Could virtual reality hold the key to fighting disinformation in the aftermath of Euromaidan?

More than five years after protestors took the streets of Kyiv, Ukraine’s Euromaidan Revolution is still targeted by conspiracy theorists and propagandists. Now, local photographers and designers are fighting back using virtual reality reconstructions.

7 November 2019

I’m standing in a darkened room in Warsaw while an assistant straps me into a virtual reality headset. Two controllers are placed in my hands. The screen in front of my eyes goes black, plunging me into darkness before a street unfurls before me. I’m no longer standing in a cubby-hole in a darkened theatre in Poland, but the centre of Kyiv: the soaring, gold-crested column of The Founders of Kyiv monument to my right and gentle banks of green to my left, the grass rising up to meet the criss-cross of silver metal work that forms Millenium Bridge.

This is Aftermath VR: Euromaidan — a virtual reality blend of technology and documentary journalism. From within the VR rig, users anywhere in the world are able to navigate the length of a virtual version of Kyiv’s Institutkaya Street, the epicentre of Ukraine’s Euromaidan protests that swept the country between November 2013 and February 2014. As they follow the route of the street itself, they also follow the events of 20 February 2014, when 47 protestors and three police officers were killed in clashes between protestors and government forces, with police opening fire with live ammunition. At certain intervals, photographs taken from amid the protests appear on screen, allowing users to place the picture against the sprawling VR street. Other areas allow you to step into 360° video interviews with eyewitnesses.

The project is the brainchild of New Cave Media, a Ukrainian company founded by photojournalists Sergiy Polezhaka and Alexey Furman, and designer Kirill Zhylinsky. At its heart is an ongoing battle of narratives about what happened amid the violence on Independence Square and in the surrounding area, which eventually led to then-President Viktor Yanukovych fleeing the country for Moscow.

From the moment shots were fired, protesters and street-level observers blamed riflemen from the Berkut, an elite government force, for the attack. Within hours, however, Yanukovych began issuing denials, later claiming that the assault had been a “provocation” orchestrated by protesters themselves. Others — including the Russian state television channels prominent in Ukraine — went further, claiming that the killings were part of a “false flag” operation where snipers associated with the protesters themselves had been charged with taking out their own men.

“There was a feeling that things would never be the same. [...] There was this feeling of peace that was destroyed”

In the years that have followed, researchers and prosecutors have spent months reconstructing the events from thousands of hours of video footage, thanks to the numerous professional and citizen journalists who documented the shooting. Ukrainian judges are still yet to announce their final verdict on the protesters’ deaths, but evidence accepted by the court includes footage taken by security cameras outside Ukraine’s National Bank, which shows Berkut gunmen aiming and firing their rifles during the moments leading to the victims’ deaths. Online, however, competing websites and social media accounts continue to breed their own slew of conspiracy theories.

Aftermath VR consciously takes a step back from the seemingly endless online screaming match. The computer-generated version of Kyiv it creates is quiet and reflective: a space to examine the facts. The only real hint of turmoil is a model of a barricade which appears under Millenium Bridge. “It’s a better way of fighting fake news,” says Alexey Furman, who showed the project in Poland as part of this year’s Digital Cultures conference in September. “Sure, if the Russian media is shouting, we can shout back. But Ukraine’s state media was never funded like they were.”

Mourners gather at the funeral of 25-year-old Mikhail Zhiznevsky, one of the protesters to die during the demostrations

Like many Ukrainian journalists, Furman had been dispatched to gather images of the growing unrest when protesters first began to gather on Kyiv’s Independence Square at the end of November 2013, and stayed with the story for the weeks that followed. As tensions began to boil and the list of grievances began to evolve — from indignation at Yanukovych’s decision to suspend the signing of an association agreement with the European Union, to all-out outrage on the corruption and cronyism he presided over — clashes began with the police, who could sometimes turn against journalists, particularly if they found themselves on the “wrong side” of the rapidly moving lines, he tells me. On 20 February, when police opened fire, Furman captured it all.

“Back then when the violence started, it seemed as if the police were advancing,” he says, sitting later in a Warsaw cafe. “There was a feeling that things would never be the same. We didn’t know what was coming. There was this feeling of peace that was destroyed.”

“We are so tired of superficial stories and superficial coverage”

But even as the fighting died down, Furman found that a second battle was raging. Images taken on Independence Square reappeared online with made-up captions that reframed or misinterpreted what was really happening. Other photos were posted as if they had just been snapped on Kyiv’s streets, despite being taken years earlier.

“Manipulation can come in three strands,” says Furman. “There’s the making of the photo itself, which can be staged. There’s adding or changing something in post-production. And then there’s manipulation, where a photo is taken out of context. A lot of Russian social media groups posted pictures, from the Yugoslav War for example, saying it was from the conflict in eastern Ukraine.”

But while most of us believe we can spot an obvious online fake from a different era, we forget that photos can be extremely deceiving — and once a rumour has been posted online, it is often impossible to stop.

Protesters on Institutkaya Street in Kyiv

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“My favourite [conspiracy theory] was when one TV show claimed that the trees [on Institutkaya Street] had been cut down to hide evidence that the bullets which killed protesters hadn’t been shot by the police, but by rooftop snipers,” Furman says. “They showed videos of the trees being cut, but anyone who knows the area could see that it was actually taking place somewhere else entirely, a few streets away. But in the end, if you had showed it to people who didn’t know that particularly location, you could have got away with saying anything.”

The encounter sparked the idea for Aftermath VR: Euromaidan. By combining photography, virtual reality, and 360° video, Furman and his team want to build a picture of the Euromaidan protests that can’t be re-contextualised or re-edited. “We found that a lot of the confusion people had about the events on 20 February came from misunderstandings about where things happened,” says Furman. “We wanted to envision the geography.”

The team initially considered creating an augmented reality experience, but instead wanted a project they could bring to people outside Ukraine. In the end, they opted not only for VR, but to use photogrammetry, rather than CGI, to create their final virtual landscape. The process involved using a drone to take more than 100,000 photographs of the surrounding area before stitching them together via computer to create a 3D model. Once inside the VR world, users can walk across some 15,000 sq. metres of a virtual Kyiv.

The full 3D model of central Kyiv captured using photogrammetry

The process was more time-consuming than creating a computer-generated street from scratch, says Furman, but was ultimately worth the expense. By using photogrammetry, they could once again harness photography’s innate strength — its instant believability as a slice of the “real world” — but in a context where those same images couldn’t be decontextualised and used to support half-truths.

“At the beginning, we talked about how we could make this project easier, but we are so tired of superficial stories and superficial coverage,” he says. “We thought that the only way we can do this is by doing it the long way — but to make it very accurate.”

“Journalism was telling one group of people about another group ... Now, it’s making one group of people share another group’s experiences”

Doing it the long way has had its drawbacks. The Aftermath team were forced to crowdfund for the money they needed to complete the project, despite receiving a Journalism 360 Challenge Grant from Google in 2017. But Furman is convinced that virtual reality also has other advantages that makes the eye-watering costs worthwhile.

“We could have attracted 10, 100 times more people with another format,” he says. “We wanted quality, not quantity.”

The sheer novelty of a full VR experience draws in crowds wherever the project goes. At the VR showcase in Warsaw, each carefully measured time slot at Aftermath VR’s stand was booked out in advance. But most importantly, the immersive experience helps people stay engaged. Once the headset is strapped on, users can’t easily check their phones or switch tabs as they might if they were reading online. Furman doesn’t blame people for switching off (“look at our news feeds”, he says, “there’s just so much stuff”) but remains adamant that journalists can’t give up in the face of “compassion fatigue”.

“Journalism was telling one group of people about another group,” he says. “Now, it’s making one group of people share another group’s experiences.”

Protesters sit on a barricade under Millennium Bridge in Kyiv

For now, however, there are still barriers that need to be overcome. Too many VR newcomers see the tech as a chance to play next-gen video games, rather than an opportunity for learning or reflection. “The number one queston I get asked is whether users can use the simulation to throw Molotov cocktails,” Furman says. (To the disappointment of many, you can’t.)

But there are other questions too. If Aftermath VR: Euromaidan wants to use virtual reality to present the facts, then what’s to stop others from using it to back up their own lies or half-truths? Absolutely nothing at all, says Furman. “It’s 2019. People want to believe a certain narrative. You can make up anything and get away with it.”

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