Fighting Russia’s disinformation war: how factchecking works

As the war in Ukraine grinds its way into becoming one of the largest and most destructive conflicts in Europe for a generation, intense efforts are being made to fight the effects of the disinformation war, and to provide the public with facts.

One story, which has been widely spread, and an example of strategic disinformation, was the bombing of the Mariupol children’s hospital Fact-checkers working for IMS partner organisation, StopFake, investigated the Russian denial and published a point-by-point story disproving Moscow’s claim.

Indeed, the striking intensity of Russia’s information war against Ukraine has been one of the most widely discussed phenomena of the war. According to Yevhen Fedchenko, the co-founder and chief editor of StopFake which was founded in 2014, Russia has been pushing specific narratives about Ukraine, and those narratives haven’t changed much over the past eight years of conflict and are used to justify Moscow’s invasion.

One narrative paints a picture of Ukraine as a failed, fascist and criminal state. And that was used to justify the invasion. Russia was invading Ukraine to de-nazify it, to decriminalize it or to clean it up and fix it, he said – and most importantly, to make Ukraine a part of Russia. 

“All of these disinformation efforts have been focused on inventing false narrative to justify what they are doing and on a day-to-day level, these efforts translate into a massive effort by them to conceal and hide the crimes of their military,” Fedchenko said.

“As factcheckers, we must correct this information and this has kept us very busy since this war began in 2014,” he added, and a glance of their website proves his point.

One story debunks claims that as the conflict rages, 2.5 million Ukrainians have asked to be evacuated to Russia, but the number StopFake points out, is actually just below 100,000, according to the United Nations. Another story points out that Russian claims that Ukrainian soldiers placed explosives in buildings in the city of Mariupol, but the video accompanying this shows the Russian shelling of Irpin’, a different city that is located northwest of Kyiv.

How they work

When the organisation began in 2014 it was run by a team of volunteers, and that later grew into a news organisation with 26 paid employees and researchers in several European countries and the United States. At one point, their broadcast aired on about 30 Ukrainian television stations.

“We also care greatly about the safety of our staff and take all necessary measures to get them to safe locations,” he said, “We’re also extremely mindful of tech and communications security,” he said, but the recent invasion and the decision by some staffer to evacuate, has reduced staff to about 15.

Using the same methodology that that they’ve always used, StopFake continues to monitor Russian media. It also invites audiences to send content that they presume might be fake, and then the team of factcheckers look in-depth at those stories and find the facts behind it. If they find a story not to be true, then StopFake write that story, and explain step-by-step exactly how the story is fake.

“This is not true. That is not true, and this is not true and then we provide documented facts that support our own findings. And then, when the story is done, we publish and also disseminate it to two different audiences – Russian and Ukrainians — in different languages. We explain it and set the facts straight about each and everything they try to do,” he said.

The more Russia tried to create what StopFake calls confusion and the fog of war, the more work that StopFake and local and international media reporting on the conflict will have to do to separate fact from fiction, disinformation and fake news.  “Our work will only increase as the Russian military finds itself increasingly bogged down in Ukraine,” Fedchenko predicts.