Interview with Marta Dyczok | More than a year into the escalated war finds Ukraine with a stronger voice in Western media
Oleksandr Pankieiev: What was the role of media in Russia’s decision to launch the full-scale invasion of Ukraine last year? Can we say that narratives which Russia had produced for decades were indicators of its forthcoming aggression? Could we have predicted and prevented the aggression if the indicators were interpreted correctly?
Marta Dyczok: The media, and especially those spreading propaganda, were an instrument used to prepare public opinion for a large-scale invasion. Media messages were deliberately framed to present Russia’s aggression as something justifiable.
The big question is how effective that propaganda was. And here, it depends on which audience we are looking at. Within Ukraine, obviously it was not effective. Very few Ukrainians bought into such justificatory narratives. It is difficult to measure within Russia, on the other hand, because they do not have a free society where public opinion can be surveyed accurately. However, fourteen months into the war, support for the aggression apparently remains high, and presumably it was high when the aggression started. Beyond the battlefield, the perception depends on whether the countries are democracies or not, and whether they belong to the so-called Global South or the “wealthy part” of the world. Public opinion in different countries is very, very different.
The countries of Europe, the United States, Canada, and Australia—the democracies—remain united, but they have not been monolithic in condemning Russia’s invasion. Media narratives do appear in these countries—the ones spread by Tucker Carlson are the most obvious examples—that criticize support for Ukraine as being over-commitment. There are also media outlets that uncritically repeat Russia’s messages. However, they do not significantly influence public opinion or make it less favourable for Ukraine.
It is interesting to observe the degree to which Russian narratives resonate across the Global South, in countries that Ukraine has traditionally not partnered with. India, Brazil, South Africa, and many others are now very much in Ukraine’s focus. When assessing their media landscape, we need to differentiate between messages and propaganda that were coming out a year before the invasion—pre-existing ones—and those following the full-scale invasion.
In my class on Russia’s war against Ukraine, a student from India came to see me during office hours. We talked about disinformation and propaganda, the international dimension of the war, and the role of NATO. He believed the narrative that Russia was fighting against NATO and that all the bloodshed was the US’s fault. From his perspective, the war was nothing else but “great power” politics, where the United States was trying to weaken Russia.
His belief was not so much shaped by Putin’s latest disinformation as by the perspective from India itself. That perspective contends that the US is an imperial country, while Russia—heir to the Soviet Union—was a traditional ally in the anti-colonial struggle. This is the lens through which the student was seeing the situation. And he was a 21-year-old individual, doing a degree in Canada, with full access to every world media, and a participant in my course, where I had been laying out “here are the narratives, here are the facts.”
A lot of analysts overlook the impact of Putin’s narratives in the Global South, which is conditioned by pre-existing beliefs. The ability of media to directly shape public opinion in real time is complicated. And here we need to address questions about media effects. Does the media have the ability to shape public opinion?
The issue of media effects concerns not only Russia, Ukraine, and the war. This is merely a current example that we are particularly interested in. However, if we look at Canada’s southern neighbour as another example, there is a lot of debate about how the media influences public opinion there. When the previous POTUS called out a major outlet as “fake news” and many people believed it, then their belief is likely shaped by existing perspectives on media and on politics. The messages that come through to such people resonate with their established value systems.
This is where scholars should step up and contribute more actively to media proficiency and the education system. Otherwise, people will continue holding on to misleading beliefs. Some colleagues whom I respect and like, used to repeat Russian narratives when speaking about the war—I found it shocking every time and engaged in conversations with them. And then we have examples of really well-known scholars, such as John Mearsheimer, who have been blaming NATO since 2014 for the outbreak of the armed conflict. He has not changed his position yet, regardless of the information that is available to him.
We need to forfeit the naїve thinking that providing people with information will automatically make them see the truth. It is not that simple. People have been developing their value systems and mental maps for years. Those who are not informed about Ukraine and Russia will buy into the narrative that Ukraine has always been a part of Russia. There are a lot of gaps in their education, including gaps in the history courses they take.
Ukrainian issues have very modest coverage in the European history courses that are taught across Canadian and American universities. Even if Ukraine is covered, it is presented as a part of Russia, part of the Soviet Union, and part of the post-Soviet space. Ukraine is often denied its own voice, its own agency. If people are taught history that way, then they will think in corresponding terms. This is why controversial statements by Russia’s President Putin about Ukraine do not provoke criticism; instead, they only add a compatible new layer to what people already believe in.
The problem is how to change this. Educators, politicians, and journalists need to do a lot of work, both individually and collectively, to challenge existing perceptions of Ukraine. We need to implement a process that is a combination of informing society, making political decisions, and forcing change.
Pankieiev: What have been the goal and targets of Russia’s propaganda in Ukraine during the last ten years? Has something changed since 24 February 2022 in Russia’s information strategy?
Dyczok: I do not think that there have been many changes, the accents might have shifted slightly. However, the portrayal of Ukraine as not existing as an independent state or being full of fascists and Nazis who should be exterminated has persisted.
At the same time, it is interesting to observe the new messaging coming out of Russia today. A recent example is related to the drones over the Kremlin: “Ukraine is trying to assassinate Putin.” This is such a departure from what we saw last year, in February or March of 2022. This actually acknowledges that Ukraine can go on the offensive. However, what remains in the media is portraying Ukraine as an evildoer: “Ukrainians are trying to kill us, and this is terrible.”
I am also curious to see what messaging Fox News is going to be doing about Ukraine [following Carlson’s departure]. My best guess is that there will be a shift. But again, as I think of it, I see a complex picture. It is not only about standards in reporting about Russia or Ukraine, it is also about Fox News’ relationship with Donald Trump and Moscow. It is about the audience and its interests. Those people who are following the Trump story are not really following the Ukraine story. Those who are following the Ukraine story and the war are not necessarily focusing so much on Trump. However, I think that we should not compartmentalize, because everything is very interrelated.
Pankieiev: How has the media landscape in Ukraine changed since the full-scale invasion? How is Ukraine balancing between upholding the values of freedom of speech and wartime realities?
Dyczok: The first major change in the landscape is that there are now less media in Ukraine. Renat Akhmetov, a media tycoon from before February 2022, basically gave up all of his holdings. A big player went off the field. A lot of journalists became unemployed and the amount of media contracted.
The other important change is that the major TV channels started working together. This is quite an interesting phenomenon, as instead of competing they pooled their resources and launched “United News” joint information “tele-marathon” broadcast. A discussion continues on who got excluded from that collaboration, but the fact remains that all the major TV channels started informing society as one. Initially the information marathon was very popular, but that popularity decreased over time. Some questions have also been raised about state interference with editorial policy in the news coverage.
The main issue in terms of access to information in Ukraine right now is that the state does not always respond to queries from journalists. I would not call it censorship, but journalists may pose questions and receive no answer. Information is not always being properly provided from government sources.
In terms of media freedom, just recently Reporters Without Borders released their annual Press Freedom Index. I was quite impressed to see that Ukraine’s ranking went up, even in the conditions of war, from 106th position in 2022 to 79th in 2023. It is quite a dramatic increase, which I think is unprecedented considering the active fighting.
What usually happens in wartime is the state takes over the control of information. This is to a large degree understandable because information is a crucial component of the war effort. The state cannot be releasing all the details on everything because that would contradict the national interest. If we look at the obvious examples, in Great Britain in WWII, for instance, the BBC operated as a mouthpiece of the state to keep up morale. This is normal. Another example is the Iraq war, when the US limited the amount of information provided to the media, while journalists actually got attached to military units—a revival of the old concept of embedded journalists.
We do not see that in Ukraine, although unquestionably the state regulates access to information or the mobility of journalists in the war zones. At the same time, this has much to do with guaranteeing journalists’ safety and securing legitimate state interests by not showing the world everything that is happening on the front lines.
There was an article in Open Democracy recently where the author claimed that the Ukrainian authorities restricted freedom of speech and journalists were complaining about it. The complaints that I am hearing and reading about—legitimate complaints, in my view—are that the state does not always provide full information. And journalists want full information.
At the same time, I think it is understandable that the government in Kyiv does not release casualty statistics. For morale reasons, Ukrainians do not want to be reporting how many of their nationals lost their lives. However, they are regularly reporting on how many Russians were killed. This is again understandable because of similar morale reasons.
Mobility restrictions in war zones are not a simple matter, either. There was a case when journalists started reporting from the liberated Kherson before they were given permission to go there and, when asked to leave, filed complaints. It is, again, a sort of understandable tussle between journals trying to obtain information and the state trying to protect larger national security interests. I am not sure that this case can be defined as suppression of freedom of speech, although some people are presenting it as that.
A good move for Western media outlets would be to turn to Ukrainian journalists for information because they are the ones on the ground. They are the ones who know the story and context. They are the ones who have the language skills and the experience. I think that greater cooperation between Ukrainian journalists and Western media outlets will be mutually beneficial.
Notwithstanding, another piece of positive news is that Western reporting on Ukraine has become better because many Western journalists arrived to work in Ukraine. People like Luke Harding @lukeharding1968, Isobel Koshiw @IKoshiw, Mark MacKinnon @markmackinnon, Yaroslav Trofimov @yarotrof, know the story. However, others who parachute in, write something, and leave, their reporting sometimes leaves a bit to be desired.
Pankieiev: When you read the Western media today, can you say that the understanding of Ukraine and the Russian aggression has improved compared to one year ago?
Dyczok: In my opinion, there has been a dramatic shift. I have recently started exploring the way in which the Ukraine-Russia story was reported before the full-scale invasion and after. One of the major changes is that the Ukrainian voice in the media became much stronger.
Media reports before 24 February 2022 were about what and when Russia’s president had said. Afterward, journalists started to cite Ukrainian sources and statements of Ukraine’s president. There was also a real shift in the way that the story got framed. The shock and horror of the actual war, the number of journalists who went to Ukraine and saw the atrocities as well as their encounters with ordinary people and local journalists—I think all that greatly impacted their thinking. Also worth mentioning is the excellent job Ukrainian organizations have done on fact-checking.
Another striking change is the way Ukrainian place names are now being reported. They are spelled and pronounced directly in the Ukrainian language—not Russian, as was commonly done before. Today, I almost never hear or read “Kiev” or “Kharkov,” but Kyiv and Kharkiv, and journalists are now struggling to pronounce names like Avdiivka, Bakhmut, and Kherson. This is very significant.
However, there are still media outlets and journalists that continue to repeat Russian narratives. Therefore, I would say that the overall Western media picture is “more Ukraine,” “more accurate Ukraine,” and “more agency to Ukraine”—but not completely, not always fairly.
Pankieiev: What is the role of President Zelensky in shaping the image of Ukraine for the global audience? Does he have the same impact inside Ukraine?
Dyczok: His impact is different domestically and internationally. Internationally he is a superstar. His charisma and communication skills are among Ukraine’s most powerful weapons. At the beginning of May 2023, Zelensky was at the Hague, and despite not having had a day off for more than four hundred days and leading a country at war, he still displayed a sense of humour. Speaking to the International Criminal Court, he said: “We all want to see another Vladimir here.” This is invaluable in shaping public perceptions of Ukraine outside of Ukraine.
The fact that Zelensky is Jewish and the fact that he was elected president by 73 percent of the [voting] population of Ukraine is also very significant. The old Putin narrative that Ukrainians are anti-Semitic was blown out of the water. Only small extremist circles continue to accept that as a credible narrative.
One of my PhD students, a grandchild of Holocaust survivors, said that his views, as well as those of his peers in the Jewish community, changed radically after 73 percent of Ukrainian [voters elected] Zelensky, who is a Jew. When they look at statistics on anti-Semitism in Ukraine and see that it is one of the least anti-Semitic places in the world, their perception of the country becomes more favourable. They understand that many of their earlier views were false.
The skill with which Zelensky is able to interact with international media and international leaders, as well as his skill in messaging and effectively communicating—all of this has been vitally important. And we see how warmly he is received when travelling abroad.
I used to be quite critical of Zelensky. I was unimpressed with him and very skeptical about his competencies as president. Many worrying incidents occurred during his election campaign—Zelensky’s refusal to meet with journalists, the whole fiasco with the debates, and others. Whereas today, I think that his lack of political experience has worked in his favor. He does not have the arrogance of a lot of political leaders, including some of Ukraine’s previous elites.
It is a little harder for me to judge Zelensky’s image within Ukraine. My perception is that there are a few controversies involving the President, but for the most part Ukrainians are trying to pull together in wartime and not spill too much to the public.
That being said, if major issues with governance appear, then they are raised in the Ukrainian media. Stories about corruption or poor political decisions that do not work, journalists do report on them. However, the criticism tends not to be so much of Zelensky and his team but rather of the issues. Apart from that, I also observe a vibrant discussion in the Ukrainian media about how governance should be conducted, including the above-mentioned discussion that “We are not getting access to the information we need.”
In other words, there are people who do criticize Zelensky within Ukraine. However, my vantage point is that such people are in the minority. They do not want to create unnecessary disruptions during the war. That being said, once the fighting settles down they will likely commence more assertive arguing and criticism.
Pankieiev: Since the full-scale invasion, do you see any changes in Russia’s propaganda and disinformation campaign in Canada?
Dyczok: On the contrary, it has not stopped. The Canadian government has taken steps to shut down official Russian propaganda channels which were allowed to freely function earlier. However, a recent report discloses how Russia continues to lobby individual journalists, media outlets, and academics to push through its false narratives.
What surprises me is that some academics and journalists in Canada easily agree to become accomplices in the Russian disinformation campaign. I do not understand why anybody would choose to do so as professionals or experts in their area.
Pankieiev: In your home department at Western University (London, Ontario), you established a new course last semester titled “Russia’s War Against Ukraine.” What was the idea behind this course and how was it received by students? Do you see a need for similar courses at other universities across Canada?
Dyczok: I have not seen anything like this at other universities, but that might just be because I have been too busy to do a thorough search. I designed that course because I kept receiving many emails and phone calls from students and former students who asked me to explain what was happening, why it was happening, and where this all will lead to. My Political Science department agreed to the proposal, my university was also very responsive, media-related people paid attention, and this is how the course started. Because the new course was listed as a Special Topics course, it did not receive the full kind of advertising that regular courses do. And yet I was very pleasantly surprised at the enrollment—475 students signed up for it, including retired professors and staff members. It was a very diverse class. However, because it was taught online, I only got to meet my students in person if they decided to come to my office hours. The course was a lot of work, but I am really glad I did it.