Fake News Addicts: How Disinformation and its Mongers Strive in Ukraine 2020

Social media have provoked fast exchange of information. In the past, traditional media used to verify their information before it was published and thus served as a sort of information buffer. Now information spreads incredibly fast through social networks and messengers and it's rare that anyone bothers to verify it before reposting.

This creates opportunities for deliberate dissemination of false information, to stir public outcry, shape positive or negative images, or subvert the nation entirely.

For six months I have searched, detected, and followed the most typical examples of how disinformation is spread. The lockdown and the pandemic gave disinformation a hefty impetus as, due to self-isolation, the public moved online en masse. The process itself, as well as concerns about one's life and health gave a new thrust to the sharing of disinformation.

This publication tries to examine disinformation, from its content to its mongers, and attempts to explain how the Ukrainian society has become so addicted to fake news and stories.

1. Subject Matter and Content

Disinformation in Ukraine is not much different from what you can find elsewhere in the world. However, there are certain peculiarities, particularly regarding its content.

I would identify five basic categories of disinformation. These are very often intertwined but not necessarily, more as an exception.

1.1 Conspiracy-related disinformation

I would argue that in Ukraine, conspiracy theories are the kind of disinformation that are the least readily accepted. There are many of them circulating around. Some of them never change for decades while others may morph substantially, depending on the situation. For example, fans of the vaccine conspiracy theory where among the first to embrace the Covid-19 situation. Meanwhile, cellular network conspiracy theorists continue to blame everything on cell towers, no matter whether they are 3G or 5G (well, okay, 5G seems to be more trendy worldwide now). Disinformation about the Jewish or billionaires' world rule (Club 300 or similar) also remains the same, except that it is sometimes injected with mundane themes of pro-Russian or pro-American control.

What makes these forms of disinformation so popular is that they offer answers to the simple question of 'who is to blame' for an economic collapse, war, unemployment, epidemics, and so on.

1.2 Household disinformation

Another type of disinformation is household disinformation. Very often, this is a mixture of pseudo-practical advice, panic-mongering, and emotional engagement. Some of the most prevalent types of this kind of disinformation includes missing persons announcements (lost child announcements are some of the most common reposts, even if the incident takes place in another country); charity fundraiser announcements; reports of corrupt practices of judges, public officials, and the law enforcement; reports of contest wins and unusual accomplishments; tips on the benefits of consuming garlic, lemon, ginseng, or tea; hate speech against particular population groups (i.e. a report of a child kidnapped in a car with Lithuanian number plates at the time of the foreign licensed car customs clearance controversy of 2019, or a reports of a child kidnapped by gypsies (a derogative reference to Roma people) in 2017 used by right-wing movements to justify their acts of aggression), and so on.

What makes this type of disinformation popular is the emotional response it elicits, ranging from a faint smile to practical sympathy. The stronger the emotional response, the broader the audience.

1.3 Political disinformation

One of the most prevalent types of disinformation in Ukraine is political disinformation. It's worth noting that historically, the Ukrainian society has been highly politicized. The events of 2014 only added to the public polarization. It is important to take into account Russia's attempts to create an information divide, as well as the struggle of Ukrainian political elites for power by employing the dirtiest information methods possible.

As a matter of fact, I would say that political disinformation is currently the most powerful and dangerous in view of the current status of Ukraine's informational landscape.

Besides, these are fake stories that are created and disseminated for real money. Thus, all other disinformation (such as conspiracy theories or household disinformation) merely serve as a cover-up. In other words, they are just used to shape an active audience, test social media algorithms for content promotion, and gauge the audience's mindset before releasing fake political stories.

Very often, political disinformation exploits the audience's sentiments and fears but is always secondary to the idea that is promoted.  What makes this type of disinformation more popular is the illusion of influencing decision-making and the future, which encourages involvement, discussions, and proliferation.

1.4 Subversive Disinformation

It is worth looking at a special category of mixed, dual-nature disinformation. Simply put, which country's audience they target. And this is easy to figure out from…the context. There are disinformation stories tailored to the Ukrainian audience, and then there are adaptations. The language of the news story is not the main giveaway as these can be in Ukrainian, Russian, or English (e.g. supposedly released by WHO or the United Nations). What is most important are semantic and contextual inconsistencies. This type of disinformation should be classed as subversive. They go round different countries with a view to generating public outcry and discontent with government actions. That is what sets them apart from the rest of the abovementioned types of disinformation.

The most typical example of subversive disinformation are reports about secret American or Russian biological warfare labs. The media literacy online conference on "How to Counter Disinformation," held by the Academy of Ukrainian Press on 27 May, 2020, identified at least three countries claiming that the story had targeted them, namely Ukraine, Georgia, and Lithuania. In Ukraine, that fake story resulted in an official letter from the parliament to the Ministry of Defense (for where else would biological weaponry be developed). However, it is widespread across different nations, only the bio lab contracting states vary, mainly between the U.S., the Russian Federation, and China.

So far, no investigations into the origins of such subversive disinformation stories have been able to confirm whether they were created in Russia and targeted Ukraine or were merely adapted to fit a particular geopolitical situation. I am more inclined to believe that the content was hastily adapted in an effort to trigger the audience's emotions considering that such stories immediately alert fact-checking organizations and even official institutions and thus have a very short lifespan.

I should also mention another typical example of subversive disinformation disguised as household disinformation, i.e., a series of disinformation about politicians, public officials, MPs, and law-enforcement officers, all of whom always represent the authorities, without any reference to specific localities, although words such as 'federal,' 'state,' or 'county' occasionally pop up in such texts. There are no federal districts in Ukraine and the term is never used, however, it is widely used in the Russian Federation. The division into states and counties is typical of the United States of America. This suggests that initially, the text was created for the Russian-speaking audiences in the U.S. or the Russian Federation but later was hastily adapted for Ukraine.

Very often, subversive disinformation campaigns refer to public institutions that do not exist in Ukraine, such as warnings from the 'Public Health Department of the Ministry of Health of Ukraine.' No such department has ever existed in Ukraine, however, there is a similarly named institution in the Russian Federation. Another example would be the 'Center for Disease Control' which, in fact, only exists in the U.S.

Often, such news stories refer to private cell phone numbers whereas public agencies always provide special 0-800 numbers or numbers with area codes.

Here is an example of another hot household disinformation story about Covid-19 reposted in a chat room:

"Beware! Some people go door to door and introduce themselves as decontamination personnel disinfecting homes against Covid-19. Once they get inside homes, they use sleeping gas and rob them. The police reported that at the morning briefing!!!"

Essentially the same disinformation story can be found, in different languages but with the same meaning, in Ukraine, Russia, Kazakhstan, or Belarus.

The incident would have been unremarkable had the Ukrainian police not actually discussed it at a morning briefing (and posted it on its official website) because it was so widely discussed online! The circle is now complete. So far, the Ukrainian police is yet to register a single burglary incident similar to the one described above. Nevertheless, there is much talk about this online in different countries…

What makes such fake stories popular is a combination of offering answers to simple questions, akin to conspiracy theories, and triggering emotions of joy or fear, similarly to household disinformation.

1.5 Official Disinformation

To wrap up this overview, I should mention another category of disinformation which may not, in fact, essentially be fake and is later officially refuted. These include speeches, announcements, and statements by public officials, pro-government political figures or local self-government officials. More often than not, these are remarks taken out of context not by “fake news proliferators” but the officials themselves. This adds weight to the information and feeds different types of disinformation, from household ones to conspiracy theories.

A classic example would be a statement made by Yevhen Brahar, member of parliament representing the Servant of the People party, in response to a retired lady's question about how she was supposed to afford to pay her gas bills: "Sell your dog to pay your bills!" This spawned a bunch of memes featuring a dog asking the master whether he/she has paid the gas bills and where they were going.

The speech bubble reads, "I'm selling you to pay the gas bills."
The speech bubble reads, "I'm selling you to pay the gas bills."

Or the statement made by Halyna Tretyakova, member of parliament representing the Servant of the People party and chairperson of the parliamentary Committee for Social Policy and War Veterans Rights, claiming that the families in need produce 'extremely low-quality' children [1].

Or the statement made by Halyna Yanchenko, member of parliament representing the Servant of the People party, calling children living in Donbass 'grungy and messy' [2].

The Internet is full of statements by oblast governors, city mayors, and chief medical officers about the numbers of Covid-19 patients, none of which are confirmed by the Ministry of Health of Ukraine. Nevertheless, they do cause a stir, debate, and discontent with the Ministry of Health, the Cabinet, and the President.

Another classic example of 'official disinformation' is the statement by Chief Sanitary Physician of Ukraine, Mr. Liashko, made on a Friday at 10 AM, that Kyiv, Ukraine's capital city, was not ready to lift the lockdown, followed at 12 AM by the diametrically opposite statement that Kyiv was, in fact, "ready to lift the lockdown." For several days after that, both news stories circulated on social media and newsfeeds concurrently, causing confusion among Ukrainians over the reasons for such a drastic change in his standpoint.

Here we should point out the low media literacy level among Ukrainians who are not able to distinguish between facts and commentary, or, in other words, individual opinions. On the other hand, this can be blamed on poor ethics of public officers and members of parliament who pass off their assumptions in their official capacity, making them appear as the government's official position on the matter.

What makes this form of disinformation popular is that it originates from public officials, often spread via traditional media, not only in text form but also along with videos to confirm the claims, and any official refutation covers less audience than the original story did.

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Helena von Hardenberg, Presse und Digitale Kommunikation
Helena von Hardenberg
Referatsleitung Presse & Digitale Kommunikation
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