The last word: Hacking the narrative

A recent hackathon dedicated to countering disinformation was won by a Ukrainian team that focuses on identifying false narratives and analysing their scale.

I have worked with or for various media outlets in different roles for almost a quarter of a century. And even though sensationalism always sold well, and neither false nor distorted news material is new, the amount of misinformation, disinformation, mal-information and propaganda that I see today has reached a whole new level.  

As such, joining – as a juror – a recent hackathon that focused on identifying digital solutions to counter disinformation, analyse data and develop cyber hygiene — was something I was delighted to do. 

1991 Hackathon: Media was organised by SocialBoost and Accelerator 1991 and held in Warsaw. It attracted over 120 online and offline participants, with a lot of them from Ukraine, which seems natural considering Russia’s invasion of the country and the amount of propaganda swirling around the internet as well as the country’s growing capabilities in cyber security.  

The participants worked on tech solutions throughout the weekend and, eventually, 15 teams made their way into the finals and pitched their projects to the jury. And that is where I played my role. 

Pitching is never easy, especially if done in English by a team for which it is not a first language. When listening to an idea, I always try to disregard that language element and use my imagination and fill in any missing gaps. I do my best to understand how relevant and feasible the solution is and whether it might actually work and contribute to solving the issue.  

I also look at how innovative the solutions is, not only what disrupting technologies it uses but also how it builds up on mechanisms and ideas specific of and working in other sectors and areas. 

I was glad to see that the team that received the highest score from me, OSavul, actually won the hackathon. I was curious to learn more about OSavul’s solution, so I chatted with Dmytro Plieshakov, the team leader, who had made the pitch at the hackathon in Warsaw. 

Hacking the narrative 

OSavul’s solution focuses on identifying false narratives and analysing their scale, for example ‘Europe will be cold in winter as countries have no access to Russian gas’.  

Using several examples of content following such a narrative from different angles and potential sources, and then applying machine learning, gives great results.  

Plieshakov’s team is able to track such narratives, see how big they are and how and where they trend. They are also able to see the structure of the narratives and where social media posts originated from and how they are linked with accounts that don’t seem to be connected at first glance, using different wording or even written in different languages.  

This is something the team had worked on prior to the hackathon. Their product is a report providing all that information; information which is in 80 per cent of cases accurate. 

“During the hackathon, we were thinking how to take an extra step and add extra value. Our thinking is now mostly around actionability,” Dmytro says. “The idea is to build tools that help analyse articles and stories and be more effective in the process. More effective means being able to detect some signals related to CIB, coordinated inauthentic behaviours, and generate a report that can be acted on.” 

During the hackathon he spoke with experts from both Meta and Google. 

“We tried to finalise this set of signals and will still be working together on that. But it seems that it’s like a finite list like of things you can track,” he adds. “These were very insightful conversations because they helped me understand how they think and what their vision of disinformation and misinformation is, and what they are planning to do.” 

Broadening horizons 

Before, Dmytro admits, he was more focused on the authorities and their way of thinking, as his team has been working with governmental institutions in Ukraine. Now, apart from the tech giants, he has exchanged ideas with representatives of civil society organisations. 

“There were people from the Atlantic Council who said they produced similar reports that we want to automate. And I think there might be a nice collaboration here. In general, my vision broadened in terms of what is disinformation. Where it sits in the value chain and what can possibly be done.” 

When running an organisation which produces a lot of analytical content — articles, reports, reviews and policy recommendations — we also need to ask ourselves about the origin of every single narrative that comes our way and how to make sure the information is verified multiple times before it is published.  

External challenges might be lurking around the corner, and they often do, not only through suspicious opinion editorials and press releases submitted to be published but also through media invitations to comment on current developments, such as immigration or Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. 

As far as the latter is concerned, I was recently, politely advised to offer a “balanced opinion about the atrocities committed by both the Ukrainian and Russian armies”, which I had to immediately denounce on an evening news programme on PTV World in Pakistan.   

A war to fight jointly 

If my experience in the media world helped during the hackathon, I am glad and always happy to offer more. There is a lot to be fixed but for now, we need to focus on Ukraine. In the spirit of collaboration and mutual support. 

As Terah Yaroch, deputy country representative at USAID’s Office of Transition, said during the Warsaw hackathon: “Ukraine is fighting back, not just on the battlefield, but also in the information space. As we all see, Ukraine is winning the information war. Ukrainian IT, start-up communities, and civil society have brought extensive experience and expertise to the frontline of the information war. 

“This is what the hackathon is about: the power of cooperation and ensuring the global community has the proven tools and experience to counter disinformation, respond to media manipulation and strengthen global information security.” 

And that collaboration is critical to win the war on misinformation, disinformation and mal-information.

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