July 8, 2014 4:01 AM EDT

As the conflict in Ukraine continues, another battle rages far from the front lines—a battle between Russian news sites and a group of Kiev-based journalists who say the sites are misusing, even fabricating, news photographs filed from Ukraine.

In an effort to put a stop to what they see as fraud, the journalists—who are alumni and students at Kiev’s Mohyla School of Journalism—have launched Stopfake.org, a “fact-checking project, which aims to help people separate the truth from the lie in the media,” as the group’s co-founder and editor-in-chief Oleg Shankovskyi tells TIME.

Shankovskyi and his colleagues feel that the best way to combat what they see as an inappropriate use of images is simply to point out the inaccuracies. “Very often people just don’t think critically about what they hear from the media—they just believe it,” he says.

Dear Vladimir, So you're not having enough problems digesting Crimea, that half-bankrupt hairball you swallowed because it was there and looked tasty but now it won't go down and everyone in the world is mad at you? Now you want to pick a fight in space too? That's how it seems, at least, after your Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin announced a number of tit-for-tat sanctions against the U.S. today—specifically among them, targeting our countries' once-cozy collaboration on the International Space Station. According to Rogy, you'll quit selling us seats on your Soyuz booster—which, since the grounding of the shuttle, is American astronauts' only way into space—and use the station on your own, despite the fact that it was largely a NASA construction project. What's more, you'll no longer sell us the NK-33 and RD-180 engines we currently buy from you for our Atlas V boosters, at least for any launches of military satellites. Ooh, smack! Now put down your lightsaber young Skywalker. Here's why we're not impressed: First of all, you've conveniently scheduled the shutdown of your Soyuz taxi service for 2020, or four years before we plan to abandon the ISS and drop it in the drink anyway. Why wait until then? Could it be the cool $76 million we pay you per seat—cash that an oil-drunk economy like yours needs when fossil fuel prices are falling? But, as you surely know, at least two American companies—Orbital Sciences and Elon Musk's SpaceX—will all but certainly have their own for-lease spacecraft flying well before then, and even NASA, which has been inexcusably slow in getting a next generation manned vehicle built, may be back in the game by 2020. In other words, you're going to quit selling us a service we weren't planning to use anymore anyway. (According to an e-mail from NASA to TIME, by the way, you've not even officially been in touch about your new plans, though you did take the time to let the media know—a little like breaking up over Twitter.) As for the engines: yes, it's true that the NK-33 and D-180 are nice bits of hardware and the Atlas does rely on them. But the Atlas pre-dates you, Vlad. Remember John Glenn? He flew on one of them, as did the ICBMs we were building in those days and pointing your way—and you guys weren't exactly selling us the hardware we needed to take you out. You don't want the revenue that comes from globalized trade? OK, so we'll in-source our engines again and keep the cash at home. Look, Czar Descamisodo, history will decide if your Ukrainian adventure was a winning hand. But the Space Race is over and America won. Even decades after the glory days of the moon landings, it's still NASA that's got spacecraft approaching, orbiting or on the surface of Mercury, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Pluto and multiple asteroids. Russia? Not so much. The world will have to reckon with you for as long as you choose to misbehave in Europe and anywhere else your eye may wander. But in space? We're fine without you. Tranquility Base, out.
Screenshots from Russian TV

The group points to one recurring instance of apparent misrepresentation as typical of the stories
they are trying to counter. A woman called Maria Tsypko periodically emerges in interviews on Russian TV, each time in an apparently different pro-Russian role. She has been interviewed as a separatist camp organizer in Odessa, played a political refugee in Sevastopol and even collected donations in Crimea to ask Russia for help.

Not all misappropriated media has been this blatant, the group says. Often photographs shot in China, Canada and Mexico over the past 30 years are recaptioned to represent events currently occurring in Ukraine.

One photo of a burning tank claimed to be from conflicts in Donbass was actually taken in 1989 during the Tiananmen Square protests. Another image pictured a crying girl sitting on the body of her deceased mother, allegedly killed in Donbass. The image is actually a promotional photo from the 2010 Russian war film Fortress of War.

One of the more obvious examples of misappropriation involves Ron Haviv’s iconic 1992 image from the Bosnian War, which shows Serbian paramilitary officers, known as Arkan’s Tigers, kicking the dying bodies of Muslims. The photo recently went viral on Facebook and Twitter, with a caption claiming it portrayed Ukrainian soldiers in Crimea.

“This, of course, is just a complete misuse and fabrication, and is being used to instill fear,” says Haviv. “It doesn’t represent the current situation in Ukraine because it’s not Ukraine.”

Indeed, he views photo misuse as part of a larger trend in recent conflict photography. War-torn countries like Syria have become too dangerous for many professional journalists to visit, leaving the media often dependent on images and videos produced by the combatants themselves. “I think we’re certainly seeing with the war in Syria, and now in this conflict, the power of social media,” says Haviv. “It’s so easy to take an image from one place, put another caption on it and put it out there.” The line between news and propaganda has never been so thin.


Josh Raab is a contributor to LightBox


Contact us at letters@time.com.

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