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Social media volunteers aim to help Ukraine win the information war

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

While Russia wages a bloody war against Ukraine, Ukrainians are fighting back, not just with Molotov cocktails but also with means. The Ukrainian minister of culture is leading an effort to win the information war with help from artists and volunteers. NPR's cybersecurity correspondent Jenna McLaughlin has the story.

JENNA MCLAUGHLIN, BYLINE: In 2008, Valentyna Aksonova got her start working in communications for the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense. She was based in Georgia.

VALENTYNA AKSONOVA: I was supposed to do more peaceful coverages, but it happened as it happened.

MCLAUGHLIN: What was meant to be a safe training program quickly shifted when Russia invaded the small mountainous country on its southern border. Aksonova saw it as a bad omen for the future of her country.

AKSONOVA: When I saw what Russia had done in 2008, I came back to Ukraine with a certain understanding that we are next.

MCLAUGHLIN: That we are next. Fast-forward to today and Aksonova now works as an adviser to the Ukrainian Ministry of Culture.

AKSONOVA: West of Ukraine in Lviv.

MCLAUGHLIN: Aksonova says, just weeks ago, Ukrainian government agencies were focused on bringing Ukraine into the digital future. Now she says they've pivoted. They're using technology and social media to fight back against a brutal Russian invasion.

AKSONOVA: We decided that this is extremely important to increase the information resistance of our country and show the truth to the whole world.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCLAUGHLIN: The collective was born. War against war.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCLAUGHLIN: It's a group of artists, translators and other volunteers around the world. They share videos and stylized images with striking blue and neon green text on Instagram, YouTube and other media.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Chanting in non-English language).

MCLAUGHLIN: While posts about Ukrainian sailors swearing at a Russian warship went viral, for example, Aksonova says it's about more than just getting attention.

AKSONOVA: This video and photo is not just content; this is the evidence against the criminal actions of Russian Federation.

MCLAUGHLIN: In the West, Aksonova says Ukrainians believe they have a sympathetic audience, but others are harder to reach.

AKSONOVA: So we create videos in different languages, and we are trying to spread it wherever we can. But we have certain problems in certain countries, such as China, India, the Middle East, some European countries. We still have to work harder there.

MCLAUGHLIN: Volunteers, including former colleagues at the London School of Economics, are helping translate the group's messages. Others are ready to help in any way they can.

AKSONOVA: And if someone can translate into Hindi or someone can make a soup or someone can make 10 interviews per day in different languages (laughter) or someone can shoot the tank - everyone is important now.

MCLAUGHLIN: Aksonova and Ukraine's information army aren't the only ones in this space. She says her team works closely with the Ministry of Digital Transformation, which helped create a volunteer army of hackers supporting Ukraine.

AKSONOVA: We need this because we have been heavily attacked by the Russians.

MCLAUGHLIN: Plus, a team of Polish programmers have designed a website to allow anyone in the world to send a message directly to a random Russian cellphone or email. And of course, there's also Russian propaganda and cybercriminals taking advantage of the chaos - all a good reminder that in an information war, it's important to know where the news is coming from and look for as many sources as possible.

Jenna McLaughlin, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF PENSEES' "LUNAMOTH") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.