Five years ago, just before her first appearance on Ukrainian television, Margo Gontar asked herself some hard questions. “Would I be shot in the head? Would somebody come find me?”, Margo Gontar recalls thinking. “I needed to decide whether to do it or not, because if I did there would be consequences.”
Gontar went ahead, marking the first public appearance by a founder of StopFake, a fact-checking website dedicated to fighting Russian manipulation of news about Ukraine.
Now 30, Gontar studied journalism at the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy in Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital. “I always thought that I would pursue a career in musical journalism,” Gontar says now. “I used to say that I would never, never, never do political journalism.”
That, of course, was before the 2014 Ukrainian revolution – which began in the bitterly cold November of 2013 – changed everything. Despite the weather, thousands of Ukrainians started gathering in Kyiv’s Independence Square demonstrating against then-President Victor Yanukovych’s decision to abandon a deal on closer trade ties with the EU. “It was not the best time to start a revolution,” she says now. “Can the next revolution be warm?”
The internal unrest devolved into conflict when Russia began its military intervention and annexed Crimea in March 2014. For all the damage the conflict did, Gontar has a grudging respect for Russia’s tactical savvy. “The moment was right. Our country was vulnerable after the president fled,” Gontar says. “The Kremlin is good at tactics. Maybe they need to host some workshops.”
The crisis stirred her sense of national identity. Before the revolution, she would have sarcastically dismissed anyone saying “I’m doing this for Ukraine.” Afterwards, these words stopped feeling empty. “One morning, everyone woke up and understood that we have a nationality,” Gontar says. “We just became Ukrainian.”
One particularly bloody day, 20 February, 2014, determined her path. Five years later, the protesters killed in Kyiv that day are remembered as the Heavenly Hundred. “For the first time, I really felt pain for the people I never knew and I will never know because they are dead. It hurt so much,” she says. “I had this urge. I wanted to do something as a journalist.”
StopFake was founded ten days later by Kyiv-Mohyla Journalism School lecturers, graduates and students who wanted to fight what they saw as a distorted narrative pushed by Russian propaganda. Gontar was among the founders.
Initially, the project was run by a few volunteers monitoring Russian and Ukrainian media to spot information that they suspected to be false. They then verified or discredited the reports. Soon Ukrainian readers got involved, too, reporting fake stories about their country and asking for refutations. Instead of banning fake news, StopFake decided to publicly debunk it. Over time, StopFake has built a propaganda tracking archive and trained journalists, students and activists to verify information in Ukraine and other countries, including Germany and Italy.
The project has grown into an international fact-checking website translated into 11 languages. Its most important accomplishment? “Actually, to just appear,” Gontar says. “It is still needed, but it’s not even close to how badly it was needed then.” Gontar does not believe there will ever be less fake news. Her goal is to continue her fight by changing education in Ukraine: “The real way to fight fake news is to teach kids how to know what they should and shouldn’t trust.”
A 2014 revolution pushed Ukrainian journalist Margo Gontar to find her national identity and start debunking fake news reports.