Ukrainians’ self-defense against disinformation: What we learned from Learn to Discern

Ukrainians’ self-defense against disinformation: What we learned from Learn to Discern

Tara Susman-Peña and Katya Vogt


What we learned from Learn to Discern

IREX recently conducted a pilot media literacy project in Ukraine called Learn to Discern. The goal was to equip Ukrainian citizens to both identify misinformation and demand better quality information. Results from the evaluation were extremely promising: people became more skillful in separating fact from fiction, and they shared what they learned with their family and friends.

A year after the program ended, we followed up with participants and learned more about why the program succeeded. There were several key ingredients that made the program so effective:

  • The program taught critical thinking skills rather than dictating what to consume.
  • The initiative leveraged the power of trust and peer learning.
  • The curriculum was practical and flexible, which empowered the trainers.
  • The approach leveraged people’s personal motivation to learn—especially because the material was immediately relevant to their lives.
  • The program triggered a personally transformative experience that moved people to action.

The human impact of disinformation in Ukraine

Since late 2013, a sharp increase in Kremlin disinformation and propaganda has threatened to upend democratic progress and political stability in Ukraine. The strategy of "hybrid warfare" deployed abundant, compelling messaging to stir up fear of being made second-class citizens amongst residents of Crimea to pave the way for illegal Russian annexation of the peninsula and the occupation of parts of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts. Since then, Ukrainians live in a propaganda-filled environment where half-truths and “alternative facts” play on fears, confusion, national identities, and patriotic feelings.

These tactics have "[created] uncertainty, confusion, and ultimately a doubt whether any source can be trusted without personal experience." The disinformation problem is exacerbated by structural weaknesses in Ukraine’s media sector. Media ownership drives editorial policies, and major channels are owned by oligarchs and political elites with business ties in Russia. Thus, most broadcast media skews reporting to protect economic and political interests, and employs a manipulative framing of disputes as “patriotic” versus “objective” reporting. Citizens’ perceptions and opinions are shaped as they try to navigate a disorienting information deluge colored by influences from the Kremlin, Ukraine’s political parties, and oligarch-controlled media that drown out independent and objective voices.

Against this backdrop, Ukrainians remain poorly informed and confused about crucial governance reforms; many are becoming increasingly cynical and apathetic about the country’s future. While barely one in four Ukrainians trust the media, media consumption and its influence on Ukrainians remains high.  Yet even cross-checking news sources to verify them—the most basic form of media literacy—is not standard behavior, and about half of the population never cross-checks the news they consume.  

The Ukrainian government has recognized the problem, but its mitigation attempts have focused on supply-side disciplinary measures: expelling dozens of Russian journalists and revoking the accreditation of over 100 media outlets between 2014 and 2015, banning Russian channels such as Dozhd’ from TV cable packages, as well as the most recent and controversial blocking of Russian social media and internet resources in May 2017. 

Working with the demand-side to build resilience

In this context, IREX designed and implemented Learn to Discern (L2D) as the demand-side response to the problem of manipulative information. We believe that it is an essential companion to supply-side solutions such as alternative content production and support of independent, ethical, and truthful journalism. Citizens must be able to separate fact from fiction and recognize manipulation and hate speech, and they must demand and seek out independent, fact-based journalism.

From October 2015 through March 2016, IREX implemented L2D, a media and information literacy pilot, with funding from the Canadian government and in partnership with local organizations Academy of Ukrainian Press and StopFake. Through intense skill-building seminars, L2D reached more than 15,000 people of all ages and professional backgrounds. Remarkably, L2D also reached more than 90,000 people indirectly: direct participants shared what they learned with family, coworkers, and peers. Accompanying public service announcements and billboard messages alerting Ukrainian citizens to the danger of fake news reached an estimated 2.5 million people.  

Project evaluation found that L2D resulted in two major achievements:

  1. Enhanced citizen capacity to discern the reliability of news sources and their content (in other words, media literacy): an observed 24% increase in participants’ ability to distinguish trustworthy news from fake news, a 22% increase in those who cross-check the information in the news they consume, and a 26% increase in participants' confidence in analyzing news.
  2. Increased demand for truthful reporting: 54% of those who viewed the information campaign reported a need for skills on how to discern untruthful reporting, representing more than 1 million Ukrainians. 

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A year later, demand for L2D continues

One year after L2D concluded, IREX conducted new research with the L2D staff and some trainers to see whether there had been any long-term effects. We learned that the project’s positive impact continues to grow, and we gained some insight into why L2D was so powerful. (Hint: it goes far deeper than fact-checking.)

Demand-driven momentum continues: During the program, IREX encouraged and empowered participants to share critical information consumption skills with others because sharing helps reinforce knowledge and because there was further demand. An exit survey of the L2D citizen trainers in 2016 found that at least 174 of them intended to pass on the skills even after the end of the project. What we found is that, in fact, trainers have continued to train others after L2D ended. As one of them observed, “People who ‘got infected’ with media literacy—kept going,” both with their own skill building and in sharing what they learned with those who heard about the project but were unable to participate due to timing and geographic limitations. A recent spot-check in Kharkiv revealed several examples of such initiatives:

  • A training for teachers at Kharkiv region boarding schools
  • A local roundtable on propaganda and media literacy
  • An academic course based on L2D methodology planned for 2018 at Kharkiv National University of Economics, where IREX’s focus group was welcomed and where faculty and students stopped by to ask about the timing of the next training

In addition, IREX received reports from some librarians who were engaged as L2D trainers that they use the materials in their work “all the time” to educate their patrons. Several trainers also reported receiving small grants to continue using L2D materials and train more people. 

What worked 

  • Instructors enjoyed teaching the user-centered, practical curriculum. The L2D package was designed with the trainers and audience in mind, and the trainers have perceived and appreciated that. Each skill-building module, from fact-checking to hate speech, was presented in practical, intelligible terms. Reflecting during a focus group, one trainer, a librarian, said, “It’s not just my opinion, but my colleagues also say, it was one of the best training packages I’ve ever seen—practical, presented step by step.” The curriculum also has built-in flexibility, which empowered each trainer to tailor each training to the individual set of trainees and length of time available. This flexibility and practicality helped trainers take ownership of the training materials and empowered them to continue training after the project ended. 
  • Personal motivation drove participants to trainings; an engaging environment drew them in. Most of the participants of the Kharkiv focus groups emphasized that personal motivation was a primary factor for attendance of L2D workshops. But nurturing that motivation required going beyond previous approaches to training. After two decades of bilateral aid in Ukraine, “People are sick of training, of lectures, of boring stuff, and being told what to do,” so L2D skill-building embodied interactivity and made sure that the process would be fun. The program deeply invested in making sure that everything that went into the curriculum was clearly relevant, easily applicable, and empowering to Ukrainians. L2D trainers reported observing “delight” and “enjoyment.” Trainees were seen as “interested,” “motivated,” and “activated.” 
  • Emphasis on building skills for how to consume, not dictating what to consume. In designing the L2D curriculum and materials, IREX and partners drew upon literature related to media literacy and understanding propaganda, with a relentless focus on what would work best in Ukraine. Teaching critical thinking and presenting neutral examples were the keystones: the project gained citizens’ support and trust by ensuring that it did not tell people what news to consume; rather it instilled in them the skills to select and assess content from any source on their own. This approach is truly empowering and respectful of trainees, putting all actions and assessment in their own hands. It is also in line with the most forward-thinking literature on the topic: "It is better to change people’s thinking habits than to overload them with information. At its heart, Media Literacy is about asking questions of media—critical thinking—and that is a habit of mind as much as a framework of knowledge."  
  • Training was immediately relevant to people’s everyday experience. The L2D methodology encouraged people to relate what they were learning to their own lives. L2D methodology included self-analysis and reflection on personal information habits. This helped Ukrainians both build critical thinking skills and become aware of the amount and type of media they consume. One trainee recounted, “I didn’t realize how much time I spend on media—I have TV switched on all day, for example, while cooking. I didn’t even notice I’m consuming it. I have an opinion formed, but I didn’t realize that it’s TV that’s forming it.” L2D methods also endowed trainees with the ability to take a step back and notice when they are having an emotional reaction to news and recognize this as a manipulative tactic. 
  • Participants described their experience as though a fog was lifting. L2D often triggered an experience of personal transformation, as the methodology in essence coached people to identify, analyze, and understand aspects of themselves and how they see the world—perspectives that were previously hidden from their own view. Of course, many participants were aware of propaganda, but up until the training, they did not have the tools to defuse it. When asked how they could be sure that a trainee really understood the purpose of media literacy, most trainers’ descriptions evoked a fog lifting and a new perspective dawning. They reported looks of “surprise,” “amazement,” “shock.” They said, “Their eyes light up,” “Their facial expressions changed.” Trainers recalled powerful reactions such as: “Wow! I never knew!” A pensioner admitted, “Can you imagine all of my life I believed in this?” I never realized that these things might not be true.”  
  • Trainees were moved to take action. The realization of how propaganda affects their perceptions and lives led to a kind of shock and then, for many, very active engagement. “The most significant change is the observable transformation in participants: from cautious interest to a feeling of surprise to active involvement and personal discoveries. It is truly inspiring!” New motivation inspired people to interact with others after the trainings on relevant topics. Trainers said that “participants developed this desire to pass [along] the knowledge they received.” Some became very proactive: “After the training, some participants willingly started to share debunked and fake news that they have found, they act as 'experts' for their relatives and friends, while watching TV news.” 


  • Beyond a pilot project, a stronger long-term plan for continuing the work is needed. L2D had impressive reach, but further work is needed. How best can IREX follow and support the ripple effects that were created?
  • For future development of L2D, ensure that IREX is not just creating skeptics. People need to be able to verify information and detect bad information, while still identifying and trusting good (even if not perfect) information. More monitoring is necessary to ensure that L2D does not contribute to the Kremlin goal of increasing mistrust in all information.  
  • More investment is needed in developing how best to inspire demand for good information. Emphasis was put on identifying and decoding unreliable information, with good reason. A more articulated approach to showing people the positive impact of having access to fact-based information, as well as a better understanding of how demand for it can be cultivated, as well as yielding a robust response to that demand, are all important.

L2D trainers continue on their own momentum 

Even though it was a nine-month pilot, L2D had striking results that continue reverberating to this day. It was highlighted as a recommended “strategic response” to Russia’s information war in the recent report Defending and Ultimately Defeating Russia’s Disinformation Techniques published by the Center for European Policy Analysis and the Legatum Institute, noting that IREX “has broken new ground” with this approach to helping citizens detect and decode misinformation and disinformation in Ukraine. The approach was also mentioned as one of the effective responses to Kremlin influence in Ukraine in the recently published Kremlin Influence Index 2017. Today the L2D curriculum, materials, and a motivated network of trainers stand ready to help Ukraine reach a tipping point in how its citizens defend themselves and their country against disinformation and propaganda and contribute to local and regional stability and resilience.

L2D is a vital part of IREX's new approach for promoting vibrant information and media systems.