How Ukrainian journalists identify fake Russian media reports

June 2, 2015

Researchers say everyone now has to be more critical of news sources

OTTAWA, June 2, 2015 — A research project about a Ukrainian website that looks for fact distortion in Russian media highlights the ways in which the Internet allows groups or individuals to distort the truth. And in a world where more and more people get their information online, and where journalists are no longer the gatekeepers they once were, the project points to a bigger problem: How do you know what to believe?

Maria Haigh and Nadine Kozak have been studying, a Ukrainian website that was formed to analyze Russian media reports after the Russian invasion and annexation of Crimea last year. Haigh is an associate professor, and Kozak is an assistant professor. Both are with the School of Information Studies at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, and they are presenting their study at the 2015 Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences in Ottawa.

They explain that StopFake was formed by a small group of young Ukrainian journalists who were worried that Russian media were presenting a distorted image of the ongoing Russian-Ukrainian conflict that began with the invasion of Crimea.

Working on a volunteer basis, the young journalists began analyzing Russian reports in both traditional and social media about the conflict—essentially performing fact-checking using online tools to see whether something was true, false, or “embellished.” For example, if there are Russian news reports showing a photo of Ukrainian protesters wearing swastikas, the StopFake journalists are able to use online tools to analyze the photos to show whether the swastikas have been photo-shopped onto the protesters.

They also analyze social media to see whether the reports or comments are coming from real people. They have found, for example, that if the only activity in a Twitter account is to provide one or two comments on a particular issue, there’s a high probability the account is a fake. A real person’s account would show more activity and comments about a variety of issues over time.

Kozak says that the StopFake journalists are now turning their attention to training other people to spot fake news. Their website includes a section of how to spot fake photos and reports, and Kozak says they have begun holding workshops to spread the knowledge.

While their project is aimed specifically at reports in Russian media or reports about the Russo-Ukrainian conflict, the researchers say there is a lesson for journalists or anyone viewing any sort of news reports. Journalists now have to be more critical, says Kozak, adding that even respected media like the BBC have been taken in by fake media reports. “We have to think more deeply and more critically about the world,” she says.

Maria Haigh and Nadine Kozak will be presenting this research on June 4 at the 2015 Congress for the Humanities and Social Sciences in Ottawa. This presentation is called “The Social Study of Information Work: and Ukraine’s Online War with Russia” and will take place at 10:00 am on the University of Ottawa campus in the MRT building, room 205.

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