May 24, 2019

What the U.S. Needs to Learn from the Ukraine

“The eighth and ninth graders didn’t realize their teacher was wrapping another skill inside their classes: how to spot fake news and hate speech. Students learning about world history also learned about how propagandists could manipulate the historical narrative. Language and literature students learned about the political uses of language. Art students learned how to check whether photographs had been manipulated, or video footage was being deployed as an emotional weapon.

Long before Russian fake news and troll farms roiled American politics, Ukraine was Russia’s testing ground, a guinea pig in the bigger disinformation wars to come. Classroom education like this is one of the ways Ukrainians are fighting back. The education group IREX, working with the Ukrainian government, rolled out the pilot project Learn to Discern in 50 schools in four cities across the country in September 2018. Compared to students who didn’t get these lessons, the group’s report released last Friday declared, those receiving Learn to Discern training were twice as likely to detect hate speech, 18 percent better at identifying fake news stories, 16 percent better at sorting out fact from opinion, and 14 percent more knowledgeable about the role of the news media industry. IREX plans to expand its pilot curriculum to the U.S.

With Ukraine’s national elections approaching on Sunday, and American elections approaching next year, Ukraine’s story can be the U.S.’s biggest lesson for how to prepare for more Russian disinformation and cyber-warfare. Despite the now ample body of evidence that Russian internet campaigns were a significant force in the 2016 presidential election, the story began well before Trump’s presidency, when Russian trolls and commentators began drumming up the idea of ethnic unity with the Crimea, the strategic land jutting out into the Black Sea. After protesters ousted the Russia-friendly president of Ukraine in February 2014, militias claiming to be acting in the name of the Russian majority of the Crimea seized the peninsula. The Crimea was annexed into Russia a few weeks later. The ongoing and little-covered civil war in eastern Ukraine has since amassed a death toll of more than 13,000.”

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