Detector Media is one of Ukraine’s largest and oldest media watchdogs. Founded in 2004, it has documented Ukrainian media history during the country’s most pivotal moments, from the Orange Revolution to Euromaidan.

As Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the team of 30 pivoted to focus largely on countering Russian disinformation and propaganda. While they had worked in this direction before, it became increasingly relevant – with Ukraine facing the largest war since World War II and Russia trying to win on the information battlefield as well as on the actual one.

The Fix spoke with Detector Media’s editor-in-chief Otar Dovzhenko about the outlet’s work today and his observations about the role of Russian disinformation and propaganda in this conflict. We also spoke with Detector Media’s analyst Ksenia Iliuk about the publication’s approach to fact-checking disinformation. 

The interviews were conducted separately, in Ukrainian and translated into English. They have been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

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Detector Media’s work

The Fix: How has the war impacted Detector Media’s work? 

Otar Dovzhenko: The war has completely changed how we work.

In peacetime, we focus on the media in the broadest sense, from film reviews to monitoring the quality of media products in Ukraine. The war has made much of this work irrelevant – there’s little media product to monitor; for example, all Ukrainian TV channels are broadcasting one marathon. 

Monitoring and countering Russian propaganda was an important direction of our work before the invasion, but today it has become our main direction.

Overall, we have three avenues of work now.

The first is analysing, systematising, and debunking Russian disinformation. For example, we have a daily timeline in Ukrainian and English, where we gather and analyse key fakes.

The second is systematising Ukraine’s public figures who have supported the invasion. We call it a “wall of shame.” Fortunately, there are not many public figures who’ve backed Putin’s invasion, but it’s important to note those who have. It’s a popular product – its views surpassed 100,000, which is a lot for a niche media publication like Detector Media.

The third direction is texts about information hygiene. In the first days of the war, the informational space was full of junk, irrelevant information, “patriotic fakes” which make the situation worse. Then, the situation somewhat stabilised, and people’s information hygiene improved. 

Besides, we started publishing more news not related to media – there isn’t much media news in Ukraine at the moment, and people need verified information [about general interest news] that provides them with context.

In the first days of the invasion, like many other organisations, we frantically worked to adapt to the war conditions. Now, we’re realising that the war might last for a long time, and we need a “plan B”, “plan C” etc.

TF: Regarding your work on debunking disinformation – who is your target audience for that? Has it changed as compared to your standard audience [since the war started]?

OD: We don’t have a standard audience anymore. 

Before the war, as a chief editor, I could easily guess how many views a certain story would gather. We had a relatively stable audience that read certain kinds of stories. Now, this dynamic has changed completely. 

In the first days of the war, the number of viewers grew by several times. Roughly, we had 100,000 people daily instead of 20,000. Now, the number of visitors is often fluctuating. An important news story might gather a meagre 200-300 views, but a timely essay gathered 10,000 views in a day. Much depends on a viral effect on social media. 

I think people don’t need longreads now, they need simple messages. So, we are paying more attention to social media than we would in peacetime.

Our content now is addressed at a general audience, not at journalists and experts [as opposed to peacetime]; they are busy with things other than reading about the media. We are working to adapt our work to what is needed at the moment. 

More from The Fix: How Ukraine is successfully leveraging social media to fight back Russian invasion

TF: Isn’t there a danger that you are read by an educated audience who already doesn’t believe in fakes? How do you reach the audience that is more likely to believe in disinformation? 

OD: As I’ve said, we no longer have a stable audience that used to read Detector Media before.

For example, we debunked a fake about Viber being hacked by the Russian intelligence services. In one day, it gathered 110,000 views. Obviously, those were not 110,000 educated journalists, those were 110,000 Viber users who sent our piece to each other. 

So, I don’t think there’s an effect that we’re telling about fakes and disinformation to people who already know everything about them.

What’s more, even educated, professional journalists are vulnerable to fakes in this situation. Any audience is more or less vulnerable to fakes during the war, unfortunately. 

TF: What’s your approach to so-called “patriotic fakes”? How do you approach pro-Ukrainian fakes designed to lift people’s spirits?

OD: We had a difficult conversation on this topic in our newsroom…

To start, some fakes aren’t really fakes, they are more akin to anecdotes, urban legends – such as “two gopniks captured a Russian tank” or “a woman took down a drone with a can of tomatoes.” There’s no point in debunking them.

On more serious desinformation coming from the Ukrainian side, our approach is: we don’t actively debunk pro-Ukrainian fakes during the war so as not to harm Ukraine. However, we don’t help spread them either, we might spread refutation if it comes from official sources, and we recommend everyone involved in any communications not to make up fakes. 

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Russian propaganda and disinformation during the invasion

TF: Many analysts say Ukraine is winning in the information space during this war. Actually, you wrote that “Russian propaganda totally shat pants.” Why do you think that is? Why is Russian propaganda either ineffective or at least not as effective as everyone feared? 

OD: The first reason is that the Ukrainian government has had done enough to clear Ukraine’s media space from Russian propaganda.

In 2014, Russian channels were blocked. In 2017, Russian social networks [VK and Odnoklassniki] were blocked. Since 2021, the government has blocked the channels controlled by [the pro-Russian Ukrainian politician] Viktor Medvedchuk and other pro-Russian resources. 

In fact, pro-Russian resources in Ukraine are practically non-existent. It’s highly important – otherwise, now [during the war], these channels would have a loyal audience and would broadcast Putin’s propaganda, wreaking havoc in Ukrainian society.

Of course, you can find them if you want by searching on YouTube or using VPN, but they are practically unavailable. It means that Russian propaganda can only be spread with underground methods.

The second reason is that Ukrainian media has managed to unite. It’s truly a miracle. The idea to unite into a single TV marathon, divide broadcasting time and speak with one voice was brilliant. [Otherwise, there would be an unnecessary duplication of resources].

The third thing is that the Russians don’t understand a thing about Ukraine and haven’t studied it. I have an impression that they have relied on Soviet-time books in trying to understand what Ukraine is and how it lives. The fakes they’ve used to try and influence the Ukrainian audience don’t hold up at all.

And they [the Kremlin] haven’t found as many supporters in Ukraine as they’d hoped. They had thought they would be greeted with flowers in every city, but then they saw the opposite. Politicians who were considered pro-Russian tell the Russians to “go fuck themselves”, and media outlets previously believed to be pro-Russian either become pro-Ukrainian or go silent.

Yes, Russia creates uncertainty, sometimes its information operations have an impact, but they don’t have the capacity to overwhelm Ukraine with their propaganda. 

TF: There’s an impression that Russian propaganda has failed in the West as well. Are there any additional factors that prevent them from being effective in the West, not only in Ukraine? 

OD: I think it’s pretty hard to justify Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in the West’s eyes. Yes, they tried, but the bubble of Russian propaganda has been over-financed and too inflated. 

For example, RT’s reach is [small], just 0,6% of the audience. They don’t reach people; again, the Western audience isn’t interested in getting the Russian point of view, they have their own concerns and priorities. 

Besides, fortunately, Western countries have had the resolve to ban all these propaganda outlets in many countries.

More from The Fix: Weekly Digest: Media Victims of Russia’s Invasion 

A bigger threat now isn’t pro-Russian media, it’s local activists who are skeptical of Ukraine and sanctions against Russia. But I think it’s hard for such opinions to get through now. The whole world stands with Ukraine and the West is smart enough to understand that much in their life depends on this war.

TF: I saw Detector Media covering “dumbest Russian fakes.” Have you seen examples of the opposite? Have you seen smart, efficient fakes [from Russia]?

OD: To be honest, I can’t recall any smart, efficient fakes. 

In some cases, they are rather effective in refuting Ukrainian manipulations in Western media. For example, when a Russian missile hit a TV tower in Kyiv, Ukraine tried to push the narrative that the missile hit Babyn Yar [Holocaust Memorial]. In fact, the missile hit close to Babyn Yar, but not Babyn Yar itself. The Russians quickly refuted this narrative. 

Overall, any of their fakes, however effective it is, cannot be a gamechanger, even though it can suck up some resources.

Russian fakes for their own audience are totally crazy – “Bandera cars” or Ukraine encircling its own cities and shelling them. Perhaps someone believes in that in Russia, but I think it’s too much even for the most insane Russians. They can say they believe in this because it helps hold up their picture of the world intact, but then it’s their psychological problems.

TF: Do you understand Russian propaganda’s key messages? What are they trying to push, how are they explaining the invasion? 

OD: They have different messages for different audiences.

For the Ukrainian audience, the key message is: the sooner you give up, the fewer victims there will be. They are trying to shift the blame for destruction and victims onto the Ukrainian government, which doesn’t want to surrender immediately and dares to defend itself. It’s what I call, “How dare you defend yourself?”

So, the Russians’ approach is “The war was inevitable, and the only adequate response from Ukraine is to immediately surrender and not to put its people in harm’s way.”

Perhaps some target audiences in Ukraine are susceptible to this message; I think that people who are sitting in shelters and fearing for their lives can put up with the notion, “Let it be, lack of freedom and occupation is better than this.” But most Ukrainians aren’t in such a position. 

In the West, Russian propaganda’s first talking point is Nazism. They are leaning heavily on the message that they are fighting Nazis, Ukrainians are Nazis, and so on. Second, a widespread message is that we [the Russians] are now doing to Ukrainian cities what Ukraine was doing to Donbas [since 2014]. The West doesn’t really understand what Donbas is and who did what there, so this message is hard to deconstruct. 

For the Russian audience, they are just creating a virtual reality that’s not based on real events and real facts. It’s the message like “demilitarisation of Ukraine is almost over, the Ukrainian army doesn’t resist, the Russian army is conducting a surgical operation to destroy military targets, everything goes according to the plan, we barely have any casualties.” There’s even no sense to debunk it because it’s a virtual picture not grounded in reality. 

I mean, you can refute a lie when it’s at least somehow based on a skeleton of truth. But when it’s a total fabrication, when a person lives in a virtual world, you can send them hundreds of photos with their casualties, wrecked tanks, destroyed Ukrainian cities, but I don’t think it will give enough result to destroy this simulation of reality. 

TF: How would you estimate the role of social networks in fighting Russian disinformation and propaganda? Have they done enough and should they have done something differently? Particularly Facebook and Telegram. 

OD: Regarding Telegram, I think everything is clear. [Telegram’s founder and CEO] Pavel Durov is positioning Telegram as the territory of freedom. I don’t think it’s just a silly conspiracy theory that Telegram is indirectly controlled by Russian intelligence services, that Telegram’s leadership is working to benefit Russians in this case. However, Telegram is a highly important source of information, including truthful information about Ukrainians.

Regarding Facebook, as far as I know, Facebook has been more understanding of Ukraine and the Ukrainians on a local level, such as lifting blocks that were caused by Russian bots.

Overall, social media is the main field in information battles because the Russians don’t have capacity to influence other Ukrainian media. They can destroy TV towers or try to switch on their TV channels in the occupied regions, but the main information battlefield is social media. The forces are uneven here because Ukrainians participate in this fight voluntarily and have high motivation, while Russians most likely won’t be able to participate because Facebook’s been blocked in Russia.

Does the information war give big results? It’s obviously rather chaotic, it’s hard to charter any vectors here. Sometimes Twitter storms and flash mobs are held. For example, many people sent photos of Russian PoWs and casualties to their Russian acquaintances. But again, you can’t send photos of Russian PoWs to the Russians you know every day. Sooner or later, all Russians will receive a photo, will overcome some cognitive dissonance in their head, and the communications will be over. 

Now, when the Russians have been cut off from the social networks we use, I think the Ukrainians’ offensive potential will be somewhat smaller. At the same time, Russian potential will also be smaller because they don’t have real people who can work for them; they have only bots. And Facebook knows how to recognize and ban bots. 

Fact-checking Russian disinformation

The Fix: What do you focus on when countering disinformation?   

Ksenia Iliuk: Our work consists of two parts. First, we check everything we can and explain fakes or manipulations to readers. Second, we are working to chronicle Russian disinformation, capture key narratives. 

TF: How many people do you reach? 

KI: We have a website and social media accounts. Overall, the views are higher than usual for a niche media outlet like ours, though we don’t have consolidated stats. 

The number of views on the website varies widely; some debunkings get 30,000-40,000 views on the website, some get over 100,000 views. 

On social media, we’ve seen high interest on Telegram – up to 150,000-200,000 views for some posts – and even TikTok: one of our videos reached several hundred thousand views in the first few hours. 

TF: How do you decide which fakes to debunk and which ones to leave out? 

KI: We get a lot of requests from readers, and we respond to all of them. We are also monitoring social media and other information channels.  

We don’t debunk the information which directly concerns the course of military actions – first, we don’t put the Ukrainian troops in danger; second the war is highly dynamic anyway, and sometimes debunking doesn’t make sense.

We also typically don’t debunk obscure fakes that aren’t really in circulation in the Ukrainian information space so we don’t draw unwarranted attention to them. 

TF: What tools do you use to check fakes?

KI: The first tool for every fact-checker is Google, particularly its advanced search. There’re a lot of old fakes in circulation now, and sometimes we can find that something had already been debunked before, even by our outlet sometimes. 

For media files, we always check metadata – both with basic computer tools (checking the file’s properties) and using special portals like FotoForensics, Jimpl and Metadata2Go

But there’s no universal recipe, often it’s learning on the go. Sometimes what it takes is to be attentive to the details. 

For example, we recently checked a fake video featuring swastika in a Kyiv shopping centre. It was fabricated masterfully, and its medata were in order, but basic attentiveness helped – the shadows were unnatural, proving that the video was doctored.

TF: What would your advice be for regular readers on how to check information effectively? 

KI: The first piece of advice is to limit your media consumption to a few trusted media outlets – not only will it limit your exposure to fakes, but it will also help to support your emotional well-being.

When you need to check a specific piece of dubious information, I would suggest the following algorithm:

  1. Ask yourself about the motivation of the people who spread this information – what are they likely trying to achieve? 
  2. Understanding an answer to the previous question, try using Google and other basic tools like checking metadata to check the information.
  3. If you can’t find anything, consider whether another person believing in this information even if it’s fake would really be that harmful. In some cases, the harm might be minimal and not worth your time spent trying to debunk it.

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