Ukrainian TV show debunks false news and entertains

Ms Cynthia Sularz, the host of a weekly English-language version of StopFake News getting ready for a broadcast in Kiev, Ukraine. The show positions itself as serious public service journalism, identifying fake news and debunking it on the air. It wa
Ms Cynthia Sularz, the host of a weekly English-language version of StopFake News getting ready for a broadcast in Kiev, Ukraine. The show positions itself as serious public service journalism, identifying fake news and debunking it on the air. It was started in March 2014 to heighten public awareness of Russian misinformation at the peak of the Ukraine crisis.PHOTO: NYTIMES

StopFake News started in 2014, long before issue became serious in US, Western Europe

KIEV (Ukraine) • The studio lights dim, and the anchor taps a stack of papers on her desk and directs a steely gaze at the TV cameras.

What appears to be a nightly newscast is about to begin, only with a very Ukrainian twist: Everything is a lie, from start to finish.

"Welcome to StopFake, the place where we set the record straight on fakes about Ukraine," the anchor, Ms Margo Gontar, intones.

If fact-checkers cannot prove that a story published or broadcast by another news media outlet is false, it will not be featured in the weekly airing of StopFake News.

"We discuss the stories, and if an editor says, 'Can we disprove this? Is this a lie?' then, yes, we can use it," Ms Gontar said of the editorial process. "It is investigative journalism, with a twist."

The journalism department at the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy oversees the programme and provides the television studio. The show airs on about 30 Ukrainian TV stations.

StopFake News positions itself as serious public service journalism, identifying fake news and debunking it on the air. That is because Kiev, with its running battle with Moscow, was plagued by fake news long before concern over the problem hit Western Europe and the United States.

During the Ukraine crisis in 2014, manipulative and often outright invented news poured in from Russia on satellite TV, websites and in sympathetic local newspapers.

Recurring themes emerged, becoming the talk around Kiev: An Islamic State in Iraq and Syria training camp had opened in Ukraine; President Petro Poroshenko was a drunk; nationalists had taken to lynching; or, in one infamous case, a report by Russia's state-owned Channel 1 in 2014 claiming Ukrainian nationalists were crucifying Russian-speaking children.

Ukraine banned some Russian TV broadcasts, a practice that raised free speech objections, and yet the fake news still circulates online. StopFake News has chosen public debunking, not banning, as the best defence.

StopFake, which is also the name of the organisation that founded the newscast, began its work nearly three years before a report by American intelligence agencies into Russian meddling in last year's US presidential election.

And it predated by a year the European Union's establishment of a department to identify and call out fake news from Russia. What began as a volunteer-run website grew into a news organisation with 26 paid employees and researchers in several European countries and the US, funded by grants.

Ukraine has become a testing ground "for a lot of Russia's evil strategies", says the Deputy Speaker of Parliament Oksana Syroyid.

Lest something true accidentally damages the group's credibility, a team of editors and fact-checkers combs through all potential stories.

StopFake News is a peculiar kind of news. For three years, its headlines have declared what did not happen and what was not said, and the heroism or villainy of people who never existed.

Journalism professor Yevhen Fedchenko of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy helped start StopFake in March 2014 to heighten public awareness of Russian misinformation at the peak of the Ukraine crisis.

The group reported some of the biggest non-stories of that war. "The more outrageous it is, the more likely it is to be on the programme," said Ms Gontar. Though the stories are "patently absurd," she said, she plays it straight on air.

In story after story - more than 1,000 so far - the journalists have since revealed laws that were never passed, insults never uttered and riots that never happened. "The exclusive interview that wasn't," reads one headline.

Ms Gontar wraps up her programme with a promise of more to come: "We will keep following the propaganda and catch the lies," she says. "See you next week."

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 28, 2017, with the headline 'Ukrainian TV show debunks false news and entertains'. Print Edition | Subscribe