War in Ukraine: Ukrainian activists battle Russian disinformation and network control | International

The flying leaves and the fliers are scattered today through the screens. It is there, in cyberspace, where the war of information and propaganda is mainly elucidated. But not everything is cooked in impregnable maximum security centers in kyiv, Moscow, Brussels or Washington. From a tower of 25 heights in kyiv overlooking the disputed towns of the northwest, Oleksii Stanchevskii acts as a soldier in that battle while the detonations that come from the front line sound in the background.

The weapons of this journalist and community manager 28 years old are social networks, mainly Telegram and Viber. She is part of a dense network of activists scattered throughout Ukraine who try to keep safe the channels by which information reaches citizens. They are aware, however, that the flow of data they handle and the population to which they have access are also targets of the Russians.

“Of course, our position is pro-Ukraine. We cannot say that what we do is clearly journalism, but it is a job that we develop to defend ourselves, that is why we cannot give all the information that we have”, Stanchevskii clarifies. In other words, they avoid communicating the positions of the local troops, the exact places of the attacks, and they also stop the publication of images of the dead or very lurid ones that could undermine the morale of the citizens. “We want to give people hope and security and keep them away from gossip. We receive many videos or photos that we cannot publish”, acknowledges the activist without denying its veracity.

Aware of the importance of social networks and their ability to reach the very marrow of the society of the invaded country, the Russians also use them for their own benefit inside Ukraine. This has happened in enclaves that have fallen under their power, such as Berdiansk or Melitopol, in the south of the country, where they have managed to infiltrate, intoxicate and mislead the inhabitants through mobile phones to try to win them over, says Stanchevskii. “The Russians have a tactic. When they occupy a city they try to control the local infrastructure. They go to local journalists and, if they don’t collaborate, they get the passwords (of their social networks) and take control of the channels”, he explains.

Reporters Without Borders has denounced the kidnapping by the Russians of the father of the journalist Svitlana Zalizetska with the aim of exchanging him in exchange for obtaining control of the media outlet she directs, RIA-Melitopol. The 75-year-old man was finally released on Friday night and Zalizetska no longer controls the outlet she directed, according to Reporters Without Borders (RSF).

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In a Telegram channel called Berdyansk Tomorrow With some 6,000 followers, you can see the one who has emerged as the new authority of that city since it fell into the hands of the Russians, addressing the population as if he were some kind of mayor. This new authority launches messages in which it tries to convince residents that life in the city has returned to normal, as well as the reestablishment of emergency services. They also announce the launch of Russian-language radio and television channels, publications of casualties among the Ukrainian ranks on behalf of the Russian Ministry of Defense or messages against the government of the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, whom they brand as “fascist” and who they accuse of using the people as a human shield. They even broadcast videos with speeches by Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Unlike the group Berdyansk Tomorrowin that of Berdyansk Today, with 43,000 followers, warn about the sirens that alert about possible air attacks, about how to receive humanitarian aid, the operation of banks, evacuations, addresses of shops and businesses or the bus schedule. In short, “how to live”, Stanchevskii points out. Some of the Ukrainians consulted by EL PAÍS in these weeks of conflict recognize that the channels they access from their mobile phones are the main source of information and they end up making decisions about what they read on them on a daily basis. A woman from the Mikolaiv region said that she was evacuated to Lviv along with her children thanks to a list organized by local authorities through Telegram.

Stanchevskii does not have more material means than any other citizen to develop his activism. What’s more, this Saturday he doesn’t even have access to electricity or the internet at his house. But he is not discouraged. He and other activists had been preparing for months for what came upon them on February 24 with the Russian president’s order to open the box of thunder in the form of an invasion of the country. Among the reports he manages, he highlights Putin’s death that shows next to another, Ukraine’s territorial defense model, both published by the study center Ukrainian Institute for the Future. But community manager He recognizes that his work is now at street level, at the foot of Telegram. “We are committed to positive content so as not to make the population nervous. Every day at sunset we publish a joke or a meme to try to make people go to sleep in peace.

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