VANCOUVER: Olga Yurkova has spent years fighting fake news on the front line.
The Ukrainian journalist and colleagues weighed into the battle with a StopFake.org website after Russian soldiers entered Crimea undercover and their country appeared to become a testing lab for using bogus stories to manipulate public opinion.
“We needed to do something to respond to fakes, to explain what is true and what is false,” Yurkova said on Tuesday at the TED Conference, where she is among the speakers.
“There is this huge propaganda machine on the other side with money, professionals, and systems powering it, and volunteers on our side. But, we do what we can do.”
Among stories debunked by StopFake.org was a hotly spreading one about a child of a Russia supporter being crucified in a Ukranian city.
Not only was the inflammatory tale a lie, the square mentioned did not exist.
On Tuesday, the website that Yurkova took part in launching four years ago displayed unmasked bogus tales including a lie about a US senator saying sanctions against Russia don’t work.
StopFake.org boasted 53,400 fans on Facebook; 25,800 followers at Twitter, and more than 51,000 subscribers.
“Propaganda became a huge problem for Ukraine four years ago,” Yurkova said.
“When we told the world about this, nobody listened to us. Now, the whole world faces this problem.”
She believes fake news tactics refined in Ukraine have been aimed at the US, Europe, and elsewhere.
A longtime journalist, Yurkova was keenly aware of the need to earn people’s trust. With the spread of fake news, she saw people lose faith in media of all kinds, as well as in institutions.
The mission at StopFake.org was simple – take news and check it against the facts.
“With election meddling in the US and Russian troll farms, the world started to realize the scale of the problem,” Yurkova said.
“Do your research, don’t just believe, is the only way to stop this culture of fake news.”
Yurkova conceded that it may be futile trying to get truth to people seeking stories that confirm their biases, but saw hope in reaching those without entrenched opinions.
“We fight for the people in the middle in a polarised world,” Yurkova said.
“We spread the idea of checking facts.”
Among simple lessons she shared was that, unfortunately, truth tends to be boring while fake news veers toward dramatic and outrageously emotional ‘click-bait.’
Since fake news is manufactured, it can easily be packed with juicy details.
“The propaganda machine spreads trash; we try to wash it away.”
“It is a really huge machine. It is not just Russian state media, it is private Russian media; useful idiots in different countries who spread misinformation, and a lot of politicians.
While Facebook is the website’s main source of traffic, it could be time to find a new way for people to communicate given how the social network has been abused by purveyors of fake news, according to Yurkova.
“I can’t fix human nature,” she said. “The best advice I can give is that when you see something interesting, do something to check whether there is proof it is true. It takes just seconds to Google something.”
StopFake.org has at its website tools that can be used for checking the authenticity of headlines, photos, videos and news.
Since starting as an all volunteer operations, StopFake.org has won grants to help support a team of about 30 people.
“I think every country needs their own StopFake,” Yurkova said.