Taking the High Road in the Propaganda War

In March, as the eastern Ukrainian town of Debaltseve suffered heavy fighting despite a recent ceasefire agreement, journalist Nastya Stankoforeign policy logo made a disturbing report: “People from Debaltseve told us that the army from NATO, the Polish army, and the U.S. army were all in Debaltseve,” wrote Stanko, a co-founder of independent Ukrainian broadcaster Hromadske.tv. “These people believed that if they were evacuated, they would be killed. So they wouldn’t come out of their basements.” These residents believed what they had seen on Russian television broadcasts. Employing World War II references that trigger traumatic memories, these broadcasts propagate a narrative that paints the popularly elected regime in Ukraine as a Western-backed, ultra-nationalist, fascist junta, conducting pogroms against the Russian-speaking population of eastern and southern Ukraine.

For Ukrainians and observers of the crisis, the Kremlin’s steady campaign of misinformation is a cause of serious concern. Michael Weiss and Peter Pomerantsev have convincingly argued that the Kremlin “weaponizes” information by disseminating outlandish lies, seeking to sow confusion and manipulate public opinion. Initiatives in Europe and the U.S. seek to counter the influence of RT, the well-funded Russian international TV channel that has proven a highly effective disseminator of Kremlin propaganda, with expanded Russian-language reporting from government-run broadcasters such as Voice of America. The Ukrainian Ministry of Information recently announced plans to respond to RT’s international broadcasts with a channel they will call Ukraine Tomorrow. They also plan to combat Russia’s online trolling campaigns with its own “iArmy,” all on the ministry’s modest annual budget of $184,000. By comparison, RT’s 2015 budget is roughly $247 million.

The western and Ukrainian approaches — even if they were adequately resourced — are not the right ones. Fighting propaganda head-on with counter-propaganda is not just unrealistic, but also deeply flawed. My colleague Katya Myasnikova from Ukraine’s Independent Association of Broadcasters memorably likened it to “treating cancer with tuberculosis.” It’s a dirty fight that takes the low ground and has proven highly ineffective at changing minds and winning trust. Instead, fighting propaganda with counter-propaganda only breeds despair, cynicism, and confusion among the target populations.

The people of eastern Ukraine’s Donbass region — those bunkered in their basements in Debaltseve as well as the over one million displaced — are ill-suited as targets for a western PR offensive and the hyper-patriotic messages of the Ukrainian media. What they urgently need instead is factual and highly practical information — “news you can use,” as one U.S. publication once referred to it — that will make an immediate difference in their lives. Rather than fighting Russia’s media spin doctors with bombastic “messaging” from the west or from Kyiv, we should concentrate instead on supporting excellent local journalism and furthering the distribution of objective news and information. This includes detailed reporting on ways to keep people safe, fed, clothed, sheltered, connected with families and friends, and how to rebuild their lives. There are already media outlets stepping up to this challenge in Ukraine, and we should be supporting them.

These informational needs of Ukraine’s war-torn eastern communities are detailed in Internews’ rapid response report, “Ukraine: Trapped in a Propaganda War. Abandoned. Frustrated. Stigmatized.” This report suggests that humanitarian information about where to get much-needed fundamental resources is the most immediate need for these populations. Beyond this immediate information, these people need to regain a sense of agency –which can only be supported by well-targeted, objective information. While propaganda and endless conspiracy theories erodes people’s right to know, diminishing their dignity and respect, the reporting of locally relevant information can be a powerful first step toward rebuilding trust among these disaffected communities — trust in both the Ukrainian government and in quality media as a reliable source of information.

Long before hostilities erupted in the east, Ukrainians had only a wavering trust in media. Major broadcast media outlets were controlled by oligarchs or political interests and served as instruments through which they waged their political and economic vendettas. After the Maidan revolution was followed quickly by Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the rise of pro-Russian separatists in the Donbass, moderate voices could be — and often were — characterized as anti-patriotic. Today, Ukraine’s national media focus largely on covering the war, following “patriotic” editorial policies that dedicate little time or attention to the humanitarian crisis and its consequences.

In the rebel-held territories, media freedom has been all but dismantled, as most of the region’s journalists have fled and separatists have asserted strict control over information resources. They have launched at least four new TV stations and a host of radio stations broadcasting programming ranging from traditional Cossack songs to talk shows on which guests debate the finer points of Russian Orthodoxy — clearly an ideological project. They have allowed few Ukrainian journalists to enter the areas under their control. As a result, neither Ukraine’s national nor its local media have been able to function effectively as a public service media for the east.

That is not to say that there are no media outlets in Ukraine doing the right thing. Moderate voices such as the online Hromadske.tv, the Hromadske radio network, and its affiliates in Kyiv, the Donbass, and Zaporizhzhya are standing up to the challenge. Almost all of these outlets are new players that emerged from the grassroots during the Euromaidan revolution. They belong to the journalists and activists themselves, rather than to oligarchs or the state, and their focus is on local rather than national news. They are not only covering the conflict, but giving those affected by it a voice, allowing genuine and important grievances to be aired, and demanding accountability from the government.

It is unfortunate that most of these outlets are online-only and that their reach among the elderly and the poor — two of the groups most dramatically affected by the conflict — is limited. Helping these outlets spread their message and diversify the way they deliver it — and not fighting Russian lies with lies of our own — is one way Ukraine and the West can win the information war.

(Josh Machleder, Internews Vice President for Europe, Eurasia, and Asia Programs, wrote this article in Foreign Policy on the misinformation war in Ukraine.)