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Innovation Category


Building citizen skills to combat misinformation and fake news.


This project exhibits creative combinations of tools, tactics and novel approaches to scaling training in order to develop long-term changes in critical thinking skills among brand new public audiences (within a relatively short space of time).

Main Features of the Populist Context

While populism in Ukraine is distinct from that in other parts of Europe (with anti-immigration, anti-Muslim and nationalist ethnic rhetoric less present), it still exhibits the two core elements:

anti-elitism: Politicians exploit binary identities hinged on corruption, an issue that has historically defined Ukranian politics. Leading candidates in the 2018-19 presidential campaign advocated for “punishing corrupt elites” in favour of poor Ukrainians, and engaged social grievance narratives around the everyday problems faced by ordinary people, such as low income and high prices, to promote the state’s ability to deliver cheaper public services and reduce prices. Unlike many Western European populist contexts, nostalgia for the former Soviet Union (rather than for ethnic nationalism) is the basis for the polarisation of two groups.

anti-pluralism: While the recent election of President Volodymyr Zelensky was widely regarded as a public rebuke of traditional establishment politicians, it is ironic and unsettling that he, as a former comedian, rose to fame due to his popular TV series, “Servant of the People”, a parody of the powerful personality cults that have dominated politics in Ukraine.

Other additional features of populism in Ukraine are:

anti-debate: According to the political scientist Taras Kuzio, “Ukrainian populists, both “pro-Western” and “pro-Russian”, hold authoritarian and undemocratic traits commonly found in European populists. These include making decisions without listening to advice, believing everybody else is wrong, and using populism for the goal of attaining maximum power”.

resistant to countervailing facts: Politicians have been questioned about their misrepresentation and distortion of information about everything from gas prices to tariffs, pensions and salaries. Public officials and politicians have also been caught knowingly disseminating false information, undermining citizen’s confidence in the media and its role in publicly holding authorities to account.

crisis, breakdown or threat: Populist politicians have also exploited the genuine crisis of the ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine in support of their specific agendas.

A recent study which looked at vulnerability to populism found that 84% of Ukrainians support populist messages, and 59% think that the promises made are achievable.

Role of Digital Media

Today, disinformation, misinformation and propaganda pollute the information space worldwide. The seismic shift in the volume, speed and reach of manipulated content, facilitated by massive platforms with algorithms designed to maximise engagement, impacts everyone. Research shows that people are biased information-seekers — emotionally wired to crave, believe and share sensational information — and social media platforms are the perfect enabler. Mobile devices deliver continuous information and reinforce confirmation biases and selective reasoning that appeal to basic cravings for reassurance, belonging and recognition. This creates an ideal environment for manipulation by foreign and domestic players. It results in polarisation, emboldened hate speech, trolling and silencing of marginalised groups, pervasive distrust of media and institutions and resulting failures of democracy.

In 2019, 55% of respondents in a 38-country study identified misinformation as a concern and barely 40% trust the news. Ukraine is no exception; Ukrainians’ trust in media decreases annually (only one in four trusts the media). While media consumption remains high, disinformation is recognised as a national security issue. Although IREX’s Learn to Discern (L2D) Media Literacy Training approach was designed as a response to the sharp increase in Kremlin-sponsored disinformation and propaganda in 2014 (which was aimed at undermining democratic political stability in Ukraine and increasing support for Russia’s expansionist aims), its relevance and value in Ukraine’s domestic populist context is also clear.

Main Features of the Innovation

IREX’s Learn to Discern (L2D) Media Literacy Training approach helps citizens recognise and resist disinformation, propaganda and hate speech by building practical skills for citizens of all ages through interactive training, videos, games and other online learning experiences.

The main features of the innovation include:

Creative combinations of tools and tactics reached large numbers of citizens who shared what they learned. These included tailored skill-building seminars, gaming resources, public service announcements, billboard messages and print and social media campaigns. The skill-building seminars directly involved more than 15,000 participants of all ages and professional backgrounds — high school teachers and students, professional union members, medical workers, police officers and library patrons — who in turn shared what they learned with more than 90,000 family members, co-workers and peers. The public service announcements and billboard campaign alerted more than 20 million Ukrainian citizens to the danger of manipulation in their informational landscape.

L2D participants developed significantly better news analysis skills, greater knowledge of the news media environment, a stronger sense of agency over their consumption of media sources and were also more likely to identify disinformation, separate opinion from fact and consult a wider range of news sources.

The approach achieved longer and more lasting effects on participants’ behaviours compared to other media literacy campaigns. An impact evaluation in 2017 showed the persistence of these skills and knowledge even 1.5 years after participants completed the programme. The effects of other media literacy campaigns, in contrast, typically wane after one year.

By mobilising hundreds of volunteers and leveraging livestreaming technology, IREX delivered the country’s largest ever media literacy training programme. Its simultaneous mass lessons drew almost 8,000 people at more than 400 locations ahead of the 2019 presidential elections. Ne Vir, Perevir (Don’t Trust, Verify), a countrywide series of one hour-long fact-finding lessons, taught thousands of Ukrainians effective and simple techniques for identifying disinformation and manipulation in photos, separating facts and opinions and analysing the data and results of pre-election opinion polling.

The L2D programme has been further adapted to respond to emerging needs. For example, IREX is currently working with the education system through its L2D-Ed programme to integrate key critical information consumption skills into existing school educational and teacher training curricula.

The approach has been successfully scaled to other contexts, such as Indonesia, Jordan, Serbia, Tunisia and the USA.

Key Takeaways

  1. The programme taught new audiences critical thinking skills with an emphasis on how to consume, rather than dictating what news to consume. It earned the trust of participants by using neutral examples, building and respecting their own agency, and not overloading them with information. Not only did this leverage and reinforce the power of trust and peer learning, but it also provided the trainers with a practical and flexible curriculum that they could tailor to individual groups.

  2. Media literacy campaigns should empower citizens to trust their own abilities of verifying and detecting bad information, rather than creating skeptics mistrustful of all information. The training was directly relevant to participants’ daily experiences, with a transformational personal trigger motivating their desire to learn and act, through the initial “shock” of realising the extent to which propaganda was affecting their perceptions.

  3. More investment of resources and time is needed to understand how best to inspire demand for good information. We need to show people the positive impact of having access to fact-based information, and understand how to both cultivate and respond to demand for it.

Innovation Categorisation

We have categorised this as an established transformational innovation. It has successfully reached new audiences, directly and indirectly, through new and creative use of tools and tactics. The media literacy skills it promotes have had a sustainable impact, and it has been scaled to other contexts.

Innovating Organisation

IREX is an international non-profit organisation dedicated to building a more just, prosperous, and inclusive world by extending access to information and education, empowering youth, cultivating leaders and strengthening institutions. With an annual portfolio of $90 million and activities in 120 countries, IREX is a thought leader in media literacy, media development, citizen reporting, content production and consumption and journalist safety.

Innovation Report     2019