Disinformation

Ukrainian and Russian journalists vie to tell the Trump impeachment story

As President Trump’s impeachment inquiry continues, Ukraine has been thrown into the international spotlight. Timing is everything: the country is also embroiled in debate about Ukrainian President Zelensky’s attempts to restore peace in eastern Ukraine. Which means US journalists are scrambling to ‘explain Ukraine’ to their audiences. And debate is raging over how this should be handled. Who gets to control the country’s narrative? Quick breakdowns of Ukraine often convey it as overflowing with corruption, and remind the reader not to use the prefix “The” when describing the country. “I’m getting tired of hearing about how “corrupt” Ukraine is,” Anne Applebaum tweeted on Thursday. “You know which country is corrupt? The United States.” Ukrainian journalist Maksym Eristavi then fired off a frustrated Twitter outburst after Rachel Maddow broke down the Ukraine peace talks for viewers in a segment, concluding that Ukraine was about to settle the war on Putin’s terms. “That’s exactly the kind of misleading conclusions you arrive at if you don’t rely on native Ukrainian perspectives,” Eristavi tweeted.

I spoke to him about it a few hours later. He describes how his attitude towards this kind of commentary has changed over the years: “When I started out it was a constant frustration point, and now I accept it as a culture,” he said, describing how he does his best to amplify Ukrainian voices in the debate whenever he can. “I try to do my part in breaking some of the myths,” he told me.

Others point out — that’s how it works. Fact-based analysis isn’t a myth because it may run counter to a Ukrainian perspective. American journalists’ job is to help their audience understand complex foreign issues in, crucially, an American context. After all, the impeachment story is an American tale for an American audience, with Zelensky playing Puck to Trump’s Oberon, and the Ukraine war news acting as the play-within-a-play.

But let’s look at this from a different angle: what role does Russia have in all of this? Coda Story’s Katia Patin gave us a rundown of how Russian state media has jumped on the impeachment story, using it as ammunition to create a chasm between Ukraine and Western alliances. Ukrainians are being strongarmed into existing in an “American protectorate,” claims Kremlin-backed TV channel Rossiya-24. “If you follow the main programs on Rossiya-24, you’ll see that what they say is that Ukraine is like a puppet state which can be shuffled around,” Chatham House’s Orysia Lutsevych told Patin on Thursday.

Happy Birthday, People’s Republic of China. If you watched Beijing’s opulent celebrations, be sure to also have a read of our recent China coverage, which we pulled together in this anniversary thread

On another corner of the internet, scientists and academics were debating the ethics of a new paper by Beijing researchers, two of whom from Microsoft. The paper puts forward a machine learning system that could potentially create armies of fake commenters. The “commenter” bots would “read” news articles and generate an opinion on them – automatically. “It is of great interest to build an automatic news commenting system with data-driven approaches,” the paper says in its introduction, without any ethical considerations for what that might mean, including its lucrative potential for spawning trolling and disinformation.

In other China news, I want to draw your attention to an epic piece of journalism. Reporter Ben Mauk spent the past year intensively covering the experience of Uyghurs in Xinjiang, China’s 21st century police state, and published this gargantuan oral history in The Believer magazine this week. It’s a project that upholds a lot of the aims we share here at Coda: deep-dive storytelling which puts extraordinary voices of ordinary people front and center. I spoke to Mauk on Thursday, who said he sees the project as a counterpoint to Communist Party disinformation about Xinjiang, and a way to address their vice-like control on truth. “The region has become a black box, with little reliable news getting in or out except through extraordinary channels,” Mauk writes in his Believer introduction. Mauk described his reporting as a response to the Potemkin village-style information offensive perpetrated by the Chinese government. Publishing individual stories, he said, is not enough. “Party officials will only dismiss that person as an outlier, a liar,” he explained. The solution? Publish a lot of testimonies; a body of evidence so large, it’s hard to refute. Hence the astonishing length of his project – some 24,000 words. I urge you to read it – make a cup of tea, or several, and settle in. Mauk’s deft handling of his subject’s words is quite unlike any other reporting I’ve read on Xinjiang. 

In Coda Story this week I recommend diving into Anna Myroniuk’s dispatch. Her piece looks at how the Kremlin-backed and so-called Donetsk People’s Republic in the east of Ukraine has built up its claim to statehood — by opening up several “embassies” across Europe. This really is a backdoor form of diplomacy: one of these headquarters can be found in an Athens dance studio, another is hidden away in a tiny rural town in the south of France. “How to make friends and influence people — Ukraine breakaway edition,” is how our editorial director Ilan Greenberg summed up the dispatch. 

Last word  

Facebook just gave Trump (and any other candidate) permission to lie in their political ads ahead of the 2020 election. And Trump’s election team is already taking advantage: “Joe Biden PROMISED Ukraine $1BILLION DOLLARS if they fired the prosecutor investigating his son’s company,” a Trump Facebook ad ran on October 1. The claim was swiftly debunked by Facebook-approved factcheckers. According to Facebook rules, that should mean the ad is taken down — but, thanks to a recent rule tweak, political ads are exempt from such strictures. So — it’s a free for all.  


Isobel Cockerell

Isobel is a filmmaker, radio reporter and multimedia journalist for Coda Story. A graduate of Columbia Journalism School, she specializes in covering disinformation, authoritarian technology, and the human stories beneath.

Life before Coda: Production for USA Today’s The City, an investigative documentary podcast digging into environmental racism in Chicago. Freelance journalist reporting to The Daily Beast, Eurasianet and the Huffington Post.

Get in touch via [email protected]

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