The war in Ukraine didn’t begin in 2022; it started 14 years earlier when Russia invaded Georgia and got away with it. That was the first dress rehearsal for what’s happening now, said Natalia Antelava, co-founder of CodaStory.com, during INMA’s recent Newsroom Initaitive master class on Putting Newsrooms into the News Business.
“Then the Obama administration came in and presented Russia with a red ‘reset’ button, a symbolic gift of resetting the relationship with Russia,” Antelava said, noting most of the newspaper headlines around that event focused on the fact that the U.S. had somehow misspelled “reset” in Russian. What was overlooked, she said, was that “Russia was basically getting away with murder. And that’s what it’s been doing since then.”
By not delving into stories such as the poisoning of outspoken Putin critic Alexei Navalny or the lesser-known murders in Europe that have occurred through the years, news media companies have missed an opportunity to expose the truth and combat disinformation, she said.
“As journalists, we tend to parachute in and out of crises, and we leave this big vacuum of public understanding in between,” Antelava said. “These are the vacuums that then are very often filled by disinformation.”
To understand the power of fake news, she said it’s important to look at more than just the disinformation being generated today, but to step back and see how it has been used as a weapon in the past.
CodaStory.com, a non-profit publication that launched in 2016, tries to “take a long lens and look at underlying currents and issues affecting the world.” The first topic it took on upon its crowdfunded launch was the Kremlin’s anti-LGBTQ campaign. The publication looked at how the topic was used as a scare tactic and how the Kremlin fueled people’s fear with false information.
“We traced and did stories on how, for Putin, it has become the scapegoat,” she said. He warned that Europe would impose gay marriage upon them and used these false statements as examples of how the west was dangerous and trying to take away freedom of choice. The disinformation was spread on both local and regional levels, then supported by legislation based on the now-accepted disinformation.
“Several years later, as we stayed on the story, we saw how Putin became the hero of the far right using very similar narratives: standing up for family values and against the LGBTQ,” Antelava said.
She added that western companies were complicit in helping Putin build a more totalitarian state by allowing the spread of disinformation through digital measures. And, as a result, what’s being seen today is “full-on digital totalitarianism. He’s no longer an autocrat, he is a full-on dictator now. [CodaStory has] this a wealth of stories that explains a lot of the narratives that Russia is using now to confuse [people].”
That same approach is being taken now with the invasion of Ukraine, and Antelava said the west had missed critical opportunities to push back against disinformation and report on what was happening within Ukraine.
“Thousands of Ukrainians have been dying since 2014, and that has largely been omitted from news coverage — not all news coverage but a lot of it. It was omitted from that larger narrative,” she said. “I think we all should be trying to connect the dots between stories, and I think if we had done that, we would all be a little less surprised.”
Moving forward, Antelava said she hopes publishers will take a closer look at where they are getting their funding and how it affects their coverage. Tech stories are important, too, she said.
“We are largely oblivious to the fact that what Big Tech and authoritarian leaders have in common is power without accountability,” she said. “We are seeing that play out in this case. And I think now it’s a good time to take a closer look at what YouTube and Facebook and big platforms have done in Russia over the years and how that compares to what they do in other countries — and not favourably.”