As the Russian invasion of Ukraine continues, our columnist talks exclusively to one Ukrainian IT professional helping his people to counter fake news and to stay connected in the face of the enemy.
Never before has the world been exposed to so many blatant and cynical lies. Since the start of Russia’s invasion of my native Ukraine, Russian mass media has been pouring out tons of dirty fakes.
The picture that a gullible Russian citizen can get out of all that torrent of untruth is roughly as follows: Ukrainian neo-fascists have been tormenting their country’s Russian-speakers for years until the valiant Russian army decided to protect them from “genocide” and oppression by sending a limited contingent of its troops to Ukraine. Ukrainians, having lost control of their country, started shelling indiscriminately and razing to the ground their own towns and villages, with peaceful civilians in them. And so on.
No exaggeration here. Russia’s UN Ambassador, Vassily Nebenzya, was recorded claiming publicly at the UN Security Council on 7 March 2022 that Ukrainians must be “shelling themselves”!
So much did he immerse himself into the sticky bog of fabrication that I can suggest a new measuring unit for lying: one nebenzya. Then the statement about Ukrainians targeting their own civilians would probably amount to 10 nebenzyas and the affirmations about Ukrainian soldiers hiding inside the bombed maternity home in Mariupol, or the claims that Ukraine has been secretly developing chemical weapons, would amount to 100 nebenzyas each!
The fact some people inside Russia, including several of my (now former) friends, choose to believe such crude and primitive disinformation can only be explained by the persisting Soviet mentality, multiplied by fear.
Indeed, life in the former Soviet Union, of which Russia had constituted by far the largest bit, was characterised by constant lying on a national scale. Starting from kindergarten we were led to believe that our country was the greatest, the freest and the largest in the world. The latter was true, by the way, and that added a touch of authenticity to all other nonsense, including numerous lies about technology. At school, we were taught that Russia always conducted only just wars and always won; that everything – from the wheel to the electric bulb – had been invented by the Russians.
The first powered aircraft, of course, was plagiarised by Wilbur and Orville Wright from the Russian scientist Zhukovsky. Wireless telegraph was discovered not by Guglielmo Marconi, but by Alexander Popov. The steam engine was a creation of Ivan Polzunov’s genius and James Watt simply nicked his idea. And so on, and so forth.
The country’s main daily newspaper Pravda (‘The Truth‘) routinely brimmed with the most outrageous lies on the scale of up 1,000 nebenzyas per page. It took some courage to resist that all-permeating deception, with black officially branded white and vice versa.
The only cry in the wilderness came from dissident writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn. On 12 February 1974 he released the essay ‘Live Not by Lies’, in which he urged Soviet citizens as individuals to refrain from cooperating with the regime’s lies. Even the most timid, he wrote, can take this least demanding step toward spiritual independence. If many march together on this path of passive resistance, the whole inhuman system will totter and collapse.
His call fell on deaf ears.
It is now extremely important to protect Ukraine and the whole free world from the flow of lies emanating from the aggressor, who inherited the old Soviet ways of disinformation. The best way of doing so is to keep people connected and to give them access to reliable information channels.
My Canada-based son Dmitri, himself a cyber-security professional, introduced me to one of his Ukraine-based colleagues, now fighting the Russians at the tremendously important digital information front.
Digital lie-busters, as I came to refer to them, are children of the democratic Ukraine – a radically new type of the country’s youngsters, who greatly impressed me during my last visit to Ukraine in 2017. Educated, cultured and with good command of English, they were products of the new Ukrainian democracy, shaped by the continuous pressure of their aggressive totalitarian neighbour, Russia. Force breeds counterforce – this Third Law of Motion can also be applied to societies. Contrary to what he wanted to achieve, Putin has united Ukraine much more than the Russia-leaning Hetman Bohdan Khmelnytsky (1596-1657).
Vitaliy Moroz, one of these ‘new Ukrainians’, is an independent consultant in digital technologies, with more than 10 years experience in the field. He refused to talk to me in Russian, our common native language, and opted for English. I did not blame him. We spoke over Zoom.
Vitaliy told me that he was temporarily based not in Kyiv but in Vinnytsia – a small city in west-central Ukraine which was, so far, much safer than the constantly bombed Ukrainian capital.
“In this crucial for Ukraine time, like many other Ukrainians, I try to contribute to Ukraine’s victory over the Russian aggressors in different ways,” he told me quietly, without pathos.
“As a volunteer, I help in fundraising campaigns to buy medical equipment for Ukrainian soldiers – from AEDs [automated external defibrillators] to medical kits. The campaign goes on Facebook.
“As a media professional, I help local news organisations, affected by the war, to get funding and to get relocated. Also, I actively use my Twitter account to inform the world about developments in Ukraine.”
I asked Vitaliy about the digital technologies he uses in his work.
“Russia is targeting TV towers in our cities and we are doing our best to keep Ukraine online, to keep people connected. For that, we have launched DComms [decentralised communication networks] in different Ukrainian cities. Considering possible internet disruptions by Russia, decentralised networks help Ukrainian users to stay online and communicate with their families and friends in critical times. If one’s electricity supply gets cut off, it would help to have a pair of power banks to charge the smartphone.
“A similar idea is behind DComms. ‘Element’, an encrypted chat channel, helps me get updates from Kharkiv, which is daily shelled by Russia. Like some other social media platforms, Element helps people to feel part of the community, despite their temporary isolation.”
At one point, our Zoom conversation was interrupted. “I suddenly lost power,” Vitaly texted me shortly afterwards: I was worried that his house could have been attacked. Soon enough, his face reappeared on the screen as he reconnected from his smartphone, just to say that he is confident of Ukraine’s imminent victory.
I wish my young namesake a lot of good luck; he will certainly need it. And so will our country – Ukraine.
Vitaliy suggests two ways in which E&T readers can help Ukraine:
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