Krystina Shveda from Belarus, 26, has recently graduated from her Master Studies in Interactive Journalism at the City University London where she studied data journalism and community management. 

In my work as a journalist, I try to help people from post-Soviet countries (my home Belarus and second motherland Ukraine) and the UK (where I’ve spent a year studying journalism) to understand each other better, despite cultural differences and info wars. Although the Cold War has ended just after I was born, unfortunately the mental wall between East and West can still be felt and it’s said to be getting worse following the events in modern history.

It’s been hard for the Westerners to understand why Ukrainians started a revolution and why some people in the post-Soviet world didn’t support it. This is where Russian propaganda came into the game in full power, distorting the messages and amplifying the conflict.

Similarly to many EU politicians, Western media present the conflict between the modernised pro-Western and Soviet-nostalgic pro-Russian people of Ukraine, Russia and Belarus, neutrally. Margo Gontar, a journalist at Stop Fake, a Ukrainian fact-checking project, told me: "The famous objectivity of European journalism has one flaw – it doesn't consider that some countries may use it against Europe. Russian dishonest media spread their propaganda in all possible ways, while journalists in Europe end up providing insufficient explanations. Eventually, some people go straight to comments section in an attempt to find out what has really happened. And this is where pro-Russian bots "explain" everything in colour.”
A recent undercover investigations by the Novaya Gazeta and revelations of whistleblowers to the Guardian had proven that a new weapon in the Russian info war are the so-called "troll factories", with their main hub at 55 Savushkina Street in St Petersburg. "The army of paid bots", working in shifts 24/7, are blogging, creating memes and posting comments in the Russian and foreign media. 

In my final data project at MA Interactive Journalism in London, I investigated the comments below the Guardian articles about Ukraine. The analysis has shown that 23 per cent of comments (during a month) were left by only 15 users. These were probably Russian paid trolls, but also their their fighters. By analysing the texts of comments from the most active users I found that half of the comments share a similar set of traits, like poor English, accusations prevailing over arguments, fake links, newly-created anonymous accounts and commenting only on stories about Ukraine and Russia. The keywords of anti-Ukrainian narrative are “Kiev junta/puppets”, “Ukrainian fascists/Nazis”, “Bandera/benderovets/radicals/nationalists”, “Russian world”, “okraina” instead of Ukraine (means borderlands of an empire), “Novorossia” instead of Donbas or eastern Ukraine, insults towards NATO, USA, Obama. The other half of the very active users present more logical and grounded arguments. These “knights of truth” seem to be the only opposition to the rich Russian propaganda machine. Very possibly, this shadow army is another form of volunteering effort from Ukraine (the most positive change in this country has been done exactly by volunteers). For my project, I have interviewed people from several projects that try to confront Russian propaganda.
A similar situation with trolling happens in my home country Belarus. The articles about Ukraine on the biggest Belarusian news portal,, receive far more commentary than any other stories. Unlike the Guardian and other English-speaking media, doesn’t moderate comments strictly, which ends up in aggressive confrontations and provocations. 

In another project, I studied why traditionally friendly and tolerant Slavic people from the whole post-Soviet territory have now split into two opposed ideological groups – pro-Russian (pro-Soviet) and pro-Ukrainian (pro-Western). I started from analysing “how the war in Ukraine (and Russian lies) have divided people” but quickly realised that the process has started long ago.
I interviewed ordinary people from both ideological blocks and realised that they all have their reasons. Some miss “the good undemanding character” of Soviet people, the lost opportunity to travel without restrictions, free social services. The others remember the USSR culture of exclusion of the “divergent from the norm”. Many have memories of the repressed ancestors.
Moreover, due to the Soviet politics of relocating citizens and the whole nations, places like Belarus are very multi-national and mixed. This is another reason why the opinions in the country are so divided. Same as public opinion, Belarusian official position is undefined. President Lukashenko has been balancing between the two fires for more than a year, trying to please Russia, stay friends with Ukraine and build a better relationship with the West. In one speech, he would covertly call Putin a dictator and ask for American intervention in Ukraine, in another he would say Belarus is part of “the Russian world”. During this turmoil, Belarusian media preferred to stay neutral (and thus give a voice to Russian propaganda). Meanwhile, the media freedom in the country gets more and more restricted (e.g. blocking of websites). Just in case. There are presidential elections this year all in all.

 Krystina Shveda