By Mark Fairlie

This year’s TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design) conference – ‘The Age of Amazement’ – opened its doors on Tuesday; featuring thought-evoking and emotional talks from speakers hailing from all across the globe.

Kicking off the conference in Vancouver was a powerful speech by Ukrainian journalist, Olga Yurkova whose contribution generated much debate and reflection around the need to do more to counter fake news in today’s media.

Russian propaganda in Ukraine

During her speech at the conference, Yurkova described a story which had been published by Russian state media in which a three-year-old girl was supposedly “crucified” by the Ukrainian army.

“The only problem was that the story was not true,” said Yurkova.

This false report, however, is only the tip of the iceberg. Fake news has become a serious problem in Eastern Europe for many years, according to Yurkova, with the annexation of Crimea and the war in eastern Ukraine resulting in false stories from Russia being created to manipulate public opinion.

“There is this huge propaganda machine on the other side with money, professionals and systems powering it, and volunteers on our side. But, we do what we can do,” Yurkova stated.

For this reason, four years ago, Yurkova and a group of lecturers, students and graduates of the Kyiv Mohyla Journalism School launched StopFake – a fact-checking website set up to combat Russian propaganda in Ukraine.

“Do your research”

Ukrainian journalist speaks out in fight against fake news

Contributors to the StopFake site includes media professionals from all over the world. Collectively, these volunteers join forces to fact-check, edit, translate and debunk false information in the media.

Thanks to the research of StopFake’s members, the story of the three-year-old girl was found to be untrue. The woman that reported the story had claimed to be a refugee, but after closer investigation was found to be the wife of a pro-Russian militant. Even the location in the false report was found to not actually exist.

Since 2014, StopFake has uncovered more than 1,000 misleading news items across the Ukraine, whilst teaching more than 10,000 people how to identify fake news.

“If the story is too emotional, too dramatic, it is likely it is not true. The truth is often boring,” says Yurkova.

“Do your research, look at other sites. Google names and addresses. Society depends on trust and it is up to all of us to find a way to rebuild it.”

Is fake news ‘dangerous’?

Whilst Yurkova’s team were quickly able to disprove the news story, the damage caused by fake reports such as this is concerning. Not only did many people in both Ukraine and Russia believe the story of the crucifixion, Yurkova claims it directly led to people “taking up arms”.

She told the TED audience of the dangers fake news represented, not just in Ukraine, but everywhere.

“Ukraine has been subject to Russian propaganda for four years and now fake news is happening all over the world… People no longer know what is real and what is fake, and a lot of people have stopped believing anything at all. This is even more dangerous.”

Last year, British-Iranian journalist Christiane Amanpour gave a similar Ted Talk at the TEDxGlobal event in New York. In the discussion, titled ‘How to Seek Truth in the Era of Fake News’, Amanpour noted the mass of un-curated information now available online.

She said that in the world today,

“our problems are so severe that, unless we are all engaged as global citizens who appreciate the truth, who understand science, empirical evidence and facts, then we are just simply going to be wandering along to a potential catastrophe”.

TED 2018 will conclude on April 14th.