The war on disinformation has been an uphill fight since before Russia invaded Ukraine, with media and fact checkers sifting through thousands of claims about alleged provocations, missile strikes, atrocities, and gains and losses.
The Kyiv-based StopFake and the Eyes on Russia Project are among the groups sorting fact from fiction. And the stakes are high.
From Russia’s Vladimir Putin saying the invasion is needed to “de-nazify” Ukraine, to posts claiming Ukrainian forces are placing explosives under their own buildings, a barrage of disinformation is swirling on social media, websites, messaging platforms like Telegram and Viber, and even TV, analysts say.
Left unchecked, these posts and propaganda can sow confusion or even sway public opinion.
“Fact checkers, they ruin the reputation of Russian media as a reliable source of information,” said Ruslan Deynychenko.
The co-founder of StopFake, and a journalist who previously contributed to VOA’s Ukrainian Service, added, “For me as a journalist, it is a rewarding thing when you know that you do something important to help other people not to be brainwashed.”
On the Russian side, posts seek to justify the invasion, like Putin’s widely debunked claim that he seeks the “de-nazification of Ukraine,” or to tout Russia’s battlefield successes while it downplays casualties.
Lili Bivings, a New York-based contributing editor to the Kyiv Independent, says it can be difficult to ascertain the origin of some claims.
But the purpose of the Russian posts is clear. They are “part of [Russia’s] disinformation campaign to make Ukrainians look bad. It’s creating chaos,” she told VOA.
On the Ukraine side, “There’s information that’s put out there that’s not necessarily meant to cause further destruction but actually make people feel better,” Bivings said.
She cited the case of the so-called Ghost of Kyiv, a fighter pilot alleged to have shot down six Russian planes. Posts on his war efforts quickly circulated on social media.
While Ukraine’s military has said it downed several aircraft, no evidence has shown one pilot to be responsible. One video circulating of the alleged Ghost in action was found to be a composite made from a 2008 game, U.S.-based Snopes reported.
Trying to verify what is or isn’t real can be tough. But, said Bivings, the best “antidote” is for local media to report only verified information.
“In making the effort to publish information that has been confirmed, or at least as best as possible, you’re not spreading that disease, that virus,” Bivings said.
Organizations focused on Russian disinformation say Moscow has two main targets: selling the war to a domestic audience and trying to demoralize Ukrainians.
Russia is skillful at targeting different audiences, said Ukrainian government and military adviser Liubov Tsybulska.
As the founder of the Centre for Strategic Communications and Information Security, which operates under Ukraine’s Ministry of Culture, Tsybulska has been monitoring Russian disinformation for several years.
“Currently, the main audience for them is the internal one. They are trying to convince people that this a special military operation, that they are cleaning the country and the world of Nazis, and that civilians are not hurt,” she told VOA via a secure messaging app.
A former journalist, Tsybulska previously led the Hybrid Warfare Analytical Group. The group monitors and counters disinformation as part of the Kyiv-based nongovernmental Ukraine Crisis Media Center, which was set up in response to Russia’s 2014 occupation of Crimea.
“In terms of disinformation in Ukraine, they [Russia] try to intimidate people and demoralize them,” Tsybulska said. “The main goal is to spread this panic, chaos, demoralization.”
So far, Tsybulska said, Russia’s propaganda has not been effective because those in Ukraine are witnessing the difference between what disinformation says is happening and what they are experiencing.
“Every time people see a real, material threat, they are able to filter this disinformation,” she said.
Ross Burley, executive director of the London-based nonprofit Center for Information Resilience, said Putin’s “primary audience” is Russians because “he remains terrified of losing power, of being undermined.”
Burley’s organization runs the Eyes on Russia Project, where a team of about 150 staff and volunteers monitors Russian disinformation.
He walked VOA through the project's process, using as an example the claim that Ukrainians, not Russians, launched a recent missile attack on the city of Kharkiv.
The team analyzed several factors — source material, video footage, geolocation, metadata, even shrapnel and injuries — to determine where the weapon came from.
“For us to find the right video with the right resolution, to be able to slow it down to actually have a freeze frame of the weapon system itself, and then we’re able to ID,” he said.
Through that analysis, Burley said, “we know that this [weapon system] is only owned by Russia, only deployed by Russia, so therefore it is Russia.”
Tsybulska and Burley both said it’s too early to gauge whether such disinformation is effective.
Despite efforts to sell the war as necessary to “demilitarize and de-nazify” Ukraine, and the state Duma's introduction of legislation banning anything Russia deems as “false news” about the conflict, thousands of Russians have gathered at anti-war rallies.
As of March 6, upward of 13,000 anti-war protesters had been detained across Russia, according to OVD-Info, which tracks arrests.
Russia’s Washington embassy did not respond to VOA’s request for comment.
Its officials and media regulator accuse Western media of false news, including over Russia’s alleged targeting of civilian areas, despite copious photographic and video evidence showing strikes in those areas.
Back in Ukraine, analysts at StopFake review thousands of online posts every day, Deynychenko said. It’s a time-consuming process.
“It might take five minutes to create a fake, but sometimes it takes weeks to debunk it,” Deynychenko said. “We try to debunk and to verify the most important information that we see that might influence the situation in Ukraine.”
But being based in Kyiv means StopFake’s team is fighting on two fronts: the digital battle against disinformation and the physical one.
“Our fact checkers, they are regular citizens. They need to care about their families, about security. So, it’s much more difficult for them to be dedicated only to their work,” Deynychenko said.
The 50-year-old has taken part in efforts to protect family and neighbors, and he said others on the team joined military and paramilitary units.
“I still am not in a very safe place,” Deynychenko said. “But still, I monitor Russian media. I monitor Russian social networks for propaganda, for disinformation.”
He sympathized with colleagues who joined military efforts, adding, “If we lose our country, there will be no need to fact check" anyone's reports.
Liam Scott is a freelance journalist focused on China, mass atrocities, press freedom and human rights. He is a student at Georgetown University and a research associate at the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect.