Enhancing media literacy in Ukraine during the Russian aggression

An interview with a researcher of Russian propaganda, the head of the research group of NGO Detector Media of the “Kremlin Information Influence Index» Roman Shutov in 2017

«The problem is not in fakes, but in ideas that are increasingly popular with the people and that are incompatible with democracy»

«From the discussion of fakes and misinformation as such, the world gradually starts to deal with the issue of narratives, which is a much broader and more complex, but closer to the essence of the problem. And, perhaps this year, these changes (at least in the position of colleagues from Central Europe and the Baltic States) have become particularly noticeable», says Roman Shutov in 2017, a researcher of Russian propaganda, the head of the research group of NGO Detector Media of the “Kremlin Information Influence Index”.

About how propaganda works is already known enough in Ukraine, so now it is time to switch from analysis and monitoring to communication, the expert believes. «There is a need for a dialogue around the topics which are infected with Kremlin manipulations. We must return a common vision of reality, which the Moscow propaganda undermines with its own myths and lies, to the society».

By and large, no one either in Ukraine or in the world has begun to truly counter Russian propaganda yet. Therefore, there are no prerequisites to reduce its impact. On the contrary, our procrastination allows the Kremlin to do everything they want in the opinion of citizens of other countries. We can already observe the sociological consequences of this influence – look at the latest IRI data on the level of pro-Kremlin sympathies in the Visegrád Group countries. Well, it has already been said a lot about what concerns the political aspects – it is Brexit, and the elections in the US, Germany and France.

There not many innovations in the Kremlin’s arsenal. The key strategy is to hit the weak spots. And the weak spot is that in modern democracies people no longer feel part of the democratic system. Political parties have become distant from citizens; a political bargain goes around abstract and obscure things; the expression of will once every four years does not give the opportunity to take out the frustration and discontent due to economic problems, etc., and democratic forms of protest have long been devalued. And this is precisely why the Kremlin is armed with populism, xenophobia, skepticism and distrust of everything, primarily of own governments; conspiratorial theories and a lot of pseudo-interpretations of events become useful here. The truth gets lost in this noise, and in fact, nobody needs the truth – people want an emotional discharge, they want to drain their accumulated irritation and fatigue, and the Kremlin understands their needs very well.

Concerning the steps of governments and the effectiveness of countering propaganda (2017)

Little by little, the understanding of the very nature of the threat is changing. From the discussion of fakes and misinformation as such, the world starts to deal with the issue of narratives, which is a much broader and more complex, but closer to the essence of the problem. And, perhaps this year, these changes (at least in the position of colleagues from Central Europe and the Baltic States) have become particularly noticeable.
If earlier our partners engaged in monitoring and research of propaganda phenomena first of all, this year, more attention was paid to study of its consequences and influence on the consciousness of citizens. This has been done by the efforts of Slovakian GlobSec, and of the International Republican Institute (IRI). Although what we mean by the consequences of propaganda, as well as how we see the result of the counteraction – we are only coming to the discussion of these issues.


If we talk about the territory controlled by the Ukrainian government, then it is difficult to say briefly. Russian propaganda operates on the principle of totality, through a variety of channels and agents: here you have national media, politicians, the church, the Internet, and literature, and pop culture. It seems that Ukrainians themselves (journalists, politicians, artists, Facebook-bloggers and others) create an information field that is useful to Moscow. And its task is only to observe, support and, if necessary, direct the processes in the right direction.

But precisely because of the actions of the state, we now see a boom of national movie production, and this is an important step to overcome our information dependence on Moscow. These films are about the new Ukrainian identity. Identity in the modern world is in principle made through cinema.

We went much further than all Western partners, in all respects. It sometimes seems to us that we have too many controversial issues concerning what it is propaganda, what is threatening, and what is not, how to find a balance between security and freedom of speech. But compared to Europe, we have a lot of consensus on these issues. They are still arguing with regard to things that have long been clear to us and which are no longer on the agenda.

Thus, in their focus are still fake news – Fake news as a direct violation of the human right to reliable information. The danger of Russian influence is considered precisely in the context of fakes, which are spread by Russian media and Internet resources. It has long been clear for us that the most threatening are ideas and narratives, and they can be voiced by mainstream media, controlled by pro-Russian financial and political groups, and creating fakes is just the roughest, simplest form of this work.

Our message is as follows: the problem is not in fakes, but in ideas that are increasingly popular with the people and that are incompatible with democracy; in the vulnerability of the media to financial and political influences; in the phobias and frustrations among the citizens manipulated by the Kremlin; in the absence of such a culture of informational consumption, in which the truth and the verity become values. And it is interesting to see how this awareness gradually moves towards the West: if two years ago only Ukrainians spoke about this, this year, these positions have already been shared by the Baltic, Czech, Hungarian and Polish partners.

Some cases of Ukrainian groups fighting with Russian propaganda (2018)

In 2014, along with the annexation of the Crimea, the country faced an unprecedented propaganda campaign. The degree and volume of misinformation in Russian media shocked both Ukrainian journalists and wider society, long before the rest of the world caught on. Fake news stories churned out in the region have provided misinformation support for the Russian aggression in Ukraine.

A 2016 analysis of fake news debunked by StopFake revealed 18 consistent narratives including: “Ukrainians are fascists;” “Ukraine is a failed state;” “Ukraine is suffering from territorial disintegration;” “Neighboring countries want to seize border regions of Ukraine;” and “War in Ukraine is actually conducted by the US.”

In May of 2017Detector Media presented its Kremlin Influence Index which showed that in four countries — Ukraine, Georgia, Hungary and the Czech Republic — the media space is favorable for Russian influence, but the civil society in those countries is better positioned for resistance to it. 

In Ukraine in 2014, both the state and civil society took urgent measures to protect the internal information space. For nearly five years the state restricted the broadcast of 78 Russian TV channels which violated Ukrainian legislation (for example, channels which showed that Crimea was part of the Russian Federation), launched the Ministry of Information Policy to monitor these issues, banned Russian social networks VKontakte and Odnoklassniki, and set quotas of Ukrainian-language radio and television content.

Checking Facts

StopFake was launched in 2014 by instructors and alumni of the Kyiv Mohyla School of Journalism in Kyiv (Kiev), with an emphasis on refuting fake news about Ukraine. Over the past four years, the project has evolved into a media hub that analyzes Russian propaganda and issues surrounding the phenomenon, and collaborates with fact-checking organizations around the world. Launched as a volunteer project, StopFake has been able to continue its work thanks to crowdfunding and contributions from readers.

In 2016, several other projects were created, including VoxCheck, part of VoxUkraine, which fact-checks Ukraine’s top politicians. VoxUkraine is an independent platform founded in 2014 by a team of experienced economists and lawyers based in both Ukraine and abroad; it employs five analysts, has 20 volunteers and its seven-member editorial board is made up of professional economists who work in think tanks.

The Kyiv-based NGO Detector Media regularly monitors Russian propaganda in the Ukrainian media and publishes their findings.

US government broadcaster Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty also publishes Crimea.Realities, which fact-checks news and statements about Crimea.

Media Literacy

Some NGOs have launched online courses around media literacy. One of them is the free News Literacy course, developed by Detector Media. In this series of 10 descriptive texts, well-known Ukrainian journalists and editors explain how journalism works and why standards of journalism, like truthfulness, accuracy, objectivity and impartiality matter. The group also created created MediaDriver, an online tutorial for teenagers, introducing them to the benefits and drawbacks of the contemporary media world.

In 2015, the Ukraine Crisis Media Center was launched to provide the global community with accurate and up-to-date information on events in Ukraine, including challenges and threats in national security in the military, political, economic, energy and humanitarian spheres. The Center hosts press briefings, discussions and roundtables on to communicate their exhaustive information. In March, the group launched Uchoose, a “hooligan media resource,” which challenges the critical thinking skills of youth. The NGO asked celebrities and prominent experts to write about about critical thinking and media literacy in an entertaining format which are actively spread on social networks.

Euromaidan Press is an online English-language publication, named after the Euromaidan Revolution in 2014. Launched that year by volunteers, the publication provides translations of Ukrainian news and expert analysis as well as independent research. Its first project, published in September 2016, was a series of videos titled “A Guide to Russian Propaganda.

The Kyiv-based Internews Ukraine, one of the largest NGOs in the country, has worked in local media for 22 years. This media development group has developed an online series of Russian-language educational videos called “Verification on the Internet, available on the Ukrainian educational platform VUMOnline to help learners detect fake news themselves.

Another media development group, IREX in partnership with StopFake and Academy of Ukrainian Press  runs its Learn to Discern program which helps citizens recognize and resist disinformation, propaganda and hate speech. The methodology builds practical skills for all ages through interactive training, videos, games and other learning experiences. The project for secondary schools is in testing phase, with plans for integration into the curriculum of 50 schools in four Ukrainian cities. The group also created an animated online literacy course and the Media Literacy Mission, a game to test media literacy knowledge.

InformNapalm was started in 2014. The team of experts collect evidence of Russia’s participation in wars in Georgia and Syria. They also debunk Russian propaganda using open source intelligence techniques, and have published work on SurkovLeaks and a series of investigations about the Boeing MH17 crash in 2014.

In 2017 The Detector Media nongovernmental organization is offering a news literacy online course. The educational course is available at no charge, and its objective is to help university journalism and pedagogical faculty and students – as well as anyone interested in the media – better comprehend the news media’s role in military conflict conditions. The news literacy program consists of 11 modules led by media academics and practitioners explaining the definition of news and news sources and how events are translated into ongoing news coverage.

Instructors address professional standards in gathering and producing news and the various ethical dilemmas journalists face on a day-to-day basis. The course covers media manipulation of public opinion and identifying “paid” media and hate speech.
Course developers have included topics addressing media ownership in Ukraine and the increasing role of social media in public affairs.

The Information Resistance was created as an initiative of the Center for Military and Political Studies, an NGO based in Kyiv. It focuses on counteracting external disinformation threats for Ukraine in the military, economic and energy spheres. The website publishes verified information about military operations and analytical articles on the course of the conflict.

Empowering citizens to analyze and understand how the news media works and how it keeps public officials accountable is important in a healthy democratic society. In coordination with the Internews Ukraine U-Mediaproject, our partners promote media education and literacy for Ukrainian citizens, journalists, civil society and political activists and public officials.

From 2014-2016 U-Media, with technical assistance from Internews Ukraine, conducted a study on implementation of media literacy education in secondary schools across Ukraine. Surveying teachers, administrators and students, the study revealed the impact and effectiveness of the program as well as potential areas for growth and revision.

In March 2016, The Academy of Ukrainian Press (AUP) administered the 4th International Research and Methodological Conference “Practical Media Literacy: International Experience and Ukrainian Perspectives” in Kyiv. The conference was organized in cooperation with the Ministry of Education and Science. More than 150 educators, librarians, civil society activists and media literacy trainers from Ukraine, Belarus and Sweden attended.

During the conference, AUP, the Taras Shevchenko Kyiv National University’s Institute of Journalism and the Maksym Rylskyi Institute of Art, Folklore and Ethnology in the Academy of Sciences presented a handbook on media education for high school teachers. The manual, published with support from the Dutch Government’s MATRA Program, is the first attempt to integrate media literacy into teaching social disciplines in high schools. The manual covers basic principles of media literacy and how to develop critical thinking skills.

In February 17, 2016, AUP, in cooperation with the Kharkiv Academy for Lifelong Education, conducted a workshop entitled “Implementing Media Education in Modern Lessons” for 70 teachers of the Ukrainian language and literature and the Russian language and literature. AUP is developing a practical media literacy guide as part of a course called “Humans and the World”.

On February 23 2016, AUP met with then-Minister of Education and Science Serhiy Kvit and representatives of Internews and USAID to discuss legal and regulatory support of teacher training for media education.

In March 2016, as part of the “Raising Citizen’s Media Literacy Through Libraries of the Sumy Region” project, the Bureau of Policy Analysis conducted media literacy training for librarians in the Sumy region. Participants learned to better recognize jeansa – the Ukrainian word for advertising disguised as editorial journalism. The Bureau also launched a telephone legal consultation hotline for access by librarians.

The Pylyp Orlyk Institute for Democracy (POID) conducted media literacy training in 2015 entitled “How Not to Become a Puppet of Information” at Korolenko National Pedagogical University in Poltava, as part of its local media monitoring activities. Regional POID expert and Chair of the Sumy Press Club, Alla Fedoryna, worked with freshmen and third-year journalism students to identify propaganda and fake text messages, headlines, photographs and videos. POID conducted a seminar on media literacy for deputies of the Chernivtsi Municipal Students Council at Chernivtsi National University (CNU) in December 2015 as part of the regional media monitoring project executed with support from the CNU’s Department of Journalism and the “Ukrainian Youth Club” NGO.

A month before local government elections in October 2015, Internews Ukraine organized a three-day camp in Kyiv for 30 journalists and civil society activists representing 15 Ukrainian oblasts. The objective was to utilize news media in designing local voter education campaigns for increasing voter turnout, discourage vote buying, mobilize young voters and generally encourage informed voting. With assistance from Internews Ukraine consultants, 16 innovative campaign ideas were generated. An independent jury selected 12 participants to receive small stipends to implement voter education and mobilization initiatives in 10 regions.

Internews Ukraine developed an online game, ElectUA 2015, to raise voter awareness of local election laws, offer constructive criticism of political advertising and combat election bribery. The game was played 261,891 times, received 4,335 likes on Facebook and received 1,580,668 hits on Google.

Some statistics

INFORMATION SOURCES, MEDIA LITERACY AND RUSSIAN PROPAGANDA: findings of all-Ukrainian public opinion survey (2019)

Opposition to Russian Propaganda and Media Literacy: Results of All-Ukrainian Opinion Poll (2018)

Survey of Russian Propaganda Influence on Public Opinion in Ukraine Findings (2017)