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Fact Checking the Conflict in Eastern Ukraine

Image by Bart van de Biezen on Flickr. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Image by Bart van de Biezen on Flickr. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

This is the first in a series of posts where RuNet Echo talks to the people behind several fact-checking projects in eastern Ukraine.

Amid the ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine, an information war between Russia and Ukraine has raged online and in the media. Much of the information warfare revolves around framing the conflict itself and arguing about its origins and implications, both historical and geopolitical, but some of the mud-slinging is a little more down to earth.

According to Russian state-controlled media outlets, the Kremlin hasn't sent a single piece of military equipment to the rebels in eastern Ukraine. Moscow's narrative is that all vehicles and weapons controlled by separatists were seized from the Ukrainian military. On the other side of the conflict, Kyiv regularly states that an overwhelming number of the separatists’ vehicles and weapons are provided by Russia, saying the Ukrainian military has lost relatively minimal supplies of equipment throughout the war.

While less glamorous than geopolitical speculation, the job of collecting, and verifying and/or debunking evidence of military presence and losses is nonetheless important. When it comes to public data, citizen enthusiasts are responsible for collecting the lion's share of what's available. RuNet Echo has previously covered some of the cases, but there are a number of organized initiatives focused on particular aspects of fact-finding and data verification in the eastern Ukraine conflict.

Grassroots projects and individual bloggers attempt to cut through government narratives on both sides to provide at least a glimpse of the situation as it is. Their work usually amounts to collecting photographic and video evidence of battles and military equipment in eastern Ukraine, geolocating, and crowdsourcing the verification efforts to provide greater context for the collected data.

Results and conclusions vary, but these citizen initiatives believe their approaches are more honest and revealing than the narratives spun by either the Ukrainian or Russian state-controlled media. Of course, while they pride themselves on being diligent with evidence, this doesn’t always prevent citizen projects from using a particular frame or agenda to cover the conflict.

Accounts of a “civil war”
Lostarmour.info maintains a large database of destroyed and captured military equipment, most of which it says is Ukrainian. According to the site’s administrators, the project was born out of exasperation with both the Ukrainian authorities, who tend to conceal the real losses of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, and the self-proclaimed “Donetsk/Luhansk People’s Republics” (DNR/LNR), which “tend to overestimate greatly the losses of the Ukrainian Armed Forces.”

Relying upon volunteers and crowdsourced comments, Lostarmour meticulously records the specific military equipment units and weapons that have been destroyed or captured from both the Ukrainian and separatist sides. The team that works on the photo and video database currently includes 10 people, and a few dozen other volunteers contribute edits in the comments under relevant sections. Every single entry is backed up with photos or videos, but there are no Russian flags to be found in the lists, though there are plenty from the DNR and LNR.

Screenshot of the Lostarmour tank database.

Screenshot of the Lostarmour.info armored vehicle database.

Lostarmour chooses to frame the conflict as a “civil war” instead of a conflict between Ukraine and Russia, so the focus is entirely on Ukrainian hardware, and they categorize the equipment as either “destroyed” or “trophy” (ostensibly meaning Ukrainian items captured by the separatists). While that does not help explain the provenance of some of the equipment that other citizen fact checkers claim is Russian, Lostarmour sees their work as historically significant and aiding in “objective information control.” They also hope to influence Ukrainians’ opinion of the conflict and their assessment of whether it’s worth joining the fight.

Самое главное – это раскрытие реального масштаба потерь военной техники на Донбассе перед населением Украины. Тут стоит отметить, что опираясь на фото и видеофакты, Lostarmour дает максимально консервативную оценку потерь, реальные потери значительно выше тех 700 единиц техники, внесенных в базу проекта. За каждой грудой искареженного металла, как правило стоят жизни экипажей, и судьбы их семей.

The most important [motive] is to disclose of the true scale of losses of military equipment in the Donbass to the people of Ukraine. It’s worth noting that Lostarmour gives the most conservative estimate of the losses based on photographic and video facts. The real losses are significantly higher than the 700 pieces of equipment that are in the project’s database. Each pile of mangled metal usually obscures the lives of the crew members, and the fate of their families.

A live map of the conflict
For over a year, the LiveUAMap project has maintained a map documenting notable events relating to the Ukrainian crisis. The project is a hybrid operation of a centralized editorial group involved in maintaining the site and a large, crowdsourced effort to collect newsworthy items to add to the ever-changing map. The site is available in over 20 languages, including English, Russian, and Ukrainian, and now even has an Android app.

Rodion Rozhkovsky, the co-founder and editor of LiveUAMap, told RuNet Echo most of the core team works on the project in their spare time. A small group of designers and developers work on the site itself, also developing projects like robots that crawl the web for new information and LiveUAMap‘s Android app. The three editors mostly deal with finding, verifying, and geolocating information, as well as translation tasks. The crowdsourcing effort is also spearheaded by a more or less constantly active group of about 10 volunteers who send information, clean up data, and find errors in map updates.

Screenshot of the LiveUAMap main page.

Screenshot of the LiveUAMap main page.

Rozhkovsky says most of the funding for the website comes from Google Ads, and this money funds compensation for the core team and server space. Volunteers work for free, but get honorable mentions for their contributions in the project's social media, if they choose to go public.

LiveUAMap aims to use “big data sources” to understand the current conflict and learn from it. The learning curve for citizen journalists is steep, as well, Rozhkovsky says, admitting that they’re constantly working on improving the quality of the information they publish and fact checking they perform.

Liveuamap.com does not identify with Russian state propaganda. But we also don’t subscribe to the methods of Ukrainian propaganda (e.g., the new Ministry of Info and its iArmy). We believe that Ukrainian strength is in truth, not propaganda. The real numbers of dead, MIAs [missing in action], POWs [prisoners of war] matter—one of our goals is to show the real situation on the map.

Askai's Twitter avatar.

Askai's Twitter avatar.

Tracking the Russian trail
A number of Ukrainians and Russians have devoted their free time to investigating single-handedly reports of Russian military equipment crossing the Ukrainian border and falling under control of pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine. One of the more popular and thorough of these sleuths is the anonymous Twitter user Askai, who also operates a LiveJournal with some of his most significant findings.

Askai specializes in tracking the photographic trail of specific tanks and other military vehicles from Russia into the battlefields in eastern Ukraine.

As has been rightly pointed out in the comments, the Pantzir-S1 in Luhansk was moving on Oboronnya street.

Askai told RuNet Echo he doesn’t think his work plays a huge role in the information war, though he knows some of his more prominent investigations have been picked up by the mainstream media. Askai’s main motivation for sleuthing the origins of military equipment was to “understand what was really happening in eastern Ukraine and share this with those who are interested in facts.” While he didn’t intend to battle Russian propaganda, he says, it became inevitable, because “propaganda lies, and average people wish to know the truth.”

Askai doesn’t think citizen verification and crowdsourced investigation projects significantly influence the conflict, partly because propaganda and manipulation, he says, work on a much grander scale, with Russian state channels broadcasting to audiences of millions—impossible competition for small websites with modest followings. The aims differ, as well, Askai says.

Пропаганда в России сочиняет истории о распятых мальчиках, играет на чувствах людей, не склонных к размышлению, подстрекает их взять в руки оружие.

У расследований и в сборе статистики же другая цель – информировать, предоставлять новые сведения.

Russian propaganda fabricates stories about crucified children, plays on the feelings of people who are not prone to thinking, and encourages them to take up arms.

Investigations collecting statistics have a completely different goal—to inform, to provide new knowledge.

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