How Ukraine is tackling its huge fake news problem

A public message board in Kyiv. Credit: Internews

This piece was originally posted in the i newspaper

Oxford English Dictionaries declared ‘post-truth’ the word of the year in 2016. The so-called ‘fake news’ phenomena remains the subject of a British parliamentary inquiry. Yet here we are halfway through 2017, and mainstream media coverage of the issue appears to be dissipating.

I recently returned from Ukraine, which has spent most of its post-Soviet existence on the front line of an information and propaganda war. It’s a country that knows all too well that fake news is most certainly not a one-off.

Conflict in the east and Russia’s annexation of Crimea have been accompanied by a tidal wave of propaganda and counter-propaganda. Ukrainian audiences also have to pick through various domestic editorial bad-practices such as jeansa stories on radio and TV: pieces that have been paid for by politicians wanting to be portrayed in a positive light. (It’s called “jeansa” because the cash ends up in the jeans pockets of participating journalists.)

Changing the curriculum

However, because of these stark circumstances, Ukraine has also become an unlikely laboratory of solutions to defend the truth. The Institute for Mass Information (IMI) conducted a contest called Catch Jeansa to identify fake news for what it was. Ordinary people sent in 1,400 examples, and the spurious content was then debunked with real journalism.

The Academy of Ukrainian Press (AUP) has successfully campaigned to build media and information literacy into the national curriculum. Critical thinking, understanding of media structures and content are now fully integrated into a range of social subjects.

It’s been inspiring to hear stories of teenagers in Ukraine educating their parents and grandparents on the skills needed to tell fact from fiction. The positive impact of this approach has been backed up by years of research and offers a large-scale example of best practice.

The role of public broadcasting

Meanwhile, something else is happening that was occurring in Britain in the 1920s: the birth of public service broadcasting. In January, UA: First National TV officially became independent of the state and, thus, the country’s first public network. Senior broadcasting leaders, not undaunted by the massive change programme they must now lead, also speak of audiences returning to established media institutions with reputable newsgathering operations as an antidote to fake news.

Globally, the drivers of fake news are as omnipotent today as they were 12 months ago. My organisation has sought to create healthier news and information environments in 100 countries over the past 35 years. We know from this experience that fake news, in all of its forms, is actually not new at all.

What happened last year is just that the US and UK got a sudden and painful dose of it, dramatically fuelled by social media. We must maintain a national sense of urgency to find solutions. The Ukrainian example is evidence of what can be achieved against all odds when society comes together.

A reminder of why this matters: Buzzfeed analysis showed the top-performing fake US election news stories on Facebook generated more engagement than stories from 19 respected news sources combined. Stories erroneously suggesting that Donald Trump had been endorsed by the Pope gathered such a head of steam that they drowned out the truth. Even those people who labelled themselves social media-savvy struggled to distinguish fact from fiction; or, more to the point, to even find the tiny needle of truth amidst a haystack of hyperbole.

If the threat of fake news isn’t at the forefront of people’s minds as it was a year ago, there is less pressure on governments, regulators and civil society to take measures to tackle it. We know there are workable, pragmatic solutions out there. Let’s learn from what works, and take action instead of waiting for the next fake news crisis.


Daniel Bruce is Chief Executive in Europe for Internews, an international charity that supports the growth of diverse and professional media worldwide.