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How Ukrainians use social media to combat Russian disinformation

Lara Zwarun visits with injured Ukrainian soldiers being treated at a Lviv hospital in 2015.
Lara Zwarun
Lara Zwarun visits with injured Ukrainian soldiers being treated at a Lviv hospital in 2015.

Ukrainians have learned the hard way not to trust online information from Russian sources. Lara Zwarun, an associate professor of communications at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, described the nation’s tactics in Ukraine as “sort of like catfishing at the international level” — with state-sanctioned fake news aimed at creating an alternate reality.

So what keeps Ukrainians from falling for Russia’s propaganda? Zwarun explained on Monday’s St. Louis on the Air that the nation has a healthy skepticism for all media.

Lara Zwarun joins St. Louis on the Air

She described interviewing soldiers in 2015 who had been on the front lines of the conflict with Russia. “And they told me 100% of Russian media is lies, and 80% of Ukrainian media is lies,” Zwarun said. “They're very skeptical.”

Herself the daughter of a Ukrainian refugee, Zwarun studies how Ukrainians use social media to counter Russian disinformation. She sees the conflict in Ukraine today as an example of hybrid war: “What's happening is happening on the streets, but it's also happening via social media and communication among regular people.”

When Zwarun did her research in 2015, the nation had just ousted a Russia-friendly president in the Maidan Revolution. She found that many Ukrainians were galvanized by that movement. They became better organized not just in a military sense, but with their online messaging as well.

“Mobilization and organization definitely came out of that movement,” she said, “and seeing that they could stand up to a much larger enemy and fight for what was really right.”

She cited an organization called Stop Fake, which a group of college students in Kyiv launched to debunk Russian disinformation.

“I was completely blown away that they had started this grassroots effort and had gotten to the point that they had,” she said.

Ukrainians have also gotten better at proactively shaping their own message, Zwarun added. In one case, Westerners are encouraged to send money to Ukraine by booking Airbnb rooms there that they have no intention of using.

Another example is the website 200rf.com. On it, Ukraine posts photos and videos of Russian soldiers who have been captured. Many of the videos show the soldiers provided with sustenance and being allowed to call their mothers in Russia.

The website’s target audience is Russian families. “So that, if they can access it, they can look online for clues to see if their loved one, their son, is one of the people [killed or captured],” Zwarun said. “It's kind of grim, but I think it also makes a very powerful, undeniable message. The people in Russia who are most likely to realize that they're being fleeced by their media are parents."

She added: “A lot of them had sons in the military [and] were under the impression that they were doing training exercises. [They] were not told until the very last minute where they were going — the soldiers themselves weren't even told. That’s a very motivated populace.”

 Lara Zwarun wears a vyshyvanka style embroidered shirt from Ukraine. She says her grandmother would embroider in that style.
Emily Woodbury
St. Louis Public Radio
Lara Zwarun wears a vyshyvanka-style embroidered shirt from Ukraine.

Russia continues to shell Ukrainian cities, leaving deadly carnage across a broad swath of the country. “As fun as it is to get your reply from the Airbnb host or joke about the Russian warship [telling Russia to buzz off],” she said, “there's people dying — and increasingly civilians.”

But she’s proud of how her ancestral homeland is dealing with the nightmare situation.

“I cannot believe how prominent and well known the Ukrainian flag, the Ukrainian effort, everything is. People are aware of it now like they never have been before,” she said. “Everybody internationally has been amazed by the Ukrainians’ tenacity and spirit and unification during this effort.”

She sees a powerful lesson for anyone watching the conflict from the U.S., where important issues are so fractured down political lines. “The Ukrainians are showing that you can put that all on hold and unite against a common enemy.”

Related Event
What: Lara Zwarun will speak at 4 Hands Brewing Company’s International Women's Day event
When: 6:30 p.m. March 8
Where: 1220 S. 8th St., St. Louis, MO 63104

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Emily Woodbury, Kayla Drake, Danny Wicentowski and Alex Heuer. Jane Mather-Glass is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Emily is the senior producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.