now can't be simple coverage of events, in ‘who, what, where, when’ style. But it is a deep study and explanation of the context, why, and what it means to Ukraine and Ukrainians.”

Expert speakers at the Voices of Freedom digital conference hosted by PR Army of Ukraine

Anti-propaganda tools

In an effort to combat the Kremlin’s systematic and long-running campaign of disinformation on digital media, the Voices of Freedom conference presented two tools, which the PR Army is urging reporters to make use of.

The Voices of Freedom tool “provides access to trusted opinion leaders, experts, and witnesses of war events from all over Ukraine, including territories that are currently occupied,” it said.

“Prior to appearing in the platform's database, each representative is checked for their origin, background, story, and readiness to share it,” it added.

The Speaker Check tool “allows journalists to check if international thought leaders, politicians, bloggers, and experts have been spotted in manipulating facts, spreading disinformation, or crafting incorrect or harmful messages.”

Another speaker at the conference, Olha Bilousenko, head of research at Detector Media and Disinformation, said her team had analyzed more than 35,000 social media posts on Russian- and Ukrainian-language segments of Facebook, YouTube, Telegram, and Twitter that portrayed Ukrainian refugees as lazy, privileged, or being exploited by the West.

"The myth of Nazism is built around the Azov battalion [...] even though it is an official formation of the Ministry of Internal Affairs in Ukraine, the country where legislation outlaws Nazi symbols and propaganda."

PR Army of Ukraine

She said that these posts followed an essentially pro-Russian narrative, which falsely claimed: “Ukrainian refugees are arrogant and do not want to work, so soon the EU countries will stop helping them, Europe exploits refugees from Ukraine, refugees from Ukraine are destroying Europe, Ukrainian refugees are privileged.”

The controversial Azov brigade – which Ukraine says is a government-sanctioned military force but Russia claims to be a neo-Nazi paramilitary group – was cited by speakers as a key example of the Kremlin’s efforts to twist the truth and shore up support for its invasion.

“The myth of Nazism is built around the Azov battalion [...] even though it is an official formation of the Ministry of Internal Affairs in Ukraine, the country where legislation outlaws Nazi symbols and propaganda,” said the PR Army. “And then there's the Azov movement, an informal network of Ukrainian volunteering communities supporting the Azov fighters.”

The COO of the Ukrainian Media Center, Tetiana Zhukovina, agreed that Azov was a case in point, acting as a focus for Russian efforts to distort history to present its attack on its smaller neighbor in a positive light.

“They used all the classic methods of disinformation: replacement of concepts, exaggerating, fabricating facts, manipulating of public emotions and historical memory about World War II,” she said.

PR Army founder Anastasiia Marushevska also singled out what she said was the inaccurate portrayal in Russian media of what she described as “forcibly deported Ukrainians” as “refugees.”

“Can refugees be abducted, forced to take citizenship and children forcibly adopted? Ukrainians, especially children, are detained at re-education camps and adopted by regular Russian citizens without any attempts to find relatives or guardians of those children. Portraying them as refugees is utterly ridiculous,” she said.

Foreign reporter heeds the call

Some Western journalists appear ready to heed the warning being given by Ukraine media and disinformation analysts.

Gulliver Cragg, who has worked as a foreign correspondent in Ukraine for France24 for a decade, said the conflict was forcing journalists in particular to rethink their work and be more vigilant than ever against impartiality.

“This war requires everyone, and especially journalists, to re-assess certain things they thought they knew about Ukraine and Russia, and ask to what extent those were actually the result of the narrative that the Kremlin wanted to push,” he said. “I think many of us, myself included, have been guilty over the years of dismissing the ideas of certain Ukrainians as ‘overly nationalistic.’”

Stressing that objectivity must be precisely that, he added: “And we must also not start to seem like cheerleaders for Ukraine or propagandists – nor to hide negative news.”

“Particularly in the context of the modern world and the information war, journalists need to be aware that they may be being manipulated and that one cannot always adhere to the rather doctrinaire principle of ‘just reporting what you see’,” said Cragg.

The PR Army added that Russian ‘dissidents’ who had apparently toed the Kremlin line for years and suddenly developed a conscience upon the outbreak of overt hostilities last February should not be tolerated either.

“Trying to make heroes out of Russian journalists who have worked for the propaganda machine for years, but decided to declare their position ‘against’ and flee the country, is unacceptable,” it said. “Those Russians must answer inconvenient questions and be convicted. Without this, the principle of neutrality cannot be achieved.”

Marina Ovsyannikova made headline news when she held up a placard condemning the invasion last year on live Russian broadcast media, before fleeing to the EU. However, one Ukrainian open-source intelligence analyst Cybernews interviewed said his team had uncovered evidence suggesting Ovsyannikova was in fact a double agent who had changed her stance on Russia when it suited her to do so.

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