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Shedding light on the information war over Mariupol

Dr Olena Melnykova-Kurhanova, a PICAIS fellow at the University of Passau, has set out to establish whether her hometown in Ukraine had access to information other than Russian propaganda during the three-month siege.

From here office window, Dr Olena Melnykova-Kurhanova looks over the pedestrian zone towards the historic city centre. And, more importantly, she looks out to an open sky and sometimes even sees planes. "To me, they have become a symbol of peace now," she says. Airspace without any bombs dropping overhead.

Dr Melnykova-Kurhanova was born in the Ukrainian port city of Mariupol on the Sea of Asov, went to school there, studied there and worked at the University as a researcher, got to know her husband there and married him. She stayed, even when fighting broke out in 2014 and the city was briefly captured by pro-Russian separatists. But in March 2022, all hell broke loose, and she understood: it had become a question of life and death. On the 21st day of the Russian siege, she managed to escape.

A few months later, in October 2022, she arrived in Passau. Her new office is located 2,300 kilometres away from Mariupol. But even here, the city is in her heart and on her mind inasmuch as Dr Melnykova-Kurhanova has decided to revisit the time of the siege from the perspective of communication studies. With her project proposal "Public Communication in a City under Attack: Russia’s Informational Influence on the Citizens of Mariupol", she successfully applied for a fellowship at the Passau International Centre for Advanced Interdisciplinary Studies (PICAIS), which had specifically been created for Ukrainian postdoctoral researchers.

Dr Melnykova-Kurhanova is being hosted by Professor Florian Töpfl who holds the Chair of Political Communication with a Focus on Eastern Europe and the Post-Soviet Region. Under his supervision, the Ukrainian researcher is scrutinising the means of public communication – other than Russian propaganda – available in a city under siege, the communication channels people used and whether digital technologies can help to spread information in such a repressive environment.

The information available in besieged Mariupol

In Vorträgen gibt Dr. Olena Melnykova-Kurhanova Einblicke in die Zerstörung ihrer Heimatstadt Mariupol. Hier zeigt sie Prof. Dr. Töpfl eine ihrer Präsentationen.

In lectures, Dr Olena Melnykova-Kurhanova gives insights into the destruction of Mariupol. Here, she shows Professor Töpfl one of her presentations.

Back to Mariupol, in March 2022. Russian troupes were holding the city under siege and had cut the population off from the outside world. There was a shortage in everything: food, water, gas, medicine, clothes, electricity. "Internet access was very poor, and we weren't able to charge our mobile phones either," explains Dr Melnykova-Kurhanova.

In March, people still had access to information via radio broadcasts, short messaging service and, to a degree, via leaflets distributed by Ukrainian police. In April, however, the Russian aggressors systematically cut the people off from information, disrupted Ukrainian radio station broadcasts and replaced SIM cards with Russian SIM cards. The isolation from the outside world became complete. Russian propaganda was disseminated, initially through newspapers. Later on in May, lorries with loudspeakers and large screens drove through the city broadcasting Russian state TV. On 20 May, the last remaining Ukrainian fighters left the Plant Azovstal in Mariupol; the Russian occupiers took over.

Images of devastation: The students of Dr Melnykova-Kurhanova have sent her pictures of the destroyed faculty of the State University in Mariupol. Dr Melnykova-Kurhanova herself took photos of the daily life in the besieged city. From the window of her flat, people can be seen trying to cook food over an open fire in the yard due to the lack of electricity. Long traffic jams of people trying to flee the city by car form on a road near her home.

Dr Melnykova-Kurhanova is studying the transition from the information situation before the war to the situation prevailing after the Kremlin took control with a view to providing a structured overview of the access options available in this vacuum. "That includes what we were able to perceive with our senses. For instance, we in Mariupol knew that the planes carrying bombs came in over the sea. They could only be Russians attacking." The people in Mariupol also used signs on the walls of buildings to communicate.

Challenging research in repressive contexts

For her project, she intends to talk with people who were in Mariupol during the siege about these and other forms of communication via a video link. However, conducting qualitative interviews in such repressive contexts is an ethical challenge. She has developed guidelines for such interviews under the supervision of Professor Töpfl, who has considerable experience in carrying out such research in post-Soviet authoritarian regimes. These guidelines will provide guidance on how to select interviewees, for instance, and on how to conduct the interviews and document them. "What's crucial in these circumstances is that the researcher has local social contacts that can be trusted," says Professor Töpfl.

Dr Melnykova-Kurhanova has such contacts who have spent all their life in Mariupol so far. "I know every corner of the city and the people there." However, eyewitness reports are only part of her work. She is also collecting materials and evidence on media use during the three-month siege. For example, she is studying the effect on local media. Also, she is vetting the information disseminated on the social networks. Here, too, her knowledge of the place will help her to assess the veracity of the videos.

Journalism in wartime conditions

Dr Melnykova-Kurhanova will be completing the first part of her project by March of this year. The second part, for which she will be spending another six months at the Universität of Passau, will focus on the local working conditions of journalists in Mariupol and investigate how their situation has changed as the war progressed.

"Not only have I made it my research mission to find ways of preventing such information blockades. The project is also important to me personally," she says. Just working on this topic helps her to deal with her own traumatic experience. "I am sincerely grateful to Professor Töpfl and his team at the Chair for their huge support," she says. She found her way to Passau thanks to other researcher friends. One of them – early career researcher Dr Marina Dodlova at the Chair of Development Economics – had in fact alerted her to the special research-in-residence programme sponsored by PICAIS.

Text: Kathrin Haimerl

Prof. Dr. Florian Töpfl

Professor Florian Töpfl

studies digital communication in Russia

How does Moscow influence media audiences abroad using internet-based technologies?

How does Moscow influence media audiences abroad using internet-based technologies?

Professor Florian Töpfl holds the Chair of Political Communication with a Focus on Eastern Europe and the Post-Soviet Region at the University of Passau. He heads the ERC Consolidator project "The Consequences of the Internet for Russia’s Informational Influence Abroad (RUSINFORM)" at the University of Passau. Before Dr. Töpfl was appointed professor at the University of Passau in 2020 he conducted research as the head of an Emmy Noether Research Group at Freie Universität Berlin (2014-2019) and as Marie Curie Postdoctoral Fellow at the London School of Economics and Political Science (2012-2014).

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