IS THAT A FACT?
Disinformation and Russia’s War in Ukraine
Season 2 Episode 4
In this episode we talk to two journalists covering the Russian invasion of Ukraine to help us better understand how disinformation and propaganda are obscuring, or outright contradicting, the facts, both within Russia and beyond its borders.
Our first guest, Roman Anin, is a Pulitzer Prize-winner and founder and editor-in-chief of the Russian news portal iStories and a former investigative journalist for the recently shuttered Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta. Now living in exile and labeled a so-called “foreign agent” by the Russian government, Anin tells us why “propaganda is like radiation” and how hard it is for Russians today to access news from independent sources.
After hearing about Putin’s 20-year campaign to restrict press freedom and control the media narrative, we talk to Elyse Samuels, a member of The Washington Post visual forensics team, about her role in verifying images and videos for breaking and ongoing news events like the war in Ukraine.
Is that a fact? is brought to you by the nonpartisan, non-profit News Literacy Project. For more information, go to newslit.org.
- Russian police raid home of prominent journalist Roman Anin, The Guardian
- ‘Our job is to save history’: Russian journalist on exposing Putin’s lies, Vice
- Opinion: Putin tolerated some critical voices in his 22-year assault on Russian media. His war in Ukraine ends even that, Committee to Protect Journalists
- Russian attacks hit at least 9 Ukrainian medical facilities, visual evidence shows, The Washington Post
- Some survivors emerge from rubble of theater bombed by Russia, Ukranian officials say, The Washington Post
Darragh Worland: Welcome back to Is That A Fact?, brought to you by the non-profit News Literacy Project. I’m your host, Darragh Worland.
In February, Russia invaded Ukraine, an act of aggression met by fierce resistance, heavy sanctions, protests, and most recently, investigations of alleged Russian war crimes. Weeks of relentless attacks on Ukrainian cities have caused thousands of civilian deaths, widespread destruction, and the displacement of millions.
Meanwhile, the Russian government has been engaged in an equally relentless propaganda campaign designed to justify their invasion of Ukraine and shore up support at home. Russian president, Vladimir Putin and his administration have misrepresented the war by insisting it be called a “special military operation”. Putin’s false narrative also includes wholly unfounded claims about the need to de-militarize and denazify Ukraine.
In today’s episode, we talk to two journalists covering the Russian invasion to help us better understand how disinformation and propaganda are obscuring or outright contradicting the facts about this war, both within Russia and beyond its borders.
Our first guest, Roman Anin, is a Pulitzer Prize winner and founder and editor-in-chief of the Russian news portal, IStories, and a former investigative journalist for the recently shuttered Russian newspaper, Novaya Gazeta. Now living in exile and labeled a so-called “foreign agent” by the Russian government, Anin tells us why propaganda is like radiation and how hard it is for Russians today to access news from independent sources.
After hearing about Putin’s 20-year campaign to restrict press freedom and control the media narrative, we talk to Elyse Samuels, a member of the Washington Post’s visual forensics team about her role in verifying images and videos for breaking and ongoing news events like the war in Ukraine.
Thanks so much for joining us today, Roman.
Roman Anin: Thank you. Happy to be with you.
Darragh Worland: As many of our listeners may already know, the Kremlin and state media have been referring to the invasion of Ukraine as a “special military action,” not a war, intended to liberate Ukrainians from Nazis. Can you describe what it’s like to consume state-sponsored so-called news in Russia?
Roman Anin: Oh yeah. This is a complicated topic, as my ex-Editor-In-Chief Dmitry Muratov, he’s also a Nobel Peace Prize winner, says, “Propaganda is like radiation.” The problem is that if people have been consuming propaganda and the state-sponsored news for 20 years, they are poisoned with propaganda and there is not so much you can do. Some scientific reports, they actually say that if people are poisoned by propaganda, you can’t save them. So in order to be able to tell truth, in order to persuade people in what’s going on, you’ve got to give them an injection of truth before they consume propaganda. And that’s what we’re trying to do.
In IStories, we believe that we’ve got to just keep on going. Of course, we don’t follow the laws that were adopted by the Russian state, which prohibits us calling this war a “war.” No, we still do that, even despite the fact that all our reporters risk their freedom by calling the war “war.” I think you know that they can be sentenced to up to 15 years of prison for just telling the truth about the war. We believe that main audience is young people, people that are younger – 35 years old – for many reasons. I mean, first of all, they’re already reading us and it’s probably because the majority of our reporters are young as well. I’m one of the oldest in the newsroom and I’m 35.
But also, we believe that they are more important because they’re not poisoned yet by propaganda. It’s a big tragedy in Russia in terms of people believe this bull that they hear from the state TV. We even have cases in our newsroom when parents don’t believe their daughter, when their daughter, she’s reporting she knows the truth. She’s talking to people in Ukraine. Her parents don’t believe her and they still believe in the state TV news, and it’s all over the country. It’s awful. I couldn’t imagine that the majority of Russians would support the war.
Darragh Worland: It’s interesting what you’re saying in terms of propaganda, because I can’t help but compare it to what we’re experiencing in terms of conspiracy theories in the US, because we don’t have the same issue with state-sponsored TV and propaganda, or state sponsored news, but we do have rampant conspiracy theories. At the News Literacy Project, the only thing to do is to catch people before they have succumbed. And so, particularly with our programs, we do have programs for adults, but to approach young people before they have adopted these patterns of motivated reasoning, for example, is really the best way to keep people from falling into conspiratorial thinking. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Roman Anin: I totally agree with what you say because I’ve been thinking a lot about it. And I think that projects like yours are really important. I spent one year at Stanford and one of the classes that I attended was psychology. I’m really a big fan of psychology. Why I think projects like yours are really mandatory in the schools these days is because you our brain hasn’t changed that much since… It hasn’t changed for thousands of years. But the amount of information that we receive has changed significantly, and it causes what the psychologists call “cognitive overload” in our brain. We don’t have these tools to navigate in this storm of information these days. And this is something that needs to be taught in schools. Kids and students, and even grown-ups, we need to teach them, what is the scientific approach?
What is a credible source? What is a credible information? How can you check it? So that when they open an article by Russia Today, which quotes, I don’t know, a crazy guy who believes in conspiracy theories, so that people understand that this is not a credible source. You should better believe a scientist, or you should better believe an expert who has spent the last 15 or 20 years of his career researching something. But yeah, I do agree. News literacy is something that needs to be taught in schools these days, which unfortunately is not the case in Russia, in the US, and in many other countries.
Darragh Worland: I guess also how you teach history in the classroom and to your populace is also part of the propaganda machine.
Roman Anin: Yes. I mean, they want monopolize history. They want to monopolize the historical narrative, and they need it in order to actually be able to send these poor kids to die in Ukraine, because, I mean, people who know the history, people who know the truth, they have critical thinking. They can critically analyze what the state is telling them and those who don’t have it, they are not thinking. They don’t have these tools to analyze what’s going on. And of course, they believe in every… The state sponsored media is telling them. Of course, that is why you see so many young soldiers in Ukraine who are saying that, “We believe that there are Nazis everywhere, and that people in Ukraine are captured by this Nazis. And we came to liberate them,” which is of course not true.
Darragh Worland: So, they are believing this narrative. This narrative is entrenched. And then also going back to education, the purpose of education then is not critical thinking. It’s not free thinking. It’s ultimately indoctrination in the state narrative.
Roman Anin: Yes, absolutely. I mean, as I said, because there are laws that actually prohibit professors [sic] tell the truth to their students, especially if it’s history.
Darragh Worland: Coming back to journalism and the invasion of Ukraine, the Kremlin has cracked down on what little journalistic freedom there was in Russia. And then the journalistic freedom has been reduced ever since Putin came to power. What sources of information do Russian news consumers have outside of the state-sponsored news that we’ve already discussed? Like if somebody wants access to information from outside the country, that might contradict Putin’s narrative, how hard do they have to work to get it?
Roman Anin: It’s really hard. Since the start of the war, they have shut down the major independent news media. IStories, I mean, we started not as the news media, but rather the investigative media. But of course, these days, we had to change our editorial policy and we publish news every day. We do that because we’ve realized that all the major news media were either shut down or blocked. For instance, the biggest independent radio station, Ekho Moskvy, was shut down. The biggest independent TV channel, Dozhd, was shut down. The biggest independent newspaper, Novaya Gazeta, where I used to work for 15 years, had to shut down their operation themselves because they received the second warning from Rosokmnadzor – this is the agency that oversees the media – so they stopped their operations and they don’t publish anymore.
The only news online media left which is not completely shut down, but it’s blocked in Russia so you can reach it only via VPN, is Meduza. We write stories, are not only blocked, but we are also labeled as “foreign agents” and as “an undesirable organization.” I will not even talk about for an agency because it used to be a big problem. But after being proclaimed an undesirable, we don’t even remember about it.
Being “undesirable” means that readers are not allowed to repost us. So if anybody reposts our photos or Facebook posts, this person can be fined and, the second time, can be sentenced to four years of prison, because it can be considered as cooperation with an undesirable organization. Every reporter that works for IStories can be sentenced to four years of prison for the same crime, for corporation. And I, as the chief editor, can be sentenced to six years of prison because we continue operations of what Russian authorities call an undesirable organization.
We as journalists, just imagine it, we as journalists had to tell our readers, “Please do not repost us. Please read us. Please comment our stories, but don’t repost us.” We had to cut off all the donations that we were getting from our readers, and it was actually quite a big sum, that allowed us to pay salaries to a number of our reporters and it was growing and growing. We had to cut it off, because otherwise people can be sentenced to four years of prison for donating $10 to us.
So when you ask me how difficult it is to reach the independent media, this is the price that Russian readers have to pay. Even reposting an independent media can be considered a crime in Russia. And of course, all of them have to install VPN and many other… In some cases, even VPN don’t work. So VPNs don’t work. Yeah, it’s really hard.
Darragh Worland: Essentially, by making it impossible for your readers to repost or donate, they’re trying to sort of cut you off at the knees, like make it really hard for you to sustain the business side, to support your publication because being able to amplify your stories and your reach …
Roman Anin: Right, but I mean, still for us, the biggest problem is that they can’t spread the information. Can you imagine anybody, any media in the US, that would say to their readers, “Please don’t repost us?”
Darragh Worland: No.
Roman Anin: No, it’s impossible.
Darragh Worland: No. I mean, for both reasons. There’s both sides. Obviously, you want to get the information out. Absolutely. And particularly in your situation where you’re one of [a] tiny handful of publications that are reaching out to a Russian audience to get the truth out. But then also, in order to do that, you have to sustain yourself financially. Right? I mean, so yeah. I mean, I can’t even imagine how hard it is to operate under those conditions.
I want to come back to this difference between “foreign agent” and “undesirable.” I’ll come back to this, but it sounds like “undesirable” is worse than “foreign agent.”
Roman Anin: Oh yeah. Absolutely.
Darragh Worland: Okay. As Russian forces withdrew from Bucha, a town outside of Kyiv, we’re all seeing evidence of the atrocities that were committed there against the area’s residents allegedly by Russian soldiers. President Biden is calling for Putin to be tried for war crimes. Putin is claiming that the bodies found with their hands bound behind their backs were staged as a hoax, put there by Ukrainian soldiers after the Russian soldiers had already left.
Remarkably, within hours of Putin’s claims, The New York Times was able to confirm via timestamped satellite images that the bodies had in fact been lying in the streets of Bucha for several weeks, so confirming that they were there when the Russian soldiers were there and not after they’d left. So how effective can Putin’s disinformation or his propaganda, let’s call it, in the face of such fact checks …
Roman Anin: Yeah, actually yesterday we published a big article about the slaughter in Bucha. We talked to about a dozen of people living in Bucha, and we have no doubts that Russian soldiers killed innocent civilians. Not only because of photos, of satellite images, but we have witnesses, dozens of witnesses, and we continue talking to them and we are getting more and more evidence from them, photos, videos, and what they saw by their own eyes. It’s a big tragedy. It’s an unbelievable tragedy, to be honest. But unfortunately, people in Russia don’t believe the truth because, again, propaganda is like radiation.
Another problem with propaganda is that it offers you a really simple solutions because facts and the truth is complicated. In order to believe something, you’ve got to analyze the situation. You’ve got to see what each side is telling. You’ve got to analyze photos, videos. You’ve got to talk to witnesses. It’s a process. It’s a procedure. While propaganda is just saying, “This is all fake point and nothing else.”
Of course, people, especially in Russia, where they’re not used to analyze information, where they’re used to the state-sponsored media and to all the myths that the state-sponsored media has been spreading for the last 40 years, and again, when they are poisoned by propaganda, they fortunately believe in this narrative. But I’m sure that we will be able to change it because more and more dead bodies, I mean, bodies of the Russian soldiers, will be coming to Russia.
Of course, the economy is almost ruined and one day people will start asking questions, what’s going on? And they will not see the answers on the state TV or in the state-sponsored media. That’s when they will find the answers on the website of IStories, or Meduza, or any other independent Russian media.
Darragh Worland: You’re saying that as more Russian soldiers are killed in the war in Ukraine, you’re thinking the tide of support will turn against the war and that people will start to turn towards the truth about what’s actually going on there.
Roman Anin: I hope so. Yeah. I hope it’s going to happen by the end of the year, because on this stage, Russians are motivated by… First of all, are motivated by propaganda because they still believe that there are Nazis in Ukraine. They still believe that Ukrainians were behind COVID, and that they spread COVID in Russia with pigeons. I’m not kidding. This is the news. The official news said that there were laboratories in Ukraine that were sponsored by the US, and that they developed war pigeons in those laboratories to spread viruses and bacterias in Russia, including COVID.
Darragh Worland: So there’s already been a campaign to disparage Ukrainians. So there’s already been seeds of distrust sown again. But aren’t there a lot of Ukrainians living in Russia?
Roman Anin: Yeah, a lot.
Darragh Worland: And there’s a lot of Russians who are half Ukrainian. I mean, doesn’t that make that narrative difficult to sell?
Roman Anin: Well, looks like no. I mean, to be honest, I also thought that it would be impossible because both countries were so well connected. But look, what propaganda does. I gave you an example of one of our reporters who is having problems with her parents, and she’s not the only one. There are thousands of such examples. When people don’t believe their daughters, their sisters and brothers who live in Ukraine, they say they believe the TV channel, the TV but not their relative.
Darragh Worland: I was going to ask you if Putin can succeed in Ukraine without succeeding in his propaganda campaign in Russia. I mean, it sounds to me like the propaganda campaign has been so long in the making that it’s not even really worth asking at this point. I mean, what do you think?
Roman Anin: Well, he succeeded with his propaganda campaign in Russia because he’s already done it.
Darragh Worland: It’s been so slow. It seems to me that he understands that propaganda is essential to anything he wants to accomplish.
Roman Anin: Yeah. That’s probably one of the most effective things that he has done in Russia. I mean, in general, he’s a very ineffective leader, and if you look at his “achievements” in economy and other spheres. Even in the military, because we see many people believe that Russian army is the second army in the world. But we see that this is not true.
But in terms of propaganda, yes, they’re very effective. One of the first thing that he did when he became a president, if you remember, was the seizure of NTV by that time, the biggest and the major independent TV channel. This was literally one of the first thing that he did. By that time, he realized that TV, and in general, media is really more important weapon than any anything else. Since then, he’s been cracking down on the media day by day.
The reason he realized it’s… Because if you look at his biography, before the start of presidential campaign in 2000s, nobody knew Putin. His rating was like 3%. And then all of a sudden, all the TV channels that belonged to different oligarchs who wanted to make Putin their president, not because they liked Putin, but because they were afraid of communists and they decided… Sorry, not communists, but because they were sick and tired of Yeltsin and they needed a new leader. They decided to make put in the new president.
Suddenly, his face started appearing on every TV channel and every program. And in a very short period of time, three percent transformed in, I don’t remember, 57 or 55 percent. He realized how effective and how powerful is this tool. That is why he’s paying so much attention to propaganda.
Darragh Worland: Yeah. It’s basically straight out of the autocratic playbook. It’s a primary tool.
I want to turn towards what it’s like to be a journalist in this environment. You used to lead the investigative unit of the independent newspaper, Novaya Gazeta in Russia, which you mentioned has since closed, and six of your colleagues, I believed it was six, were murdered as a consequence of investigations they worked on. Even before the invasion of Ukraine, journalism in Russia was already incredibly dangerous and even a life-threatening profession. Can you talk about what it’s like now for journalists. You’ve touched on some of this, and the threat of prison time. What’s the progression been like?
Roman Anin: Well, these days Russian journalists have three options. Option one is to stay in Russia, continue telling the truth about the war, and end up in jail. The second option is to stay in Russia and just stop reporting. Not only reporting, we call it inner immigration. You stop posting something on Facebook. You stop posting anything on Instagram. Actually, you don’t say anything. You stop being a reporter. You stop being a citizen.
Inner immigration, it’s really the majority of what we call Intelligentsia, of educated people from the Soviet Union. They lived in union immigration because it’s really hard to live with this feeling that you can’t criticize anything, you can’t call the war a “war.” I mean, it’s impossible. The third option is to immigrate, actually to leave your country in order to be free, to be able to tell the truth, to be able to call the war “war,” to be able to report about the war crimes, to be able to express yourself.
Every Russian journalist has to make these choice these days. I don’t know, all options are bad. Leaving your country and continue your operations from abroad is not the best option as well, because, of course, as a journalist, I believe that you have to live in the country you write about because otherwise, you will lose this, what we call nerve. You will lose the connection to the people. So, it’s not a good option as well. But we made our choice. We decided that, for us, freedom is more important than the country, and truth is more important than the country. And in order to keep this connection with the country, we of course use a lot of freelancers in Russia. We are constantly talking to numerous sources inside the country, just to understand what’s going on there. But this is the options that we have.
Darragh Worland: Are those freelancers and those sources, do they remain anonymous?
Roman Anin: Yeah, of course, because it’s really dangerous these days to put the byline on your article.
Darragh Worland: Right. Okay. That word that you were saying under the second option, were you saying, “inner immigration?”
Roman Anin: Yep.
Darragh Worland: That’s a term that you use that’s… It’s common in Russia to describe this choice?
Roman Anin: Well, I don’t know if it’s common, but this is the term that I use. I know that this term was used in the Soviet times. It’s actually, you know, when you immigrate without leaving the country. I would say that you immigrate from the civil sphere when you …
Darragh Worland: You leave without leaving.
Roman Anin: You leave without leaving. When you care only about your foods, your TV show in the evening, and you don’t care about anything else. You don’t care about kids being killed in Ukraine. You don’t care about corruption which is ongoing in your country. You don’t care poverty and so on and so forth. You just say, “I don’t care because there is nothing I can do about it.”
Darragh Worland: You’re leaving your civic life and leading an exclusively private life.
Roman Anin: Exactly.
Darragh Worland: The way you’re describing it, and the tone I’m hearing in your voice of total defeat sounds soul-crushing, particularly for a journalist who wants so much to be engaged.
Roman Anin: That is why we made our choice. We decided that for us, freedom is more important than the country, and the ability to tell the truth is more important than the country.
Darragh Worland: In mid-March, a journalist, Marina Ovsyannikova …
Roman Anin: Yes.
Darragh Worland: … interrupted a state TV news broadcast to hold up a sign on air that said, “Stop the war. Don’t believe propaganda. They’re lying to you here.” So, she made that choice, which is a different choice than any of the ones you listed. When I heard about that, I was sure that we would never hear from her again, and maybe this is just because from the outside, you have this sense of the danger involved in doing something so radical inside Russia. But after this brief absence, she reappeared, and she said she’d been detained by authorities for 14 hours. And then she was fined the equivalent of $270 US. I guess there’s a chance that there will be a trial.
I mean, was this surprising to you that there wasn’t a greater punishment imposed on her?
Roman Anin: Well, again, they still can start a criminal case and sentence her. So I wouldn’t be that optimistic.
Darragh Worland: Is her life at risk?
Roman Anin: I would say that every citizen who is against the war in Russia these days and expresses this protest publicly is risking her life.
Darragh Worland: That was my assumption, and that’s why it’s so remarkable to me that she would do something like that. What were your thoughts when you saw that or heard the news?
Roman Anin: Well, on the one hand, the first thought was that, what have you been doing on the First TV channel, for how many years? She said probably 10 years. Because, well, for everybody, it was obvious many years ago that the First TV channel is one of the main propaganda channel in Russia. And a normal reporter and a normal journalist would never go there. It’s not journalism. It’s propaganda.
On the other hand, I mean, I thought that, “Well, I really respect and admire her courage” because she was risking a lot when she did that and she’s still risking a lot. I think it was an important sign, an important step, because I know that many journalists who work for other state-sponsored TV channels, they actually left the newsrooms and were others thinking about it. It was a great example of, if she’s doing it publicly, why are we afraid to leave the channel publicly?
Darragh Worland: Yeah, it’s remarkable. I mean, do you think it had any effect at all on the audience?
Roman Anin: I don’t know, but I hope so, because she did it during a very popular news program by Andreeva. She’s one of the most popular news hosts in Russia so I think that many people saw it. So, I hope that it changed some minds.
Darragh Worland: Now we get into a really peculiar case that I thought was really vexing. Russian state media outlets published a video interview with a refugee from Mariupol, who describes soldiers from a far-right Nazi group in Ukraine, or supposedly, boasting about brutalizing and killing people, hiding from Russian attacks. And the interview appears to be done by a journalist, but the file name of the video was revealed to be [indecipherable 00:30:15] FSB … FSB, of course, being the initials of the security agency in Russia. How did it come to light that this was a fake video? Does the FSB just assume that the state-sponsored media so-called journalists are going to be doing their bidding and doesn’t matter what the file name is going to be?
Roman Anin: Well, I mean, first of all, people who work in FSB press office, believe me, they’re not really smart people. When I say that they’re not smart, it’s because during those 20 years of Putin’s presidency, they mainly dealt with the media from their circle, the media that journalists they don’t ask additional questions. They have never thought that somebody would check the metadata of the file that they send to journalists, because nobody did it before.
This time, during the war, somebody from the state-sponsored media actually shared the file with an independent media. I think it was Mediazona, and these guys, they check the metadata So, it was just a coincidence that somebody decided to leak the raw file to an independent journalist. In all other cases, for 20 years, just imagine they didn’t have any problems because, of course, those who call themselves journalists from the state-sponsored media, they were just taking press releases and videos from FSB and they never check them.
Darragh Worland: Right. And it was basically fake to make it look like she was being interviewed by a journalist, and she was being coached by them. There were really never any Nazis brutalizing anybody.
Roman Anin: Well, yeah. What we know is that the video in fact wasn’t filmed by a reporter, but by FSB agents, by agents of the main Russian secret service.
Darragh Worland: I assume, when you come across video like this, do you check the metadata? And what kind of verification process do you go through?
Roman Anin: Yeah, I mean, of course, all the time, when we get any video from any source, we actually check the metadata. We see when the video was recorded, so on camera, on phone. We check the authors of the video. Of course, in some cases, the metadata can be deleted, but then we check the information from the video through various sources and we use different technologies to verify the data. I mean, this is the work that we’re used to do, because we’re investigative reporters and we know how to actually fact check things.
Darragh Worland: Coming back to this concept of the foreign agents, so I guess it was just this past August, in August of 2021, you were deemed a “foreign agent,” and I guess was this by the Kremlin?
Roman Anin: In general, yes. But technically, by the ministry of justice.
Darragh Worland: What does this mean, and then why did you leave Russia?
Roman Anin: Well, for me, foreign agency is not the biggest problem, and I’m a foreign agent and IStories is a foreign an agent as well. But I left Russia not because of foreign agency, but because of the criminal case that is still being investigated against me. It was started five years ago by the same FSB. April last year, officers of FSB, together with the investigative committee, they searched my apartment for the office of IStories, and I can be sentenced to, I think, five years of prison for posting photos from Instagram of ex-wife of one of the most powerful people in Russia called Igor Sechin.
Russian authorities believe that by posting her photos from Instagram, which she, of course, posted there by herself, I interfered in her private life. They used this as a pretext to follow me for several years, to intercept my phone calls, to follow my relatives and friends, and so on and so forth. And in the end, they came with the search to my apartment.
What does it mean being a foreign agent? Well, it’s a big problem. It’s not as big as having a criminal case against you, but still is a problem. You’ve got put a special label, which says that you are a foreign agent on every piece of information that you produce, even if it’s a business card. I’m not kidding, because there were cases when people were fined for not mentioning on the business card that this business card belongs to a foreign agent.
Of course, you’ve got to put this special label on every tweet that you tweet, and imagine, I think that the label has 240 characters. So, in order to tweet something, you’ve got to tweet before that, that the tweet is produced by a foreign agent. That’s funny. If you look at our Instagram, sometimes our social media editor, she likes somebody’s comments and she puts this red heart. And before she puts the heart, she’s got to put this special notice that the heart is produced by a foreign agent. And if you violate the law, you can be sentenced to, I don’t remember, probably five years of prison.
Darragh Worland: Does the Russian government know where you are?
Roman Anin: I think so. We don’t disclose the location for security reasons, but I think that they do know where we’re based.
Darragh Worland: And so, you’re not going to defy the law at this point?
Roman Anin: When the war started, it was said that we told our readers that, look, I mean, there is no state in Russia. There is no law in Russia. There is nothing to follow in Russia. Law is something that everybody should follow, and law is something that should protect people. The idea behind the law is to shut down all the independent media in Russia.
Darragh Worland: So, you don’t use this “foreign agent” label?
Roman Anin: Not anymore.
Darragh Worland: Okay.
Roman Anin: We were putting this label for, I think, about half a year. But when the war started, we said no. We’re not going to follow commands from the criminal state that is killing innocent civilians in Ukraine.
Darragh Worland: What does the “undesirable” label mean?
Roman Anin: For me, it means six years of prison. For my reporters, it means four years of prison. As I said, readers are not allowed to repost our stories, and nobody’s allowed to cooperate with an undesirable organization.
Darragh Worland: Just to wrap up, what is your hope for the future of Russia and for the future of journalists in Russia? Do you have any hope at this point?
Roman Anin: That’s the problem, that I don’t have any hope at this point. The reason we continue telling the truth is that first of all, we think that we’re obliged to do that for the history because we need to prove and we need to save the truth for future generations, so that the future history books don’t use false narrative that was spread by the state sponsored. So, people need to know what Russian soldiers did in Bucha. People need to know what was the real Putin, and not the one that is portrayed by the state TV channels. This is the only option or one of the most important things that we need to do in order to overcome the consequences of Putin’s regime, something that Germans had to do after 1945. It’s a long way. Without history, without the truth, it’s impossible to follow this way. So, we see ourselves more as historians these days than journalists. Our job is to save the truth for future generations.
Darragh Worland: Thank you, Roman, so much for your time and thank you for the incredibly important work that you do despite all of the risk that it entails.
Roman Anin: Yes. Thank you.
Darragh Worland: Now we turn to Elyse Samuels, a member of The Washington Post’s visual forensic team, to better understand the process of sifting through the fire hose of disinformation coming out of the war in Ukraine. Thanks for joining us today, Elyse.
Elyse Samuels: Thanks for having me.
Darragh Worland: Before we dive into current events, can you tell us a little bit about how you got involved in doing digital forensics and video verification? It’s a highly specialized niche in journalism, isn’t it?
Elyse Samuels: Yeah, I would say that it is new in terms of, especially what my team does, of combining what we call “open-source research” or techniques with more traditional reporting techniques. I personally started out at The Washington Post on their breaking news team and transitioned to their fact-checker team, which I think both really lend itself well to what we call visual forensics at The Post, this kind of digital verification work that you described. In both of those, there’s really a high level of diligence in terms of, in a fast news breaking situation, as well as being really thorough and making sure you’re getting all the facts correct. And then, our team in visual forensics really took off after the murder of George Floyd in the summer of 2020, as well as covering the other resulting racial justice protests that summer. We specifically focused on gathering as many visuals as we could photos and video of a lot of these incidents to visually reconstruct some of these big news events.
Darragh Worland: As a news consumer, the war in Ukraine has been pretty overwhelming to keep up with for so many reasons. It’s also complicated by all the myths and disinformation circulating online, which makes it really hard to determine what’s credible. You know, the risk is that people throw up their hands and turn away altogether. As a journalist, is it also hard for you and your colleagues to keep up with the pace of all this mis- and disinformation?
Elyse Samuels: It is difficult. I would say our team focused on verifying visuals specifically is actually quite small. We, as a result of the war, have really combined forces with the newsroom, so working really closely obviously with people on the ground there, other foreign reporters, but also bringing in new resources to help us in verifying and combating some of this misinformation and disinformation. So, I would say it’s really been an expanded effort, which helps in some of that, in keeping up with that pace and avoiding burnout in that. But we also try to pace ourselves in staggering … We have almost like shifts of who is going to be on or not, so that we’re covered pretty much 24/7 going from very early in the morning to late at night and making sure that we can share the burden and the bandwidth of that, fighting that misinformation.
Darragh Worland: What’s the most common type of disinformation you’ve seen about this war?
Elyse Samuels: I think something that we’re always focused on in images and videos in this conflict, but also in conflict zones in general, is people sharing things with missing or incorrect context. It could be an explosion or an attack that actually took place in a completely different country or many years ago in a different year, a different conflict. And so, that, for us, it’s not even necessarily going to be some very sophisticated or complex type of manipulation. It might be something as simple as sharing a piece of video with the wrong context or information. That’s a lot of the verification work that we do to combat against that.
If you think about it, it’s the easiest type of misinformation, and it’s also something that I think gets shared the most widely, because if someone posts something and it looks legitimate enough, it’s not obviously manipulated in any way, and we’re seeing similar types of visuals. So if something’s really zoomed in and you don’t have the context of where that might be or what war zone it might be in, then it’s really easy for people to hold onto that and share it or believe it.
Darragh Worland: How are you making the decisions about what to debunk and what to investigate? Where are you grabbing the video from?
Elyse Samuels: We, on our own, are monitoring all different forms of social media, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube. Also, Telegram is a really large source, especially in Ukraine and Russia where a lot of these videos are being shared. But we’re typically choosing what to verify or look into further, based on what might help us understand what’s going on in the war. So, we’re working really closely with our colleagues on the ground there with our colleagues who are covering this on a day-to-day basis, to understand, okay, what questions do we have? What, maybe, claims are being made by governments on either side that we could prove or disprove through visuals? Is there reports of an attack on a school or a hospital or a military base, things that are furthering the story in ways that is going to be significant, or furthering potentially gains or losses in the war and then focusing in on those areas.
Darragh Worland: Is this a new form of war reporting in the digital age?
Elyse Samuels: I would say so. I mean, I think the accessibility to these visuals, and then the tools that we have in which to verify them can add a lot of that information in context, that maybe previously would’ve been more unknown or only relying on those certain reporters and resources on the ground. So, I think it’s just another lens or another way to provide evidence to what’s going on and clarify things for people who are all around the world. I think you can say the same for a lot of the stories that we do. There’s so much chaos, like in this instance, that it’s hard to find the details of what’s happening. And through the visuals, we’re able to do that more clearly.
Darragh Worland: Who’s taking these videos and photos?
Elyse Samuels: It’s oftentimes just civilians, people on the ground who maybe their apartment building is across from one that was just hit or they’ve come to the scene after, and they’re surveying some of the damage and the destruction. A lot of it sometimes is from emergency services who are part of the government in Ukraine who are posting videos, or also city council members or other government officials who are there or getting sent these visuals. But I would say a lot of what we’re often trying to look for are civilian testimonies and videos, as well as. of course, there’s journalists on the ground there documenting things.
Darragh Worland: Can you tell us about a particularly troubling or a challenging example that you verified, where you either couldn’t get to the bottom of it, or getting to the bottom of it, whether it was real or not, was really tricky?
Elyse Samuels: Yeah. One that we actually didn’t end up publishing, which I thought was interesting because it was a challenging case, a few weeks ago, there was a video being shared that was allegedly of a drone hitting a convoy of Russian tanks in the [indecipherable 00:46:07] region. It was being shared by Ukrainian officials. It was very close up so you couldn’t see a whole lot of identifying features in the video that could confirm where it was. Someone actually on Twitter, they said, “We think that it’s in this location.” It was at a particular air base. We looked at it and there were things that compared and looked like it could have been a legitimate match. But then I looked up other air bases in the region, and there were also similar identifiers that I didn’t think we could confidently say this happened here. And there was just too many questions about even what if and what kind of drone was being used in that instance. So, we ultimately felt like we couldn’t publish that out because there was too many questions, too many missing elements about that video.
Darragh Worland: When you’re verifying video and photos, is all of the verification you’re doing specifically about the photos and videos, or are you using the photos and videos to piece together a narrative about the war?
Elyse Samuels: Yes, yes. I would say it’s really both. Every time we see a video, even if we’re not able to do a deeper dive into verifying it, we log it in this master spreadsheet that we have. That is where we are trying to keep track of almost creating this database or repository of what we’re seeing. That includes marking where we think it might be, the date, what we’re seeing in it, downloading it to have it archived, whether or not there’s violence or destruction in it, as many details really as we can so that, like you said, then there’s that backdrop, that background of reporting that later we can go to, to tell a longer term or larger story about what might be happening, as well as really diving into the day to day developments of the war, where we might be just focusing it on one video or one photo.
Darragh Worland: And so, do all of your reporters covering the war in Ukraine, have access to the spreadsheet and can reference it as they’re doing their stories?
Elyse Samuels: Yes, they do. For instance, that spreadsheet has a lot of videos in it that aren’t necessarily verified yet but have just been put there and might need to have further due diligence or verification on it. But there are many instances where we’ve referenced it. For instance, I think last week there was a reporter who was working on a larger story about Mariupol and the destruction there. So, someone from my team actually just partnered with him and looked at our database to say, “Here’s where verified incidents were. These were the days that they happened,” trying to get a larger scope or bigger picture for that particular town based on what we had logged.
Darragh Worland: I want to talk about this article that I read in The Post, that was about so-called Twitter spies, their online ability to, I guess, investigate video very much like you do. They’re gathering intelligence about the war, which is why they’re called “spies.” The article indicated that some of what they’re gathering about the war in these videos is also potentially going to be used by authorities to build the case that war crimes are being committed. So one question I have is, is this an example of citizen journalism, do you think? And then, the other question I have is, let’s say American officials ever asked The Post, “Can we see your spreadsheet? We want access to your incredible database of all this photo evidence that you’ve gathered,” would the post provide it?
Elyse Samuels: I’ll answer the first question, that I think it is really amazing. They have different names for themselves. Some people call them internet sleuths, citizen investigators, hobbyists, these people that are taking what is their free time to investigate these things.
I think it is really an example of citizen journalism and it can be really powerful in terms of crowdsourcing information around the war and giving that baseline that I think then should have another level of verification. I don’t think we should be just taking the word of what everyone’s posting as fact, but I think it can be that first step in wondering, “Okay, maybe this is a right step forward or a clue to get us more information.” So I think while it can be incredibly powerful, there should also be standards and guidelines on how to treat that information, and even within the community itself. Sometimes this forms naturally, although, obviously, the internet and Twitter in general is rather unruly. So I would say, I think it can be extremely useful, but that we should be also careful and conscientious about how we’re treating that information.
To your second question, I don’t know if I can answer that. I think I’ve not been in a position where we’ve been asked that. It would be a question for my editors. But what I will say is that, part of the hope in us building this is to ultimately publish information that we think could lend itself to any type of investigating body or someone who has those types of questions that would be relying on information from the database. But again, almost like the Twitter example, we wouldn’t want to just hand something over without being really clear about what we have verified or what is really solid, versus something that was just put in there and we haven’t vetted it yet.
Darragh Worland: Interesting. So, it would be the difference between handing over your reporter notebook versus a published story.
Elyse Samuels: Exactly.
Darragh Worland: What is this hope? I mean, is this a hope you’ve discussed internally? Tell me about the conversations you guys have had.
Elyse Samuels: Yeah. One example already that we have used it for was a story we already published on instances in which medical facilities had been damaged, specifically seen through visuals and images, in which we also talked to human rights lawyers about the implications of that because they’re protected during conflict zones. That’s one example. I think we’re otherwise still working in that day-to-day momentum but will add certain narratives come up about the war, whether that’s particular cities that have been really collectively hit or certain tactics that maybe the Russians have used, or gains and losses on either side and what’s being said about that, we could hopefully turn to this larger set of reporting to answer some of those questions.
Darragh Worland: What’s the first thing you do when you get some video that seems suspicious? Can you broadly outline the steps you take to verify a video or a photo, and roughly how long does it take?
Elyse Samuels: So, the first thing we’ll want to do is confirm the location of where it happened, specifically because, like I said, people might share videos or things that are saying is relevant to the war but is really from Syria or entirely different conflict zone. We call that geolocation. What we’ll do is look for identifiable landmarks in the building and compare that to source imagery that we trust, most often on Google maps or Google earth. But that could also be photograph or other video from a verified source. That process, I would say, is our biggest first threshold. If we can’t do that, we will probably move on to something else. That can be easier said than done. Sometimes there might be a store or a really well-known building that you can find very easily and it can take all of five to 10 minutes. Other times, things might be really obscured. You might be out in the countryside or something might be really zoomed in and you don’t have a lot of clues to try to determine where you are. And so, depending on how important the video is or how much time you have, it could take several hours, if not more.
From there, once you’ve positively geolocated it, the second element you’ll want to firm is the time. Because there’s so much information coming out, it’s hard to know, was this filmed today? Was it filmed a week ago? Was it filmed a year ago? We try to really home in on the time by looking at the source and other sources that have posted that video. So is it possible that if you see that video having been posted a week or so earlier, you know that it’s old. You can look at things like type of day, the weather. Is that lining up with things that you know about where in the world you are, and are there other visual cues or examples of the same incident? So, are you seeing another video or photo of the same thing, but from a different angle and that’s being shared at the same time? That can give you further confidence, “Okay, this happened on this day. I’m seeing many different videos of the same event.”
Darragh Worland: What happens if you can’t authoritatively say the video or this information is real? Do you warn your audience that something’s off or do you just not use it or publish it?
Elyse Samuels: Yeah, if we can’t verify something, we won’t publish it. And that’s really in order not to further spread any of that misinformation. If something is being shared really widely and is almost gone viral in a way, and we think is wrong, we might work to debunk it and then share that information. But again, we wouldn’t even publish debunking something until we felt really confident we had proven, with concrete evidence, that it wasn’t purporting to show what it said.
Darragh Worland: Deep, fake videos of Zelensky ordering his troops to surrender and Putin claiming victory have been making the rounds on the internet. Is this the first time we’re seeing deep fakes of world leaders used in such a high stakes situation, and particularly a war time situation? And how dangerous are these videos? Does this mark the dawning of a new era of disinformation?
Elyse Samuels: It’s alarming to see that come up in this instance. I can’t definitively say this is the first time we’ve seen this in a war time, but I would say that from my knowledge on this, deep fakes have been used more so in a space of celebrities. They were used quite often in the porn industry. It wasn’t so much focused on politicians in a serious way, claiming something to be that was completely false.
I do know there have been instances of where misinformation around deep fakes has played out. In 2019, there was a video of the president of Gabon, which people claimed was a deep fake, but really wasn’t, but might have given fuel to a coup that happened there in early 2019. So, I think the rhetoric around deep fakes has been discussed for many years, but that it’s true that the advances in technology and making them more convincing I think is improving.
That being said, there are ways to ward against falling for a deep fake. And in most cases, it’s really important to focus on the source of the information. If you’re seeing something that’s not being published specifically by Zelensky or the government or their team and it’s coming from someone that is unknown or untrustworthy, I think, again, circulating all of the different pieces of information to understand, can I trust this, is always going to be important, especially as the threat of deep fakes might increase.
Darragh Worland: Do you worry that this could be potentially used to manipulate Americans during a war we’re directly involved in? Is there a potential warning for Americans in this?
Elyse Samuels: It’s still to be determined how convincing the deep fake technology will be in the future. I think that there is a lot of concern, but maybe not a lot of examples that we’re seeing yet. I do think that, in this instance, it could be a warning or a wake-up call as to how there was an example of it in war time conflict. And so, if the US did get involved in any sort of war, understanding how US politicians could be manipulated in the same way is important. But I think there’s still more to be determined about how advanced the technology will actually get.
Darragh Worland: A lot of disinformation comes out of Russia. It’s part of Putin’s approach to the way he governs. There’s also misinformation coming out of Ukraine as well. And I don’t necessarily want to equate the two by any means, but at one point, the Ukrainian president, Zelensky, claimed that Russians were abandoning their tanks and that the Russian military had even become one of the biggest suppliers of military gear to the Ukrainian war effort.
To me, that sounded pretty hyperbolic. I’m sure there’s a lot of people that want to believe that, if they want to believe that the Ukrainians can be beat the Russians in this war. How do you verify a statement like that? Can you verify a statement like that?
Elyse Samuels: That’s something that’s really hard to verify because it’s so all-encompassing. I think the first thing that we would do is maybe look for particular instances where maybe we’ve seen Russian tanks abandoned or Russian military vehicles that have been destroyed. We could verify certain instances, but the problem is trying to consider what you might not know.
The country is big, the conflict is big. We can’t definitively say that that is happening at a consistent or significant rate. And so, I think we could maybe point to particular instances of that but verifying a statement that’s that broad would be really difficult.
Darragh Worland: What advice do you give your audience when they encounter information about the war, whether it’s a video that seems questionable, or even a video that they want to believe because of their own confirmation bias and what they really want to believe about the outcome of the war?
Elyse Samuels: I would say, as difficult as it is, be skeptical. Look at the source. Really try to investigate or consider who is telling you that information. Is it a government source on either side that might be pushing some sort of propaganda or an agenda? Is it a news organization or a person who might have a particular political bent? To understand where you’re getting that information from first.
And then, secondly, the video or the information a bit more critically too. Who are they citing? Does the video look strange or like it could be from any type of conflict? And if there’s not a lot of context there, is that the only piece of evidence that this particular source has for that event, or is it supported by many different visuals and reports and corroborating evidence? So almost being like your own detective in understanding the content and then also who is sharing it with you.
Darragh Worland: Speaking of the hospitals that have been targeted, I want to talk about a specific photo of an expectant mother. I’m going to describe it in detail because we’re obviously not a visual medium and I want to describe for listeners who may not have seen this photo.
It’s an expectant mother in pajamas walking downstairs in a stairwell that’s clearly been bombed or hit by something. The handrail is warped, the ceiling’s coming down. The woman looks to be nearly full term. She’s carrying bags. She has a blanket over her shoulders and she has what might be traces of blood on her. I’ve seen the photo with a caption that says, “Marianna Vishegirskaya walks downstairs in a maternity hospital damaged by shelling in Mariupol, Ukraine. Her baby was delivered the next day to the sound of shelling, and Russia tried to claim the hospital was empty.” That was the caption and the photo credit is given to Evgeniy Maloletka.
But so, the fact that there’s a caption, people are named, there’s a credit, all the usual key pieces of evidence of authenticity are there, except for maybe the name of the hospital, which I did find interesting, like why is the hospital not named? But then, the Russian government claimed the woman is a fake.
So, I guess all of these authenticities there, maybe that just leaves the Russian government to make one claim, that, well, okay, she’s fake. She’s what’s called a “crisis actor.” It’s a claim that’s often made in situations like this, where you want to deny something’s happened. They’ve held firm in that assertion that, well, the hospital was empty when it was bombed. So not denying it was bombed, but it was empty.
How do you verify a photo like that? Did you verify it? How do you prove that this woman Marianna is a real person and delivered a real baby and was in that hospital? And how can consumers know the truth?
Elyse Samuels: I hadn’t actually personally looked into this when it happened, but very, very limited amount of research on my own. I would say what my first instinct was, in that case, was to look for other reports or visuals of what we’re being told is happening. In this case, I would look up the woman’s name, the hospital, other information about the attack, to understand if I could verify it or not.
In this case, and I just know this because I did verify the attack that happened on the hospital itself, there was video of people exiting the building. So I think that’s one piece of information that would at least contradict what the Russians were saying that it was empty.
Secondly, there’s a second photo. It’s not the same one that you described, but it’s her after having given birth to her daughter. It was taken by the Associated Press. You can see she’s wearing the same clothes as the photo that you just described. In that case, the Associated Press is a news organization that I trust and know is going to give me reliable information, is going to interview maybe her or doctors or other people there that wouldn’t be fooled into believing, for instance, a crisis actor.
And so, I think those are just two examples, but it’s ways in which you’re almost circumventing the original by understanding, what are the other sources available? What else is going to confirm what’s being said or not, and then making a decision from there. I think it’s more suspicious if there’s only one piece of information, and no one else is reporting on it, or there’s no other way to cross-reference it with trusted sources, whether that’s news organizations or people on the ground, just other information that’s going to inform what you’re seeing.
Darragh Worland: Are there any other sources or places that you would recommend readers go to find trustworthy information?
Elyse Samuels: I would say news organizations that you trust obviously are also, aside from The Washington Post, many have teams that are doing this kind of diligent verification work. But in addition to that, there’s a group, the Center for Information Resilience, as well as another group, Bellingcat, which uses similar open source techniques, and they’ve teamed up, I think, with a few other groups too, to create this map, that they are verifying incidents of what’s going on in Ukraine.
I think they employ all the same kind of verification techniques. I just went over and are really trusted sources that are covering this very closely. So those would be two additional places for information on this I would go to.
Darragh Worland: Great. Thanks for those tips. Really appreciate your time today. Thank you for helping us understand the amount of time and effort that goes into verifying this information that’s coming out of the war, because I don’t think that news consumers realize that all this effort is going into it.
Elyse Samuels: Yeah. Thank you.
Thanks for listening. Is That A Fact? is a production of the News Literacy Project, a non-partisan education non-profit helping educators, students, and the general public become news literate so they can be active consumers of news and information and equal and engaged participants in a democracy. I’m your host, Darragh Worland. Our executive producer is Mike Webb. Our editor is Timothy Kramer, and our theme music is by Eryn Busch. To learn more about the News Literacy Project, go to newslit.org and follow us on social media.