Brooke Gladstone: This week, the Ukrainian Armed Forces did what was long anticipated.
Speaker 2: The Ukrainian counter-offensive is now underway. Four villages were already taken back from Russian control in the south.
Speaker 3: There's heavy fighting right now in the area around Kherson, a crucial port city near the Black Sea.
Speaker 4: This strike hit a key bridge in Kherson City which is under Russian control.
Speaker 5: Kiev trying to recapture this, the only regional capital that has been captured in the six months of war and that remains in Russian hands. Further off, the--
Brooke Gladstone: Analysts call the battle for Kherson a game of bridges. It's all documented on the homepage of Ukrainska Pravda, an independent news outlet in Ukraine. There you'll learn that Ukraine's forces have taken control of two of those bridges, Kakhovka and Antonivka. The site also keeps a running tally of the "total approximate losses of the enemy." On the day we recorded this podcast, day 189 of the war, Russian losses include 234 aircraft, over 1,900 tanks, 15 ships and boats.
It's this reporting by Ukrainians for both local and international audiences that Andrey Boborykin says sets Ukraine's local media apart. He's the executive director of Ukrainska Pravda, one of Ukraine's biggest international outlets. He's also a member of the Media Development Foundation, an organization helping Ukrainian media survive the war. Meanwhile, he says Russian state news continues to be viewed by millions around the world, supported to some degree by the social media platforms and the tech companies that we've come to know.
Andrey Boborykin: When the war started in Ukraine, Facebook and Google were quick to say that, "Okay, we are banning Russia Today and Sputnik and all the state-run channels from our platforms." I wanted to check whether this was done. When I checked globally, Russian state-run media outlets were performing outstandingly well. In some months, they were in top two and top three globally. That means that they had hundreds of millions of views per month, bigger than CNN and YouTube.
Brooke Gladstone: Google and Facebook or Meta would say that they banned a lot of these sites after the invasion, but, for instance, on Facebook, on Meta, they're really under a shadow ban. You can still post links to RT and Sputnik and you can still search for pages.
Andrey Boborykin: Yes. What they did was prevent people living in the USA or Canada from accessing these pages and the content these pages are posting. They did the same thing in Europe, but these pages, they have been left on the platform, and if you are not living in the territories that I mentioned, like if you are living in Nigeria, for instance, you can access this content freely.
Even if you are in Ukraine, if I'm using a VPN, I can take a link from Russia Today, which you cannot access from Ukraine because it's banned in our country, but I can take any link and I can post it on my Facebook account.
Brooke Gladstone: What do you think these platforms should be doing to prevent lies from being propagated on their sites?
Andrey Boborykin: I think that the big tech, both Facebook, Meta, and Google should acknowledge that these properties have been able to freely evolve on their platforms. Right now it feels like this is a new thing. Russia Today, Sputnik, and Russia One all of a sudden appeared on February 24 on Facebook and Google and YouTube. In fact, it was several years of systemic growth, a big part of which was incentivized by advertising.
Brooke Gladstone: A lot of Russian advertising, so they should admit that this has been going on for quite a while and that their efforts have not been complete. You also feel a great deal of frustration with the way that they have been banning certain Ukrainian content, which you say really does effectively serve the readers.
Andrey Boborykin: Yes. As part of Media Development Foundation, which is a Ukrainian non-profit working with independent local publishers, we work with over 50 independent local publishers in Ukraine and a lot of data comes through us about their content being banned and their Facebook pages being penalized for violating Facebook community guidelines, but when we try to go deeper into that, it appears that a lot of these bans are actually strange interpretations of very broad guidelines that Facebook has. A very frequent example is when a publisher reports an use piece that involves Azov Batallion, which is a military unit.
Brooke Gladstone: This is a very controversial unit. In the past, it had connections with far-right groups. It had a terrible reputation, but it has been fighting on the side of Ukraine in this war. You noted that there's a tremendous double standard, international organizations report a lot about Azov, and that using that logic you said, you could report on ISIS or Al-Qaeda. We can't just ban information from groups that may have a bad smell.
Andrey Boborykin: Yes. We see that in many cases, what is banned is a legitimate news piece about something happening that involves Azov. This is clearly information within the public interest and the publishers are being penalized for just doing their job, which is crazy.
Ukraine used to be a region that is not of a big interest to big tech companies. We don't have a very big dedicated team of specialists who work through these cases and reports. I think that it's a matter of resources within Facebook and it's a matter of hiring, I don't know, 10 more people for the media partnerships team that works specifically with Ukraine, because currently, as far as we know on that team, it's a couple of people working from Poland that have to deal with hundreds of requests and queries from Ukrainian publishers.
Brooke Gladstone: Right. Of course, it would be terribly expensive for a small startup like Facebook to hire a few more people to cover this issue, but I know it gets up your nose that Google doesn't get any bashing compared to Facebook, but it's just as bad, you think?
Andrey Boborykin: Yes, because YouTube, it's a very popular platform in Ukraine. It's one of the biggest websites in Ukraine. It has over 20 million people monthly visiting YouTube. I think that Google gets very little bashing for allowing Russian-related, Russian-funded content to proliferate on this platform. I have a very personal example that I did not discuss previously. A couple of weeks ago, I evacuated my relatives from Mykolaiv, which is a city in the south of Ukraine, my hometown that is currently heavily shelled by the Russians, and I had to evacuate my wife's grandparents from there.
When I was moving their stuff to take to Kyiv, I noticed that they had a smart television, it allows you to watch YouTube on TV. There was a YouTube on and it was showing a channel that I clearly know is funded by the Russian propaganda funds, and you could freely watch it in the cities that is heavily shelled by Russian. I think that 100% Google isn't doing enough to prevent that from happening.
Brooke Gladstone: Let's talk about the plight now of Ukrainian newspapers. When it comes to the ad market, it is way, way down. Of course, that's true of newspapers globally, and actually, the independent press in Ukraine is relatively young.
Andrey Boborykin: Yes. As opposed to American or Western media, we don't have this entire history of 20th century where the print media or television or radio, the legacy media, proliferated. It all just started for us after Ukraine got its independence in 1991. The internet disrupted most of everything that started back then, so we have a very problematic field of local news, where the legacy local news are slowly dying and the new ones are having trouble growing. This all stopped during the war because it was all ad-supported and the ad market almost disappeared.
Brooke Gladstone: You've also seen such an exodus of citizens who used the media. Many of them have decided to stay in Europe and elsewhere, and so they go less and less to your websites.
Andrey Boborykin: Yes. One of the significant problems that we are seeing is that for some regions, there are two processes happening at the same time. On one side, the audience is shifting, people are going to safer locations from the eastern and the southern parts of Ukraine, and at the same time, the editorial teams of the local publishers who also have to leave their places. They find themselves in the situation where they live in a different region and have to report about their own region, but their audience have left.
This situation is very problematic and I think it deserves more attention, both from the international media community and from the expert community, from the donor community, because we will have a region as big as several European countries combined, where there are large news deserts and millions of people having no local news publishers.
Brooke Gladstone: What do you think about the issue of war fatigue? A lot of people say that signs are the West is still paying attention, but not so much to what's happening in Ukraine. There was a chart Axios made that showed the coverage declining in terms of time and page views.
Andrey Boborykin: Yes. I've seen the chart from Axios and I think that it's oversimplifying the processes that are going on. Yes, obviously the number of mentions of Ukraine is dropping because the initial shock of the craziness of the war in the middle of Europe in 2022 has passed and everyone got pretty much used to that, even inside Ukraine, not just globally, and we as a big media publication in Ukraine, we also keep track of the public interest towards these topics, both in Ukraine and globally, for our English language wire.
I can say that the attention and interest is decreasing, but I wouldn't specifically call it fatigue because I think that's quite a natural process. It would be surprising for us to expect that people would be constantly glued to the topic of what's happening in Ukraine or what's happening on the battlefield. Anyways, even if we agree to that there is a fatigue and the attention is dropping, if we see the amount of attention we get now and compare it to before the war, it will still be significantly several times higher. Internally, our metrics like the audience numbers we get are much lower now than they used to be in the first months of the war when we got close to one billion page views across our website.
Brooke Gladstone: Wow.
Andrey Boborykin: Now it's much less, but it's still several times higher than before the war. I wouldn't call it fatigue, I would just call it a natural psychological process of getting used to something.
Brooke Gladstone: what are the stakes if a very vulnerable independent Ukrainian media fails?
Andrey Boborykin: The stake is a young democracy that will end. If we don't have independent media in a big country, corruption, political corruption, election interference will happen and will proliferate and this will all be happening no matter whether there is a war or there is no war. Like any country, Ukraine drastically needs independent local and national journalism. I think that both Ukraine and the broader region will benefit from that.
Brooke Gladstone: Andrey, thank you very much.
Andrey Boborykin: Thank you for having me.
Brooke Gladstone: Andrey Boborykin is the CEO of Ukrainska Pravda, one of the biggest independent news outlets in Ukraine. He's also a member of the Media Development Foundation, an organization helping Ukrainian media survive the war. Thanks for listening to our midweek podcast. Join us for the big show this week, where you'll hear more about the creative ways that Ukrainians are fighting back in the information war. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
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