Fighting fake news

Oksana Pitsyk has led the Smidyn community in Volyn since 2017. Prior to that, the woman was an educator and worked in NGOs aimed at supporting youth policy.

On February 24, 2022, Ms. Oksana was in Lutsk on a working visit. At that time, the woman’s thoughts focused on how to get home, and whether her children, family and community would cope without her.

“I hardly slept for the first two weeks. They added us community leaders to the great many chats where we had to report every hour on the current situation: whether it was quiet or not. At night, we sometimes did it as frequently as every half hour,” says Ms. Pitsyk.

A major challenge of the first months was the immense amount of disinformation that spread through the village in a matter of hours. 

“One day, someone came to my office and said: “The enemy has broken through the Belarusian-Ukrainian border!” I was sitting down in shock, I had people meeting with me. I answered: “Where? No chat is talking about it!” In two hours, I saw the whole village starting to leave their homes. About two thousand residents, most of them women and children, decided to flee only because they believed a fake,” says Oksana.

It was then that Smidyn leaders realized that they needed to fill the local media space with information from verified sources in a hurry. They turned to the SVOI chatbot, which was launched before the full-scale invasion:

“The community Facebook page has a good reach, so I started going live. At first it was twice a day, and then once a night around 8 pm. On every occasion, I appealed to people: if you want to receive quality and true information, connect to the SVOI chatbot. Those willing left their phone numbers in the comments, and then we connected them to the chatbot, either in Viber or Telegram.”

Let us recall that the SVOI chatbot is a tool based on the concept of “community in a smartphone”, through which residents can receive up-to-date news and information about the municipality and its services, vote in opinion polls, support public budget projects or sign up for an e-queue.

From February 24 on, the church bells were the only air raid warning system in the community. But the problem was that their sound did not reach all residents. So, the SVOI chatbot had a push message function added, with messages sent to the phones of all users.

Smidyn community has 4,000 residents. Out of them, 800, which is almost 25 percent, are users of the SVOI chatbot. Residents of other Volyn communities, which are currently not connected to the service, are joining as well.

“I remember how people from neighboring communities started calling us after the broadcasts on our work – they asked us to connect them and tell them how to use the chatbot. Later, we made several videos in which we explained everything step by step,” says Ms. Pitsyk.

Another life hack helping to connect residents to the service was a bank of phone numbers that was previously used for the local SMS mailing list. The messages contained up to 60 characters and were intended for the distribution of short announcements and news.

Now the community uses the SVOI chatbot as a kind of bulletin board. For example, it can be a notification about a field meeting with the administrator of the Administrative Services Centre in one of the settlements or a reminder to register their land plots addressed to those who have not yet done so.

“If you know how to use Facebook, you will easily master the SVOI chatbot as well. Just have no fear!”, our heroine says.

Currently, Smidyn community is among the leaders of digitalisation in the region. They were among the first to test the electronic voting tool for Public Budget projects on the EDEM Platform, open a youth hub, and completely switch schools to the e-diary and e-class register system.

The community has also successfully implemented the policy of decommunization with the help of e-tools – they have renamed 100 percent of the streets that previously bore the names of Soviet pseudo-heroes.

And last autumn, a modern Diia.Centre was opened in Smidyn, where one can get about two hundred administrative services of the highest standard.

 And this is not surprising, because the superpower of the Smidyn community and its leader is their dedication, openness and the desire to change the system. Oksana told us a joke about performing frequent unannounced on-the-spot checks: “When I come to the local library, the employees don’t really like it. During one visit, they ran with a broom right in front of me and swept away spiders.”

The woman is sure that without changing the Soviet way of thinking, outdated approaches and unmotivated workers, it is impossible to move towards change.

In 2019, Ms. Pitsyk made a working visit to Canada. Her greatest impression from this trip was that there were no fences between one-family dwellings. This shows security and great trust in each other.

“I dream of seeing fences disappearing in Smidyn community as well, and services becoming barrier-free for every resident!”, the heroine sums up.

 The SVOI platform and chatbot were created within the framework of the Swiss-Ukrainian EGAP Program, implemented by East Europe Foundation with the support of the Ministry of Digital Transformation of Ukraine.

Photo: (source).