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An Interview with Valerie Kovtun

"Be careful what information you consume when it comes to war, and just check twice before believing it and sharing it."

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Image Credit: Juan Antonio Segal

Following an event with the University of York Politics Department, Nouse spoke to Ukrainian journalist Valerie Kovtun about her experience fighting in the war on misinformation about the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

After working in the U.K. for the BBC, Kovtun took on the challenge of designing a new national media literacy project in Ukraine. She took on the role after wanting to “launch something from scratch, which is meaningful and which is less bureaucratic”. Working for the Ministry of Culture and Information Policy in Ukraine, Kovtun worked on presenting media literacy as an issue of national interest, constructing a brand, logo and name that appealed to a wide demographic.

When asked about the name of the brand and the intention behind it, Kovtun explained the name as in fact a simple idea: “we even used the word filter because after a focus group we realised that this was the word that people used most frequently when referring to fakes and disinformation, so this sounds more familiar to them.” Understanding the task of establishing a brand new national project, Kovtun said that the understanding behind it was that there was a need “to be more humane, and talk to people in their language.”

Kovtun said the Filter project was going well, engaging with further government ministries as well as working with the British government and UNICEF. The project has also hosted exhibitions and moving interactive experiences like their “mass misinformation media maze”, prior to the Russian invasion.

The invasion meant a change for Filter as Kovtun stated that “we had to completely change our strategy a bit as everything had to move online, we were not able to hold all these creative offline events anymore”, including taking advantage of social media like TikTok and LinkedIn as Filter worked to “distil hoax news from reality, from entertainment.”

While misinformation has been particularly prevalent during the invasion, Kovtun advised that it has always been an issue, adding that Russian narratives have been circulating in the region since the era of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) - including the common “brotherhood narrative.” Kovtun explained that this well known narrative “blurs the cultural differences, trying to emphasise there is no separate nation as Ukraine, trying to make Ukrainians believe that Russians are their brothers who want only the best, want to protect Ukraine- and that worked quite well.  Even Macron repeated this narrative recently, [13 April 2022] he said “how can Russia attack Ukraine, they are brothers” which was quite offensive to Ukrainians.”

When Russia started to attack Ukrainian territory in 2014, Kovtun advised that “everyone started shifting to another narrative, realising that the brother doesn’t treat you that way. But still there are some people who still believe there is one nation, we shouldn’t even be fighting, and we should just agree on Russia’s conditions, things like that.”

Kovtun explained that there is more than just one narrative, with one being focused on abandonment of Ukraine: “Before the war they [Russia] were always telling Ukraine that the West doesn’t need you and you are a failed state, and NATO will not support you, so kind of trying to instil disbelief in the Western partners saying only Russia takes care of you. During the war, they have done a similar thing, saying that Ukraine abandoned you to those occupied territories. For example, Kherson, one of the largest cities which is under occupation now, they cut all the communications there and spread messages that Ukraine and political leadership abandoned you and Russia is coming to help and protect you.”

Understanding the artificial divisions which have been created in Ukraine through misinformation is vital to understanding the invasion, as well as Russian narratives of current events. Kovtun noted that the Western media has also taken to narratives constructed- particularly one which divides the East and West of Ukraine based on language as “in the West, Ukrainian language dominates and, in the East, Russian language dominates and they kind of artificially divided the country into two parts.”

When asked about the role of social media in both the construction and demolition of misinformation and these narratives, Kovtun said that she recognized the challenges social media posed to those trying to tackle misinformation, explaining that “when the war started, everyone started sharing videos of the war in Ukraine, which was for some people the first source of information. Surprisingly, many of those videos are fake. Well, not fake, but they were presenting Ukraine but using the videos from Lebanon or from other countries, or from 2014 in Ukraine and saying this is what is happening in Ukraine now.”

She noted that challenges lie with popular social media giants such as TikTok, where is its difficult not only to verify who is posting, but also that while “TikTok are also claiming that they are very much against misinformation, and they launch many campaigns to support media literacy campaigns around the world but at the same time if there is disinformation or a fake video and users complain, they doesn’t always remove it-  because it’s business and they know that the more viral it gets, the better it is for them. Usually, fake videos are super emotional so they are getting viral and they get double.”

While Kovtun recognises these challenges social media poses to accurate reporting and news, she noted that social media can be a useful tool in the fight against misinformation. Kovtun said, “At the same time [as perpetuating misinformation], TikTok is quite an interesting tool for getting new audiences for us, and to teach these audiences. I remember that there was a discussion that young people are not interested in the news which is not true, they are very interested and they want to learn something, they just don’t want to watch stupid videos only, they want to get some information and know something which will benefit them in the future. So as I said, we can see that our explainers are getting much more viral than some of our fun videos, for now it works quite well and I am quite happy with this experiment.”

While TikTok is one strand of the work Filter is currently undertaking online, Kovtun also said she is “working with Ukrainian audiences by providing them with recommendations about

how to work with information at the time of war, providing recommendations to journalists on how to report on the war, being in Ukraine” as well as hosting ‘express lessons’ online, understanding that “people cannot really waste time now sitting in bomb shelters and don’t feel like studying much, but we call them ‘express lessons’, where we provide people with practical tools on how to do factchecking themselves.”

In her line of work, it is not impossible to think that Kovtun would be the focus of threats. When asked, Kovtun explained that while she did not personally face any threats, she made her profiles private while in the region and removed all social media from her phone as she left after reports that Russian checkpoints were checking phones, explaining that she “felt that it is better to take some precautions, so I just did that, now I don’t receive any threats or anything” however noted that organisations she works in collaboration with have received threats of hacking if they continue to post ‘fake news’.

While misinformation is dominant on social media, Kovtun can see a change on the horizon, and she takes pride in providing an alternative opinion on news reporting. Kovtun explained that “I am always trying to raise the question of: ‘is it worse to show Lavrov and all the other propaganda on air?’ and at least, I provide them with another opinion on that. They are always sure that it is good to be balanced on that and provide information from both sides, but if one side is a total liar do we really want to provide a platform?”

And there is more we can do, as students, to push back against the tide of misinformation. When asked, Kovtun urged people to “be critical yourself, I know we can be tempted to share something when we first rely on our emotions” however often sharing information can cause continued issues for those who are fact checking. While she thinks this is less of a concern in Western universities which are focused on developing critical thinking, Kovtun advised people to be responsible with what we share “especially when it comes to human lives and someone’s security because sometimes, as we have realised in this war, sharing something can cost your life. Not verifying something can cost your life.”

When pressed about advice for the general public, Kovtun simply said “just be careful what information you consume when it comes to war, and just check twice before believing it and sharing it.”

Editor's Note: This interview was conducted on Wednesday 4 May 2022.

Official, Filter approved, news regarding the Russian Invasion of Ukraine can be found on theKyiv Independent,Pravda,UkrinformandThe New Voice of Ukraine.

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