Ukraine vs. Fake News : Rough Translation Fake news from Russia helped spark a real war in Ukraine. What can Ukraine's fight against fake news teach the US?

Ukraine vs. Fake News

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Hey. I'm Gregory Warner, and this is ROUGH TRANSLATION. So here's a piece of junk mail that came to my house a few months ago. It says Trump's war on truth. Only fearless, fact-based journalism can stand up to him. And on the back it says, save our democracy. We must win the war on truth. You hear this language all the time now, this idea that journalists need to fight an information war on the side of truth. To me, it feels a little like deja vu because I'd heard this language years before. And I knew just who to call.


G WARNER: Ruslan.

His name is Ruslan.

DEYNYCHENKO: Ruslan Deynychenko.

G WARNER: He's a journalist in Kiev, Ukraine. He spent thousands of hours watching Russian TV, trying to sort the real from the fake.

DEYNYCHENKO: My family members - they are complaining that, oh, you watch Russian television all the time.

G WARNER: (Laughter).

DEYNYCHENKO: They lie all the time. And we have to listen to all these lies about Ukraine.

G WARNER: I'd first heard about Ruslan's project three years ago when I was in Ukraine for NPR. One of the stories I was reporting was about how fake news from Russia was streaming over the border into Ukraine. I, though, was not using the words fake news. In 2014, Americans were not using that phrase. But Ruslan was. He was, in fact, busy trying to figure out how to stop fake news from starting a civil war.

And so what do you think Americans can learn from Ukraine example. What's the lesson for us?

DEYNYCHENKO: Yeah. The very first lesson - do not ignore this problem because it allowed Russian media to influence local people to kill each other.


G WARNER: ROUGH TRANSLATION is a brand-new show from NPR where we follow a conversation that we are having in the United States and hear how it's playing out in a different corner of the world. Today, we're going to go to a place where some of Russia's fake news tactics were first developed, tested and rolled out. Ukraine has dealt with fake news in higher doses than almost anything we can imagine. There's a war right now in Eastern Ukraine, and we're going to go to the front lines. But first, we are going to go back in time a bit to follow the people who fought to stop fake news from splitting their country apart. It was a fight that ended up changing them - when ROUGH TRANSLATION returns.


DEYNYCHENKO: Hello? Greg. How are you? Get on board.

G WARNER: Thank you.

Sunday morning - outskirts of Kiev. Ruslan Denychenko picks me up to take me to his house.

DEYNYCHENKO: Hello. Good morning (laughter).

G WARNER: He's got a boyish face, graying temples, Led Zep on the car radio. Ruslan trained as a journalist in America. And the house where he lives is not like anything I've seen in Ukraine.

What are the styles of these houses called?

DEYNYCHENKO: Yeah. They call it North American style.

G WARNER: North American style.

DEYNYCHENKO: North American (laughter).

G WARNER: It's a gated community that promises American-style cottage living, down to the traditional American barbecue area.

DEYNYCHENKO: Even names of the streets - they are written in English. And over there is a Lexington Avenue. And...

G WARNER: Lexington Avenue.

DEYNYCHENKO: (Laughter) Lexington Avenue.

G WARNER: And every yard has a picket fence.

DEYNYCHENKO: I don't like when people build these huge fences and...

G WARNER: Ruslan can look right over his fence at his neighbors. And his neighbors can look over their fence at him.

DEYNYCHENKO: This style of life represents my - probably, my imagination about the way I would like the whole country lived - more transparent, more friendly, talking to each other, discussing issues, discussing problems.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Shouting in foreign language).

G WARNER: The reason I went to Ukraine back in 2014 was because the country had just had a pro-democracy revolution. Protesters in the capital, Kiev, demanded that the government take steps to join Europe and become less dependent on its neighbor Russia.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Singing in foreign language).

G WARNER: Russia opposed this uprising. It wanted Ukraine to stay its little brother, its mladshiy brat. But when the protesters succeeded, and the pro-Russian president fled, Ruslan realized that Russia was fighting back but in a way that took him a while to understand. Russia did not send tanks or bombs - not at first. First, they sent news.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (Speaking in Russian).

G WARNER: Ruslan respond with turn on his TV to these Russian channels that millions of Ukrainians were watching. And he'd hear warnings about neo-Nazi fascists roaming the streets.

DEYNYCHENKO: People saw on TV that they're in danger, and they need to protect their families. They need to protect themselves from fascists in Kiev. But they are no fascists here.

G WARNER: Ruslan could look out his window and see the streets where peaceful. Barricades on the square in Kiev were covered with fresh flowers. But Ukrainians who were not in the capital, Kiev, got scared. So while Ruslan would watch these stories and think...

DEYNYCHENKO: Some bullshit (laughter).

G WARNER: ...In other parts of the country, people started standing guard. Ukrainians in Crimea rose up. They rejected the revolution.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: They want to be part of Russia.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Here, everybody - everyone is Russia. And the Crimea was Russian before, so...

G WARNER: Protesters in Crimea quoted the Russian TV stories about fascists, begged Russian troops to save them.


MARGARET WARNER: There seems to be a kind of feeling that the new government in Kiev is hostile to Russian speakers and ethnic Russians here.

G WARNER: Russian troops arrived. And Crimea voted to secede. Ukraine wanted to fight back. And the solution they came up with was a news blockade, a complete ban on Russian news channels.

DEYNYCHENKO: I was against that decision. I was in favor of as much sources of information as possible.

G WARNER: A Ukraine that banned media?

DEYNYCHENKO: This is not democratic.

G WARNER: That wasn't the Ukraine that the revolution had fought for.

DEYNYCHENKO: Ukraine - if you want to be a democracy - should allow to have another opinion.

G WARNER: And Western diplomats agreed.

DEYNYCHENKO: This is censorship.

G WARNER: The government backed down because of free speech and democracy. And Ruslan came up with a radical new plan to fight back. A team of top journalists would fact-check Russian news and broadcast the results. And at the time, that felt really scary.

MARGO GONTAR: To me, it actually meant that I'm kind of putting my life on the line.

G WARNER: This is Margo.

GONTAR: I'm Margo Gontar.

G WARNER: She was tapped to host a show that would debunk Russian fake news. And so it would be her face on the screen that any Kremlin agents might take note of.

GONTAR: Yeah. I got my knees shaking. I got my knees shaking for half an hour.

G WARNER: What did you tell yourself before you went on the first time?

GONTAR: I'm doing this because I think this is what should be done. And I - like, I'm coping with all the consequences it can bring with it. It was actually kind of the first moment I really felt connection with, like, my people, you can say.

G WARNER: The name of this new show - it even sounded like a journalist superhero.


GONTAR: (Foreign language spoken).

G WARNER: The show is called StopFake. It's a roundup of all the false stories you might've missed that week.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: Welcome to StopFake.

G WARNER: There's also an English version of the broadcast.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: And I'll be helping you to tread through this week's load of informational mendacity.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Ukraine's ballet dancer Sergei Polunin is a Nazi.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Impending food riots and ration cards.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: Claim that these human organs included nasal septums and sphincters.

G WARNER: The StopFake team would trace how false quotes were shared from outlet to outlet. They blew up videos to show where the vial of fake blood might be hiding.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: ...Published a story with this misleading headline.

G WARNER: And you can hear many of the stories...


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #5: Ukraine is poised to enact a new language law which will ban Russian and make...

G WARNER: ...Are about Russian speakers being persecuted in Ukraine.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #6: Only Ukrainian cafes and shops...


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #7: Because of pending legislation on the Ukrainian language.

G WARNER: To understand what was going on here, it helps to think of Ukraine as kind of two Ukraines, east and west. The east borders Russia. It's got more Russian speakers. The west borders Europe. It has more Ukrainian speakers. And east and west - they're not different ethnicities. They're more like cultural groups. But there has been friction in the past. And Ruslan says it was easy for Russian news to insert itself into this divide.

DEYNYCHENKO: They want one part of the country - Russian-speaking - to hate another part of the country - Ukrainian-speaking.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #6: (Speaking Russian).

G WARNER: This was one of those stories on Russian TV. It reported that Ukrainian soldiers had seized a Russian-speaking toddler, ritually stabbed him and then nailed him to a plank of wood - a literal crucifixion.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #7: (Speaking Russian).

G WARNER: The StopFake team and other outlets looked into the story. There were no other witnesses to this crucifixion that supposedly happened in front of a huge crowd. StopFake also found extremely similar phrasing in the Facebook post of a Russian extremist published three days before the TV channel reported it. And a few months before that, a very similar crucifixion scene playing out in a show that is very popular in Russia...


G WARNER: ..."Game Of Thrones."


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #8: That's it for this week. Remember, consuming fake news is bad for your health, your brain and the psychological climate of society.

G WARNER: At first, StopFake was a success beyond what Ruslan had even imagined. The debunked stories were a hit on social media, and other news outlets picked up their stories. More than that, the StopFake crew of volunteers felt like they were winning the war, the war for truth. And then the real war came.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #8: The situation in Eastern Ukraine seems to be getting worse.

G WARNER: Separatist militias were rising up in all kinds of eastern cities...


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #9: The police line wasn't strong enough.


ROBERT SIEGEL, BYLINE: Donetsk came under heavy attack today.

G WARNER: ...Rejecting the government in Kiev, declaring allegiance to Moscow, getting help from Russia.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #9: This morning, gunmen in camouflage fatigues took over...

G WARNER: Ruslan was watching his country split in two, wondering, what did he miss? What more could he have done? The clue came one sleepless night after watching all this war news. He thought back to one of the stories that he had debunked months before. It was a little story. Russian media had claimed that thousands of Ukrainians were fleeing over the border to Russia. This was back before the war had started, when Ukraine was peaceful.

DEYNYCHENKO: Yeah, so I called federal immigration service of Russia.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #10: (Speaking Russian).

G WARNER: He taped the phone call for StopFake.

DEYNYCHENKO: And asked the person from federal immigration service if it's true or not.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #10: (Speaking Russian).

G WARNER: Was it true that even though there was no war, no violence in eastern Ukraine - that thousands of people in the east were abandoning their homes for refugee status in Russia?

DEYNYCHENKO: She told me, no, this is not true. We have just several phone calls, and we are - we have nothing unusual.

G WARNER: Thousands of Ukrainians were not fleeing to Russia - because why would they, right? I mean, Ukraine is totally peaceful. Except Ruslan did not hang up just then. He kept talking to this Russian official. And what she told him next, he would not realize the significance of until months later - months later when war had come to eastern Ukraine, and thousands of people were fleeing their homes.

DEYNYCHENKO: It was several months later in the middle of the night when I remembered that phone conversation. And I went to my computer, and I listened this conversation again. And bam, it was kind of a thunder strike to my head.

G WARNER: What she had told him was that, yes, there were no refugees right now.

DEYNYCHENKO: But she told me that we have received an order from Moscow to prepare places for refugees. So there were no refugees, but they starting preparation process for refugees.

G WARNER: Ruslan had thought the news was not true. Actually, it just wasn't true yet.

DEYNYCHENKO: Yes, sometimes they just preparing you for events that still have not happened.

G WARNER: This seemed like something a lot weirder and a lot more dangerous. Before, he'd known that fake news could inspire fear and distrust. But now it seemed to be planting ideas in people's heads. And for Ruslan, this little moment on the phone with the Russian official, it felt like he'd accidentally pulled back the curtain on the stage set before it was done.

DEYNYCHENKO: So now, when I saw something on Russian television, I usually ask myself, what might be their plan?

G WARNER: Ruslan started to doubt that truth alone could win this war, especially if today's fake news could become tomorrow's reality.

When ROUGH TRANSLATION returns, we're going to go east, to the place where the information war and the real war meet.


G WARNER: When you drive out to the front lines in eastern Ukraine, you have to leave early. For much of the trip, my car is the only one on the four-lane highway. We slow down just to pass through each Ukrainian army checkpoint.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #10: (Foreign language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #11: (Foreign language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #12: (Foreign language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #10: (Foreign language spoken).

G WARNER: If you imagine Texas, which is about the same size as Ukraine, imagine a piece of Texas pledged allegiance to Mexico and started trading in pesos. There is now a line that's dividing eastern Ukraine. And on one side of that line are separatists who reject the government in Kiev and get help from Moscow. This side of the line is patrolled by Ukrainian government troops.

I am now 500 miles east of Kiev, 500 miles from Ruslan's picket fences and his Lexington Avenue. And I'm getting another house tour.

ALEXANDER IVANOVICH: (Speaking Russian).

G WARNER: Oh, this was destroyed by the shelling.


G WARNER: ...This one from Alexander Ivanovich, age 64. He shows me where a shell fell on his doghouse. His dog died.

Oh, my gosh.

Another hit a tree. We're only alive because of a tree, he tells me. Alexander lives on the government side, 2 miles from that front line. His sister lives on the separatist side, and his father's grave is over there. And the screen door opens.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #13: (Speaking Russian).

IVANOVICH: (Speaking Russian).


NADYEJDA: (Speaking Russian).

G WARNER: His wife Nadyejda (ph) greets us, me and my interpreter. She says nice to meet you. Aren't you afraid to come visit?

NADYEJDA: (Speaking Russian).

IVANOVICH: (Speaking Russian).

G WARNER: (Laughter).

I'm out here to follow up on that odd thing that Ruslan told me about, how today's fake news may tell you what'll really happen tomorrow. And of all the folks I meet in Avdiivka, it feels like Alexander, this guy showing me around his backyard, is the most likely to have an answer because he is this town's only newspaper seller.

IVANOVICH: (Laughter).

G WARNER: I met him earlier that morning in a market at the center of town in his corrugated metal shack filled with newspapers. It's a market where you see locals mixing with soldiers in their green uniforms buying provisions. Army trucks are rolling by. Alexander's got laugh lines all over his face, including in front of his ears like sideburns. Everyone seems to know him. Some just call him Uncle Sasha. They come here to rib him with jokes.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #14: (Speaking Russian).

IVANOVICH: (Speaking Russian).

G WARNER: ...To complain about their health...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #11: (Speaking Russian).

G WARNER: ...To sigh...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #11: (Speaking Russian).

G WARNER: ...And to discuss the news.

Do you to discuss the news with people?

IVANOVICH: (Speaking Russian).

G WARNER: "Yes, of course," he says.

IVANOVICH: (Speaking Russian).

G WARNER: He says, "they very much want to know what's going on, how Ukraine is living. That means a lot, you know? We don't want to be cut off from the country," which makes what he tells me next so odd.


G WARNER: He reads the news all the time. But when he sees a journalist coming around, he gets scared.

IVANOVICH: (Speaking Russian).

G WARNER: "If the television crews show up, that's when the shelling begins." That's interesting. I don't get it though, what that means, that the journalists come, and then they start shelling, like...

IVANOVICH: (Speaking Russian).

G WARNER: "That's why our relationship with the press is very tense," he says.

IVANOVICH: (Speaking Russian).

G WARNER: When he sees a TV crew, he says, "they try to leave immediately because they start to shell in exactly that place." (Speaking Russian).

A little later - different part of town. These two other guys start waving me away as soon as I approach with my interpreter as we introduce ourselves as journalists, they're, like, fellas, please don't come to this spot.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #15: (Through interpreter) When you arrive, we are starting to being shelled.

G WARNER: I'm not - I didn't do the shelling.

You can hear I'm still treating this like a joke that I just don't get. But then a few minutes later, when those guys have left, I'm standing on the same street corner with my interpreter, Anton. He says, you know...

ANTON SKYBA: You know, everybody, like, strongly believes here that every time you drive to such kinds of towns...

G WARNER: Every town on the frontlines.

SKYBA: ...Everybody's saying, oh, you're a journalist. Now we will be attacked because when journalists arrive, the war starts.

G WARNER: When journalists arrive, the war starts. I couldn't put this out of my mind because it means that people here believe that this war is being fought mainly so that someone else can watch it on TV. It's like a reality show war but with real bullets. And Alexander is one of the unwilling extras. Alexander even told me...

IVANOVICH: (Foreign language spoken).

G WARNER: "We already know in advance it's a show. And we don't like it."

There's actually an old Russian joke from Soviet times. It goes like, in America you do X, but in Russia, X does you. For example, in America, you can always find a party. In Russia, the party finds you. In America, you break the law. In Russia, the law breaks you. There's so many versions of this joke, it actually has a name. It's called the Russian reversal. And listening to the people in Avdiivka, I felt like I'd walked into the middle of that joke. I'd come to see how people watch the news. And they're telling me, no, hear on the front lines, the news watches you.


G WARNER: Back in Kiev on Ruslan's patio, he's chopping wood with this little axe. It's like Ukrainian Village meets suburban...

DEYNYCHENKO: (Laughter).

G WARNER: Firing up the grill of his family's favorite Sunday meal, cheeseburgers. I want to ask Ruslan to make sense of what I'd heard on the frontlines - about this being some kind of reality show war. But before I can even bring it up, he wants to show me something. He leads me to the living room. There's his kid playing on the floor. It's a separatist TV channel.


G WARNER: On the screen is a guy in camouflage fatigues. He's one of the Ukrainian separatists who has declared independence from Kiev. The press conference is actually taking place on the other side of that front line. But Ruslan is not apparently interested in what that guy is saying. The channel's on mute. He directs my attention down to the bottom of the screen, where the microphones are arrayed on the podium. He's counting the Russian mics.

DEYNYCHENKO: When you see one or two mics - and these are local TV channels - it's OK. But when you see 10 mics from Russian TV networks, it means they're going to do something. It is a shelling or some kind of event that might be dangerous.

G WARNER: See, the people in Avdiivka know that because when I came, they said, we don't like you journalists because when you journalists come...

DEYNYCHENKO: Yeah. So I think local people - they have noticed this correlation.

G WARNER: There is this one really unnerving difference between his theory and the one that I heard out on the front lines. For Ruslan, it's the Russian mics that you have to watch out for. They're there to make Ukraine look bad. But for Alexander, it's the Ukrainian mics aiming to make Russia look like the bad guys, which is improbable but almost impossible to fact-check in the fog of war. The perception that it is true, though, is almost as scary. Both Ruslan and Alexander believe that journalists are in cahoots with their governments, fighting the information war alongside the real one. And if you believe that, you can just ignore any piece of news you don't agree with. Just chalk it up to enemy strategy.

Back in Kiev, Ruslan decided that the Russian media was the enemy. And fact-checking was not going to save Ukraine.

DEYNYCHENKO: So then we realized that we need to protect not just our profession but to protect the whole country because it was then a question of surviving for Ukraine.

G WARNER: And for Ruslan, the only option left was the one that he'd once begged the Ukrainian government not to do - to censor the Russian news channels.

DEYNYCHENKO: I changed my mind dramatically. I was 100 percent sure - I was damn sure that we need to cut it right away.

G WARNER: StopFake handed its archive of Russian propaganda techniques to the Ukrainian government, which promptly used it as evidence.

DEYNYCHENKO: If we did it earlier, I think we might avoid a lot of deaths.

G WARNER: Ruslan believes this ban did stop the front line from moving further west. It prevented more Ukrainian cities from falling under separatist control. It also opened his mind to the power of censorship.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character, speaking in Russian).

G WARNER: Watching TV one day with his 3-year-old, he heard the host of this Russian kids' show praising Vladimir Putin for protecting Ukraine. Ruslan sent an angry tweet, and that show was pulled off the air. And then also cut were Russian talk shows, soap operas, a wildlife channel, hunting and fishing show. And Ruslan defends all this.

DEYNYCHENKO: I'm not sure if we're 100 percent protected right now but at least we are moving in the right direction to protect ourselves.

G WARNER: Ukraine then took this direction even further. A Ukrainian hacker group with ties to the government published a list of every journalist who crossed that front line to interview people on the other side. Thousands of journalists were on this list, including a number of international journalists from NPR, from The New York Times. The title of this list was simply "Scoundrels." A Ukrainian lawmaker called them terrorist collaborators simply because they'd just gone over to the separatist side of the line to interview people. Ruslan did not see any problem with the list.

DEYNYCHENKO: Why not? I think what they do is useful. Publishing names, emails and personal information of reporters, it might be OK. But labeling them all enemies, it was stupid.

G WARNER: Wait, wasn't it worse than stupid, though? I mean, it seems pretty intimidating of journalists.

DEYNYCHENKO: Yes, naming them traitors, that was not right. Sometimes it's not very easy to tell, yeah, to be just straightforward and to...

G WARNER: Neutral.

DEYNYCHENKO: Yeah, neutral. Yeah, we want this country to exist.


G WARNER: There are costs to fighting an information war. The obvious one is that you start to adopt the tactics of your enemy. Today, it's common to hear a critic of the Ukrainian government tagged a Kremlin agent. There's even a term for someone who's an agent without actually getting money or direction from Russia. They're called an unwitting agent.

Ruslan, though, talks about a different cost. Spending so much of his time fact-checking fakes, he's got no time to write stories about Ukrainians who are making things work, despite their differences - the sort of stories that he imagined himself writing when he first moved to that house with the picket fences.

DEYNYCHENKO: ...Stories that inspire other people. This inspires. This is true journalism, to check somebody's lies and to keep somebody accountable. I cannot tell that I'd be happy to do it all my life, all right? I'm afraid that Russia understands it, and they do their best to make us enemies forever. And at the end of the day, it will be very difficult to sit at the table and talk like friends.


G WARNER: That's it for this episode of ROUGH TRANSLATION. Keep listening for a preview of our next show right after these messages.


JESS JIANG, BYLINE: Hey, Jess Jiang here, producer of ROUGH TRANSLATION. Next week, the story of a country known only for one terrible thing, and what happens when a journalist calls that one thing into question.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: I was constantly confronted with the idea of, why am I looking into this? Why do I want to be the one to, like, blow that whole narrative apart?

JIANG: Finding a way to tell the truth when it's not your truth to tell - next week on ROUGH TRANSLATION.

G WARNER: Today's show was produced Jess Jiang and edited by Marianne McCune. Thank you to Lucian Kim, NPR's Moscow bureau chief, also Ukrainian journalists Natalia Gryvnyak (ph), and Anton Skyba, and Peter Pomerantsev, Joanna Szostek, Megan Metzger, Denis Stukal. Thanks to the Planet Money team for editorial guidance, also Lu Olkowski, Laura Starecheski, Michael May and Charles Maynes. Fact-checking for this episode by Camille Salas and mastering by Andy Huether. ROUGH TRANSLATION is advised by Neil Carruth, Alex Goldmark, Mathilde Piard and Anya Grundmann.

We would love to hear from you. Rate the show on Apple Podcasts. It helps people discover the show. And write us that travel story you're still trying to decode. You can email us,, or find us on Facebook. Previous episodes at Original music composed by John Ellis. I'm Gregory Warner, back next week with more ROUGH TRANSLATION.


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