WASHINGTON – In the age of social media, consumers around the globe struggle with the challenge of determining the credibility of posts in their online newsfeeds. What sources can individuals trust? How do they know if a news story that someone shared on Facebook or Twitter is factual, fair and balanced? For Ukrainians, the problem has been particularly acute as they have been the target of intense and unrelenting Russian disinformation campaigns for years. Besides this external malign activity, Ukraine has no shortage of media products – be they traditional or digital – that fall short when it comes to adherence to journalistic standards. So, what’s a media consumer to do?
In an effort to help Ukrainian citizens become more critically-minded consumers of media, the Ministry of Culture and Information Policy of Ukraine launched a project in 2021 on media literacy called Filter.
In an interview with The Ukrainian Weekly, Valeria Kovtun, who heads the project, described some approaches the project uses to identify questionable reports and recognize telltale signs that a story Zelenskyy tours Kherson, as Ukrainian military points to signs of Russian ‘exhaustion’ in Bakhm Courtesy Valeria Kovtun might be fake.
First, if a post is very emotional, if it uses all capital letters and lots of exclamation points, that should immediately make the reader suspicious about the credibility of the information presented in the report, Ms. Kovtun said.
Second, if a photo accompanying the story is of poor quality, that should also call into question the story’s validity, she said.
A third sign of likely disinformation is a story that present statements without attribution, Ms. Kovtun said, adding that sources of information must be identified in the report. A fourth issue deals with experts. Do interviewees who are quoted have the expertise and background to authoritatively comment on the subject matter of the story? For example, at the height of the COVID19 pandemic, many “experts” gave advice or spoke on the topic, even though they had no medical background.
And today, many people continue making predictions about Russia’s full-scale war, though they have no experience in military or security affairs.
Ms. Kovtun emphasized that the Filter media literacy project is not just about helping people become more discerning consumers of media. Anyone who posts or shares on social media is de facto a content creator or disseminator. As a result, the project also increasingly tries to raise people’s awareness about their role as citizen journalists.
“It is not just about critical consumption of content,” said Ms. Kovtun. “It’s also about responsible creation and dissemination, especially in a time of war when … everyone has started to very actively post, to report more about what is happening on the ground.”
She said that there is a growing recognition among Ukrainians that they need to share information “effectively and not spread panic … because in a time of war they understand that knowing how to filter information is a question of their physical safety, especially when people are surrounded or there are Russian checkpoints.”
Disseminating inaccurate information in wartime could cost someone their life. Therefore, “we teach people not only to recognize fakes, but [we]also [teach people]how to be effective communicators,” and how not to “unintentionally become a spreader of fakes and a spreader of disinformation,” Ms. Kovtun said.
Regarding the Filter website, Ms. Kovtun described it as a comprehensive aggregator of resources relating to media literacy. It includes manuals, booklets, lessons, videos and games for schoolchildren, teachers, university students and parents. The website includes a page that provides links to verified official government websites and credible regional media outlets throughout Ukraine. And it includes a section devoted to analyzing and debunking past and current disinformation and myths, including articles on how Russian war-time propaganda works and how Soviet authorities manipulated the biographies of important Ukrainian cultural figures.
A media literacy dictionary on the site provides Ukrainian-language definitions for social and online media terminology, such as cookies, clickbait, information bubble, cyberbullying, trolling, influencer and digital fingerprints. The site also offers advice on how to engage with foreign media and with people who have been impacted by harmful propaganda.
Ms. Kovtun also spoke enthusiastically about Filter’s national reporter contest for best video story or audio podcast created by high school students in grades 9 through 11. Students produced reports on one of three themes: Ukrainian culture, how the war impacted their community and Euro-integration on a personal level.
Nearly 500 students participated in the contest. They received feedback from journalists, discussed journalistic standards and they learned how to improve their media literacy skills and assess the quality and content of a report. In a promotional video, a 15-year-old student from Irpin, Ukraine, who was one of the winners of the competition, said she learned how to comprehensively report on a topic by using the project’s resources.
Ms. Kovtun noted that the young participants soon came to appreciate that “a TV story is not a blog; you need to reach out to experts; you need to do research and verify information.”
But what impressed her most was that, after completion of the training and story production, many of
the students remained engaged with the project.
“It’s very inspiring and it created a community,” she said, “because afterwards we had nearly 100 active students from schools all across Ukraine who continued to communicate with us and during the war would send us reports from many parts of Ukraine. It was very moving because they were like true journalists in the field. And so, thanks to this competition we were able to create this network.”
Ms. Kovtun is a native of Romny, a small city in the Sumy region of Ukraine. She is a graduate of Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv and the London School of Economics and has worked as a journalist in the Ukrainian capital and with the BBC in England. Although she deals with some of the top experts and practitioners in the field of media literacy, she said that her approach to combatting disinformation is also informed by the concerns and needs of people in her hometown.