Journalists' mission in times of war is not only to provide the population with information, but also to ensure that false information is not spread further. Journalists in Ukraine therefore have established methods for dealing with disinformation. Professional journalists report from the most war-affected areas of the country - and so far 32 journalists have lost their lives since the war broke out in February.
Today, wars are not fought only on the battlefield, but much of the warfare takes place within the information bubbles in which we live. Such is the case with the war in Ukraine, which began after Russia's invasion of the country on February 24. Since the beginning of the war, a lot of misinformation has circulated in various media, making it difficult for people to distinguish between truth and lies.
One often hears that we live in one "Post-truth" world, where facts are mixed with feelings and personal opinions. During the war in Ukraine, disinformation is used as a means to divide people, reduce their trust in their own government and not least – to create fear.
To mitigate the effects of disinformation, a number of journalists and volunteers around the world work with so-called fact-checking and Open source intelligence (OSINT). It's about gathering information from different sources and uncovering what lies behind false information. One of the most famous groups involved in fact-checking and OSINT is the organization Bellingcat, such as, among other things investigated the downing of Malaysian passenger airliner MH17 in eastern Ukraine 2014. Since the beginning of the war in Ukraine has Bellingcat in addition participated in one systematic information gathering of evidence of suspected war crimes in Ukraine.
Tools against disinformation
During the Almedal week, the Swedish aid agency Sida organized the seminar "Media in wartime Ukraine – vacuum, disinformation and cooperation", where participants from Ukraine shared their experiences and insights on which tools and strategies journalists in Ukraine use to deal with disinformation and propaganda. The most important tool for journalists in times of war, according to Ukrainian data analyst Ksenia Iliuk from “Detector media” who attended the seminar, is a situational awareness. She believes that a journalist who reports on the war should assume that all information they receive should be perceived as untrue, and it is then necessary to collect facts that can prove that this particular information is actually true.
In addition, Ksenia told Ilyuk that the work done by Ukrainian civil society in the years before Russia's invasion is paying off right now. She believes that many Ukrainians today have learned about source criticism through civil society in order to distinguish false information.
There are many examples of disinformation that has been created by Russian propaganda and directed at the Ukrainian population. An example of this, according to Ksenia Ilyuk, is one minute long video released in March purportedly showing Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky calling on Ukrainian soldiers to lay down their arms and surrender. According to Ksenia Ilyuk most Ukrainians are aware of disinformation, so when this video started circulating on social media, many immediately understood that it was not true.
At the national level, the Ukrainian government has also taken measures that have contributed to stronger journalism and media reporting in the country. The decentralization that began in Ukraine in 2014 has led, among other things, to an expansion of Ukraine's information environment, and more local media have been established in the country, according to Ksenia Iliuk. She also emphasizes that this is a key factor in Ukrainians' resistance to disinformation.
A number of other reforms that the country has implemented since 2014 apply the regulation on media transparency, access to information and protection of journalists. Olga Sedova, program manager at the Swedish Embassy in Ukraine and who also participated in Sida's seminar in Almedalen, emphasizes that the establishment of Ukraine's public broadcast media company suspension 2017 was a great advance for Ukraine's media landscape, which is largely dominated by television channels owned by oligarchs.
All this should be considered against the background of the physical risks to journalists and reporters in Ukraine. Since the start of the war, 32 journalists have died, seven of whom were on duty. Many media companies continue to move their employees to safer parts of the country, but several local journalists are also staying in the temporarily occupied territories to continue their jobs.
Sweden can inspire community journalism
Olga Sedova tells us that Sweden has contributed to the strengthening of the Ukrainian media landscape since 2014. Many of the organizations that are on the front line of the fight against disinformation have received support from Sweden in particular. And there are several opportunities for expanded cooperation between Sweden and Ukraine in terms of media and freedom of expression.
An example that Olga Sedova brings up is community journalism. There is great potential to transfer experiences between Sweden and Ukraine, she believes. An example of community journalism in Sweden is News agency Järva - a local newsroom that was started to give people from Järva an opportunity to share a more nuanced view of the area, which is otherwise often portrayed one-sidedly in the media. As previously mentioned, the Ukrainian government has given way to decentralization in the country, which has led to stronger “Hromadas"- autonomous communities similar to Swedish municipalities. But Ukraine's Hromadas lack at the moment platforms where they can express local opinions and hold debates. The Swedish experience can contribute to building such platforms that can operate long-term and independently in Ukraine, Olga Sedova believes.