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“If a story is too emotional or dramatic, it is probably not real, the truth is usually boring,” Ukrainian journalist Olga Yurkova said during the inaugural TED 2018 talk that took place this month in Vancouver, Canada.
In her lecture, the anti-fake news activist – co-founder of the StopFake site – said the fraudulent information is “a threat to democracy and society”.
” Ukraine has been subject to Russian propaganda for four years, but false news is happening around the world,” she said.
“People no longer know what is real and what is false, many have stopped believing, and that is even more dangerous”.
Yurkova launched StopFake in 2014 to address the problem in Ukraine. Since then, the group has evolved into a sophisticated fact-checking organization in 11 languages.
To date, it has revealed more than 1,000 deceptive stories in Ukraine and has taught more than 10,000 people around the world to recognize when a story is false.
It all started with a particularly macabre event published by Russian state media that had great repercussions in the conflict with Ukraine … and that never happened.
1. “The crucified boy” in Ukraine
In this news distributed by Russian media spoke of Galyna Pyshnyak, a woman who claimed to be a Russian refugee. But Pyshnyak was actually the wife of a pro-Russian militant.
“A refugee from Sloviansk remembers how a young child and the wife of a militiaman were executed in front of her,” the state channel Channel One Russia was titled on July 12, 2014, in the middle of the recently erupted Donbas war (eastern Ukraine).
The woman said with tears that the Ukrainian soldiers had publicly crucified a three-year-old boy in front of his mother “as if he were Jesus”, while the little boy shouted, bled and cried.
“People fainted, the child suffered for an hour and a half and then died, then they went for their mother,” she said.
But everything was a lie .
In fact, not only did it not happen, but the place was also invented: “They said that the army cornered local residents in Lenin Square, in the city of Sloviansk, but that square does not exist,” Yurkova says.
In spite of this, this episode had great scope and was reflected in several studies as an example of “disinformation” in the modern means of mass communication.
For Russia, this news was “a good piece of propaganda, ” journalist Andrew Kramer wrote in an article published by The New York Times in February 2017.
“During the Ukrainian crisis in 2014, manipulative and often totally invented news were spilled from Russian television and from websites to favorable local newspapers.”
The story of the crucified boy not only deceived many in Ukraine and Russia, but also motivated them to “take up arms ,” Yurkova said.
Therefore, he warns, false news “is a threat to democracy and society.”
2. The girl from Kuwait and the invasion of Iraq
Another example of misinformation that went around the world has as its protagonist another minor: Nayirah , a 15-year-old Kuwaiti girl who denounced the atrocities committed by the Iraqi invaders in her country.
It happened in 1990, a few months after the then president of Iraq, Saddam Hussein, invaded Kuwait. In the United States, President George Bush had set a deadline for the Iraqi army to withdraw.
At that time, American public opinion was divided and was more inclined toward nonintervention.
But then Nayira appeared before the United States Congress with a brutal story in which she claimed that the soldiers removed premature babies from the incubators in one of the Kuwaiti hospitals where she said she was voluntary.
“They took the incubators and left the babies dying lying on the cold ground,” she said ruefully and in tears.
The impact of her testimony was such that many in the West were convinced that it was necessary to forcibly evict Sad d am Hussein’s troops .
But in reality, it was a testimony that had been prepared by a public relations agency in the United States linked to the Kuwaiti monarchy, according to an investigation by Amnesty International, Humans Right Watch and independent journalists.
The girl turned out to be the daughter of Saud Nasir al Sabah, the Kuwaiti ambassador to Washington.
“It lasts about 3 minutes and it’s still a powerful testimony,” James Garvey, author of The Persuaders , told The BBC World : The hidden industry that wants to change your min d (The persuaders: the hidden industry that wants to change your opinion).
Nayira’s words were repeated again and again by US senators and by the media. Finally, the country voted in favor of participating in the war.
“The story (of Nayira) probably helped to tip the balance in favor of the war,” Garvey says.
3. The false photos in the crisis of the Rohingya
In September 2017, the BBC Reality Check team , which was created specifically to report and uncover false stories and news, confirmed how a series of deceptive images “intensified” the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar.
These are photos and videos of conflicts that occurred decades ago, such as the Rwandan war, and which were used as propaganda to accuse the Rohingyas of being violent.
In fact, those photos preceded an increase in violence in the north of the country, explained the BBC.
” It was very scary and defamatory, and largely wrong, ” said Jonathan Head, a BBC correspondent in Southeast Asia.
“The Rohingya have faced decades of persecution in Myanmar, where they are denied citizenship,” he explained.
According to Head, “the information is very vague and journalists have very limited access in the region, ” which would have led to the spread of false images.
Turkish Prime Minister Mehmet Simsek was one of the people who tweeted those images. Then he apologized, but the original post had already been shared more than 1,600 times.
“There is a frantic war on the social networks around the Rohingyas, and I myself have been bombarded with very nasty images of victims of massacres, many of which are difficult to verify,” explained Head.
“Get a real picture of what is happening will take a long time, given the limited access of neutral observers in the area,” he added.
“But disinformation campaigns in social networks will harden the attitudes of both sides and are very likely to worsen the conflict.”