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It has been pretty hectic for the Danish-Ukrainian researcher on disinformation Yevgeniy Golovchenko since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. On top of following the war, and offering his insight as an expert, he has had family members who have been the object of disinformation, and friends in Kyiv who have been on the verge of taking up arms.
Danish-Ukrainian disinformation researcher Yevgeniy Golovchenko usually sleeps like a log. But at five in the morning on 24 February he woke up with a jolt.
»It must have been intuition,« he says one month later.
It was at the same time that tens of thousands of Russian troops, who had been at the Ukrainian border for several weeks, invaded Ukraine and thereby launched one of the biggest wars in Europe since the Second World War.
Still half-asleep, Yevgeniy Golovchenko — like on every morning — checked the day’s news on Russian, Ukrainian and Western media while he was still in bed. War had broken out in the country where he had spent the first eleven years of his life. It started a month where his other research was temporarily put on hold as he focused on his role as an expert in disinformation. But, at the same time, he had to relate to friends in Ukraine wanting to take up arms, and family members who stubbornly maintain that Russia’s disinformation is the truth.
It is now exactly one month after that fateful morning, and Yevgeniy Golovchenko is his office under the roof of the old municipal hospital at the CSS campus in Copenhagen. It is here, with a view over the yard’s gardens, that his daily coding of his programmes takes place. The programmes gather, and sort, large data sets from social media to clarify how disinformation works. During the past month however, codes and datasets have been replaced by media work. While he has been following the war via the media, he has also often spoken as an expert.
Clad in a black turtleneck with grey trousers, he is clearly exhausted after a long month. Both his shoulders and eyelids hang.
»I have had difficulty sleeping at night lately,« he admits.
He had actually started working on a project on gender and diplomacy on social media – a break from constantly having to relate to the war and destruction which he has done for the last eight years of the Russia-Ukraine conflict. First as a student, when practically all his work was on the topic, and later as a researcher.
Born in 1990 in Ukraine. Grew up in Crimea and in Kyiv before moving to Frederikssund as an eleven-year-old with his mother.
Master’s in sociology from the University of Copenhagen before becoming a PhD student in political science in 2017.
PhD at the Department of Political Science on pro-Kremlin disinformation on social media.
Postdoc at the Department of Political Science, where he is doing research on social media diplomacy as part of the DIPLOFACE research project which is led by Rebecca Adler-Nissen and funded by the European Research Council
But since the start of the war, he has felt obligated to focus on the large-scale disinformation and censorship in connection with the conflict, and to answer media enquiries. Within hours of the invasion he had received the first ten media requests, and since then he has been busy answering questions from journalists affiliated with CNBC, Time Magazine, France24, and many more.
»It’s been mentally draining to be on call at all times,« says Yevgeniy Golovchenko.
»But I feel that it is my duty. I could spend time gathering in sleeping bags and clothes, which is extremely important as well. But I can also spend time contributing my expertise to a debate over what is going on in the Russian media landscape, and how the information war is being fought over Ukraine on social media. These are the things that I’ve been trained for over the past many years. And I feel it is my responsibility to step in and talk about it when needed.«
Yevgeniy Golovchenko is used to being at the centre of media interest. When he started his PhD on disinformation in the beginning of 2017, the Oxford Dictionary had just named post-truth as word of the year. Donald Trump popularized the term fake news, and the US Senate was investigating a Russian influence campaign on the US presidential election with disinformation on social media. Disinformation has, in other words, been on everyone’s lips during the time period where Yevgeniy Golovchenko specialized in it.
But he has never been through a time as intense as now, with Russia invading Ukraine, and the battle over disinformation between Russia, Ukraine and the West playing out like never before. An intensity that he already felt when he woke up with a start one month ago.
My mind was racing on the invasion day morning, Yevgeniy Golovchenko remembers. His first thoughts lying in bed were grim: Thousands will die and millions will flee.
»And then as a natural consequence of this, my second thought was to write to friends and family. I wrote to one of my best friends who lives in Kyiv. He is just a normal guy in the world of business. But he was ready to take up arms and kill as many Russian soldiers as possible. It was surreal to have to deal with this,« he says.
That morning it also became clear to him that the disinformation of his research was not just something abstract. He felt the impact of this personally. He contacted his family in Kyiv, but then refrained from contacting close family members in Crimea, who over the past many years have been influenced by the Russian disinformation that he is doing research on. False narratives like the one that Russia was only conducting a limited, pinpoint operation, and that this was not outright war.
»I simply did not have the mental capacity to call them and try to convince them that Kyiv has been bombed,« says Yevgeniy Golovchenko, who has not talked to his family in Crimea since the invasion.
I actually thought that I lived in the old Soviet Union until I started in primary school.
Postdoc Yevgeniy Golovchenko
He finds a video on his phone that illustrates his point about the two different realities between the family in Kyiv and the family in Crimea.
The video shows the neighbourhood in Kyiv where Yevgeniy Golovchenko grew up. But it is no longer the same – ordinary blocks of flats have no sidewalls, so you can now look into the apartments where Ukrainians lived their daily lives only a few weeks ago. His own childhood home has had all the windows shattered after the bombings.
»One of my family members sent pictures of the bombings to the family in Crimea, but they just thought that it was fake, and that it hadn’t happened in reality,« he says with a subdued look.
Yevgeniy Golovchenko exhales, and pauses his flow of speech.
»I do my best to make a difference in this situation. Study disinformation and talk to as many journalists as possible, so people are better informed. But I’m not one of those brave people, who have the surplus of energy to convince a family member that Kyiv is actually being bombed,« he says.
On Yevgeniy Golovchenko’s office wall there is a Soviet propaganda poster from 1941. »Don’t chatter!« it says in Russian, under a picture of a headscarfed female worker with her finger to her lips.
He bought it for his office while he was a PhD student. Russian influence and covert influence campaigns are not a new phenomenon, he says.
»What we’re seeing now on social media is in many ways just a newer version of the methods that have been used for many decades: You keep facts hidden, and spread lies. What is new about social media is that it is much cheaper to produce information, so there are more people who participate in these campaigns, and their reach is faster and wider.«
Yevgeniy Golovchenko felt the Soviet propaganda during his own childhood in Ukraine. He grew up in Crimea and in Kyiv shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union, where they had not taken down the Lenin posters from the schools, or replaced the Soviet textbooks with new ones.
»I actually thought that I lived in the Soviet Union until I started in primary school,« he admits.
A teacher kindly explained to him that we now lived in a different time.
»And then, slowly, we started to get new textbooks that described the Soviet regime’s oppression, and all the other things that were not in the old books. And clearly it was a confusing time – for me as a child, but I also think for Ukraine in general that had to find its identity.«
At home, they had an old Soviet television set that barely worked. Here he saw Soviet films, which often focused on Nazi Germany, and he believed that Germans were still evil Nazis during his childhood.
»So I can, of course, relate to living in a country affected by propaganda. Many of the narratives that are presented on Russian TV nowadays also show Soviet nostalgia. Things like labelling Ukraine as Nazified, the fear of the dangerous West, and so on.«
The language of war is full of clichés about disinformation. The ‘fog of war’, the ‘first casualty of war is the truth’, and so on. But these are clichés for a reason – because they fit this occasion too, Yevgeniy Golovchenko says.
»It’s not just a war with tanks and weapons. It is a war over information – and this information actually affects what happens on the ground,« he says.
He realised the power of disinformation when Russia annexed Crimea in 2014. As a master’s student, Yevgeniy Golovchenko had a conversation over Skype with a close family member in Crimea. The person stubbornly insisted that the soldiers who were taking control of the peninsula were definitely not Russian. Instead, it was Berkut – a now dissolved Ukrainian unit of riot police – which was in the process of rebelling against the Ukrainian regime, so the person believed. Russia, which at the time denied that they were Russian soldiers, has since admitted that they were, in fact, Russian.
»Of course this made a very big impression on me,« says Yevgeniy Golovchenko.
»We have a person who is much closer to the events than me physically, but who is still trying to convince me that Russia’s disinformation is in fact correct. It dawned on me how strong disinformation can be,« he says.
He points out that the confusion about the Russian soldiers meant that it became harder to mobilize resistance to the annexation.
»If you don’t know who the soldiers are, it is also difficult to shoot at them,« he says.
The confusion over the invasion of Crimea is also one of the things that distinguishes the situation back then from today. It is clear to most people outside Russia, that the Russian invasion is actually taking place. And this has led to a significantly greater mobilisation against the Russian troops, which is also why Russia has met challenges in Ukraine.
Nevertheless, there is also disinformation at play this time – and in many ways to an even larger scale.
When Yevgeniy Golovchenko talks about the fight for truth during the current invasion, he once again draws parallels to the annexation of Crimea.
»Information plays a huge role — both then and today,« he says.
»Both then and now, the two sides use disinformation to confuse things. Especially on the first day, there were many conflicting stories about whether the Russian soldiers had landed somewhere, whether a particular street in Kyiv had been attacked, and so on.
It's not just a war with tanks and weapons. It is a war over information – and this information actually affects what happens on the ground.
For the Russians, disinformation is via the controlled Russian media system, where the authorities in practice have closed down independent media, blocked western social media, and have legislation in place that gives up to 15 years in prison for, say, calling the invasion a ‘war’.
»One of the first things the Russians did in Crimea was to turn off Ukrainian television signals, so that people primarily got the Russian state-controlled narrative about what happened – just as we see the Kremlin do so in Russia today. On top of that, there were campaigns on social media, where people were told that Ukrainian Nazis were on their way to Crimea to kill everyone who spoke Russian. It is exactly the same narratives that are running right now,« he says.
But since 2014, the Ukrainians have stepped up their fight against this. As early as 2017, they blocked the Russian counterpart to Facebook – Vkontakte – just as they have blocked Russian TV. The European Union has also joined the fight against disinformation with funding that would have been unthinkable only a short time ago. The Russian state-controlled media Sputnik and Russia Today are blocked in the EU.
As a kind of low-tech disinformation, Ukrainian authorities have set up guides on civil disobedience where they encourage citizens to lie about Ukrainian soldiers’ locations to the Russians. Signposts have been swapped to create confusion among Russian soldiers and Ukrainian citizens have put painted brown plates onto roads that resemble landmines. In this way, Russian tanks have to stop or deviate from roads so that their progress is impaired.
»The information war has really been stepped up – both in terms of the production of information, in the distribution of it, and in terms of the censorship of it,« says Yevgeniy Golovchenko.
Back in the office, Yevgeniy Golovchenko sums up the situation. Even though this last month has been his own kind of state of emergency, where he has had to put his current project aside on gender and diplomacy on social media for a few weeks to focus on the war in Ukraine, he cannot continue he says.
»It is really important to shed light on the situation right now. But if the only thing I do is talk to journalists about what is going on right now, I might as well just quit the university and become a media commentator. It has taken years to build up the knowledge that I can use in a situation like this. I have to continue to build on this knowledge,« he says.
He expects soon to be able to return to his daily life as a researcher. Because even though it can seem straightforward to keep up this complete focus on Ukraine, he is very conscious of thinking in the longer term and not staying in this emergency and throwing out everything else.
»It is easier to think like this, as the war is not new to me. I have written papers about the dispute with Russia since 2014 and have done research on it ever since 2017,« says Yevgeniy Golovchenko.
He has started to sleep a bit better. He needs it. Later he is to have a meeting on a new research project that has the war as its starting point. Yevgeniy Golovchenko needs to get his daily life back, but his focus on the conflict between Ukraine and Russia continues.
»Just like the war has not just started, neither will its relevance end this month«.