How Ukrainians are discerning fact from fiction in media

How Ukrainians are discerning fact from fiction in media

Jacob Jaffe

A person's hand holding a remote control in front of a TV
Photo by, CC BY 2.0

Propaganda is hardly new in Ukraine. Yet its scale and sophistication today subjects Ukrainians to unprecedented levels of misinformation at a critical time of conflict and economic crisis. Examples range from fabricated quotes, statistics, and photos to deliberately misleading headlines, captions, and data—all of which have been expertly documented by Ukrainian and European institutions. 

Oligarch-controlled outlets and pro-Kremlin sources produce the bulk of this misinformation, distorting the market so that independent media struggle to survive. Experts note that environments saturated with misinformation can have chilling effects on public trust, civic participation, and political polarization.

Most Ukrainians are aware that they lack reliable news and information. In a poll conducted by IREX, only 35% of those surveyed reported trusting the media—yet 74% still watch TV news every day, and 37% get their information online. The need for skills to detect propaganda and misinformation is acute, but few Ukrainians have them. In 2015, for example, only 23% of citizens reported that they sometimes cross-check news they consume.

Learning to detect propaganda and misinformation 

In response, IREX’s Citizen Media Literacy Project – Ukraine (CMLP) developed a customized skill-building and awareness-raising approach based on the principle, “It is not about what you read, but how you read it!” 

Rather than endorse specific sources as reliable, CMLP’s workshops and public information campaign focused on helping participants improve their critical thinking skills, assess their media consumption habits, and detect bias and manipulation.

More than 15,000 Ukrainians participated in the workshops, which took place in 14 oblasts. Participants learned to spot red flags such as use of hate speech and cross-check the information they consume against other sources.

It is so good that there is an initiative where people are heard.... which teaches [them] to work with facts and not with emotions.

A training participant 

“The methods employed in these sessions are not tied to a certain country and can be applied everywhere,” said a 30-year-old male emigrant participant. “Events like these encourage critical thinking about information. What was especially useful to me was discovering several online tools for checking the origins of photos in the news.”  

At each workshop, participants take an introspective look at their own information consumption habits and learn about the vulnerabilities stemming from them.  

“It is so good that there is an initiative where people are heard….which teaches [them] to work with facts and not with emotions,” said a training participant.

As one 38-year-old female participant explained, “My news consumption habits have changed after the [media literacy] training. Now I cross-check [news] through several sources.… I watch news on several TV channels and sometimes I see how differently they are presented. After the training, I trust messages I see on the internet and [on] Facebook less.”

Promoting informed media consumption 

The methods presented at the training sessions are easy to use and share. In fact, 91% of participants reported sharing their new knowledge and skills. They shared their knowledge and skills with an average of six friends, relatives, or colleagues, reaching 90,000 people. For those who could not attend a workshop, an online video game and distance learning course are available.

In addition to in-person and online training, IREX promoted thoughtful media consumption through a public service announcement (PSA) seen on TV and the internet by over 2.3 million Ukrainians in its first two weeks. The PSA also included a social media campaign, billboards, and posters at bus stops and metro stations in the 14 target oblasts. Over 50% of PSA viewers surveyed reported a personal need for skills to distinguish truthful reporting, suggesting unmet demand among at least 1 million Ukrainians.

The challenge to improve information and media literacy presents an opportunity for international collaboration and considerable innovation. The situation in Ukraine today is prompting regional activists, think tanks, and development organizations like IREX to develop new approaches and share lessons throughout Eastern Europe and beyond.

The Citizen Media Literacy Project (CMLP) was implemented by IREX in partnership with the Academy of Ukrainian Press and StopFake. The project was funded by the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade, and Development’s Stabilization and Reconstruction Task Force.