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'Rough Translation': What Americans Can Learn From Fake News In Ukraine


It's been only a few months since politicians started flinging around the term fake news in the U.S. But today, we go to another country that has been dealing with the phenomenon of fake news for years. Ukraine is where Russia tested and then rolled out fake news tactics - that is, pumping out propaganda and simultaneously working to undermine people's faith in a free press.

So what can Americans learn from Ukraine's experience? Gregory Warner went to find out. He's the host of our new podcast Rough Translation. It's a show that follows conversations we're having in the United States. And here's how they play out in some other corner of the world.

GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: I asked Ruslan Deynychenko - he's a journalist in Ukraine - what Americans could learn from Ukraine's battle with fake news.

RUSLAN DEYNYCHENKO: The very first lesson - do not ignore this problem because it allowed Russian media to influence local people to kill each other.

WARNER: The story of that civil war begins in 2014 after a pro-democracy revolution in the capital, Kiev.


WARNER: Protesters demanded that the government take steps to join Europe and become less dependent on its eastern neighbor, Russia. And when this protest succeeded, and the pro-Russian president fled, Russia fought back with news.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (Speaking Russian).

WARNER: Ruslan would turn on his TV to these Russian channels that millions of Ukrainians were watching at the time. And he'd hear warnings about neo-Nazi fascists roaming the streets.

DEYNYCHENKO: People saw on TV that they're in danger, and they need to protect their families. They need to protect themselves from fascists in Kiev. But they were no fascists here.

WARNER: Ruslan could look out his window and see the streets were peaceful. Barricades on the square in Kiev were now covered with fresh flowers. But Ukrainians who were not in the capital at the time got scared. In parts of Ukraine, people rose up against the post-revolutionary government. Quoting the Russian news stories about fascists, they begged Russian troops to save them. So Ruslan conceived a plan to fight back. He and some other journalists got together to publicly debunk these fake stories, which, at the time, felt really scary.

MARGO GONTAR: To me, it actually meant that I'm kind of putting my life on the line.

WARNER: Margo Gontar was tapped to host a show that would debunk fake news. And she knew it would be her face on the screen that any Kremlin agents might take note of.

GONTAR: Yeah. I got my knees shaking. I got my knees shaking for half an hour.

WARNER: What did you tell yourself before you went on the first time?

GONTAR: I'm doing this because I think this is what should be done.


GONTAR: (Speaking in Russian).

WARNER: The show is called StopFake. This was years before Americans were using the term fake news. It's a roundup of all the false stories you might have missed that week.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Welcome to StopFake.

WARNER: There's also an English version of the broadcast for foreign audiences.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: And I'll be helping you to tread through this week's load of informational mendacity.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: Ukraine is poised to enact a new language law which will ban Russian.

WARNER: And you can hear that many of the stories...


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Only Ukrainian.

WARNER: ...Are about Russian speakers being persecuted in Ukraine.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Because of pending legislation on the Ukrainian language.

WARNER: To understand what was going on here, it helps to think of Ukraine is kind of two Ukraines, east and west. So the east borders Russia. It's got more Russian speakers, while the west borders Europe. It has more Ukrainian speakers. Ruslan says it was easy for Russian news to insert itself into this divide.

DEYNYCHENKO: They want one part of the country - Russian-speaking - to hate another part of the country - Ukrainian-speaking.

WARNER: Now, at first, StopFake was a success beyond what Ruslan and Margo had even imagined. The debunked stories - they were a hit on social media. Other news outlets in Ukraine picked up their stories. And more than that, the StopFake crew of volunteers - they felt like they were winning the war, a war for truth. And then the real war came. In Eastern Ukraine, separatists rose up to reject the government in Kiev, and they got help from Russia. And as Ruslan watched this real war splitting his country...

DEYNYCHENKO: Bam, it was (laughter) kind of this thunder strike to my head.

WARNER: He thought back to this one little story that he debunked months before. It said that thousands of Ukrainians had fled across the border to Russia.

DEYNYCHENKO: Yeah. So I called federal immigration service of Russia.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: (Speaking Russian).

WARNER: He taped the phone call for StopFake.

DEYNYCHENKO: And asked the person from federal immigration service if it's true or not.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: (Speaking Russian).

WARNER: Was it true that even though Ukraine was peaceful at that time, thousands of people in the east were abandoning their homes for refugee status in Russia?

DEYNYCHENKO: She told me, no, this is not true. We have just several phone calls. And, yeah, we have nothing unusual.

WARNER: Thousands of Ukrainians were not fleeing to Russia because why would they? Ukraine was not at war.

DEYNYCHENKO: But she told me that we have received an order from Moscow to prepare places for refugees. So there were no refugees. But they were starting preparation process for refugees.

WARNER: Ruslan had thought that the news wasn't true. Actually, it just wasn't true yet.

DEYNYCHENKO: Yes, sometimes, they're just preparing you for events that still have not happened.

WARNER: Up until then, he'd known that fake news could inspire fear and distrust. He'd seen that. But now it seemed to him to plant ideas in people's heads. Fake news today could become tomorrow's reality. And so now if you drive out to the frontlines of the war in Eastern Ukraine, you see a place that this fake news phenomenon can lead. Journalists are seen as the instruments of war.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (Speaking Russian).

WARNER: some people even waved me away as I introduced myself as a journalist with my interpreter. They're saying, fellas, please don't come to this spot.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: (Through interpreter) When you arrive, we are starting to being shelled.

WARNER: When journalists arrive, that's when the shells fall, they say. Though when they find out I'm American, they relax a bit. They tell me it's Ukrainian journalists they're really worried about. Well, back in the capital, Kiev, Ruslan blames the Russian journalists for bringing the war. In other words, depending on which side's media you believe, you think the other side's journalists are going to bring you harm.

ANTON SKYBA: Everybody, like, strongly believes here.

WARNER: My interpreter Anton Skyba told me that every town he goes to on the frontlines...

SKYBA: Everybody's saying, oh, you're journalists. Oh, we will be attacked because you - when journalists arrive, the war starts.

WARNER: When journalists arrive, the war starts. Three years since Ukraine began its fight with fake news, the country's real divisions are as bitter as ever. And the one institution that might've been seen as the go-between, the press, reporting one side to the other - they're not seen as reporting a war. They're seen as helping to wage it.


CHANG: That's Gregory Warner, host of NPR's new international podcast, Rough Translation. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Gregory Warner is the host of NPR's Rough Translation, a podcast about how things we're talking about in the United States are being talked about in some other part of the world. Whether interviewing a Ukrainian debunker of Russian fake news, a Japanese apology broker navigating different cultural meanings of the word "sorry," or a German dating coach helping a Syrian refugee find love, Warner's storytelling approach takes us out of our echo chambers and leads us to question the way we talk about the world. Rough Translation has received the Lowell Thomas Award from the Overseas Press Club and a Scripps Howard Award.