Operation “New Coat of Paint”. How Trashy Websites Help Notorious Figures Restore Their Reputation: a Monitoring Report on Disinformation in Ukraine

Many Ukrainian trashy websites that we monitor appear to be offering their services to all kinds of dubious characters in need of a reputation fix. Those include scandalous politicians and so-called experts who had worked for pro-Russian TV channels promoting Kremlin's narratives before Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

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For example, in January, a group of trashy websites launched a coordinated campaign to promote MP Vadym Stolar who used to lead the Kyiv branch of Opposition Platform — For Life (OPFL), a pro-Russian party that dissolved after the war. We also noticed that the people who have previously appeared on our Database of pseudo-sociologists and shadow PR specialists are making a comeback in the Ukrainian information space.

Study period: 1 December 2023-12 January 2024.

Image Fixing for Controversial Personalities

In January, a group of trashy websites ran a story about Vadym Stolar’s charity activities. Stolar is a member of parliament of the 6th convocation from the pro-Russian Party of Regions and the 9th convocation from the now banned OPFL. Today, he is a member of “Restoration of Ukraine” parliamentary group and runs a notorious development business in Kyiv.

In February 2023, the Security Service of Ukraine searched his premises in connection with an investigation into the involvement of construction companies under his control in laundering money for Viktor Medvedchuk and other sanctioned persons.

We could not but notice virtually the same articles published by a number of trashy websites: “Vadym Stolar arranges delivery of anti-drone systems to border guards”, “Border guards take delivery of anti-drone systems donated by Vadym Stolar”. “VADYM STOLAR’S CHARITABLE FOUNDATION DONATES ANTI-DRONE UNITS TO BORDER GUARDS”. These messages were not labeled as advertising and were presented as news.

The texts were illustrated with the same photos and all of them included comments from Stolar himself oozing patriotism and his desire to help the military. From all signs of it, the reports appeared to be paid news.

We support volunteering and thank everyone who is helping the Armed Forces of Ukraine. However, this example only demonstrates how dubious characters try to whitewash their reputation with such broad gestures and enlist the services of trashy websites to provide media coverage.

Rehabilitation of Dubious Experts

Trashy websites also appear to be busy rehabilitating the people who had made careers at pro-Russian TV channels before they were blocked in Ukraine (e.g. 112 and NewsOne).

Most of the so-called experts whose image they are attempting to fix are also featured on our Database of pseudo-sociologists and shadow PR experts.

The people promoted by politeka.net website include such characters as Hennadiy Dubov (two mentions during the monitored period) and Oleksandra Reshmedilova (three mentions) who are known to have done PR for Party of Shariy.

Such persons as Dmytro Spivak are making a glorious comeback on such websites as politeka.net and life.znaj.ua. In particular, Spivak's “expert opinion” was published five times. At the beginning of his media career, Dmytro Spivak made frequent appearances on Medvedchuk's channels and positioned himself as a candidate of political sciences and a public figure. He was an active promoter of OPFL interests and a passionate supporter of the “Russian World”. Later, he became a presenter on 112 TV channel. He claimed that the United States had no interest in lasting peace in Ukraine and that the Americans and the British were trying to pit Moscow against Kyiv. He also accused the United States of racism and constantly claimed the existence of “external governance in Ukraine”. For more details about his “views” read here.

Today, trashy websites are quoting Spivak's statements — for example, on “fair mobilization” — or share his opinion on the US elections. They also promote his personal YouTube channel.

Shocking Content Rules

Trashy websites continues to rely on shocking content to get more views. Their news feeds are filled with headlines containing phrases such as “Ukrainians are shocked...”, “Everyone gasped when they learned that...”, “Ukrainians enraged by the new... rules”.

Although many of those reports are based on real events, the problems are often exaggerated and presented from a manipulative angle.

Here are some headlines observed during the study period:

“Keeping the lights on? Prepare to be fined! Ukrainian authorities to introduce harsh limits for electricity consumers”.

“Prices gone wild: an ultimatum for Vodafone subscribers followed by a lame apology.”

“Too early to rejoice: the new draft law on mobilization is ready — Umerov shares the details”.

“Check your Viber messages, you only 18 days left: Ukrainians to expect disconnection from electricity providers every quarter”.

Not only does the competition for readers’ attention with manipulative headlines and shocking content discredit Ukraine and its authorities: it also elevates distrust among people and plays along with Russian propaganda.

The Methodology

To monitor disinformation, we analyzed news reports collected from ~ 50 Ukrainian websites.

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