As Ukrainian and Russian television channels exchange a war of words, many are turning to social media for their news.
"On March 16 we choose..." reads a billboard lining the main road into Simferopol, Crimea's regional capital. Below, two depictions of the Black Sea peninsula offer contrasting images of what may lie ahead. One in red and black, branded with a Swastika and barbed wire silhouettes; the other a rippling Russian flag on a clear blue sea.
The poster is one of many erected across Crimea, an autonomous republic in Ukraine since 1992, as it prepares for a referendum on joining Russia planned for Sunday March 16.
The presentation of the referendum as a choice between an ultranationalist Ukraine and Russia is seen by many as part of an information war that is gripping the country and its media outlets.
"It's a full on Russian propaganda offensive," Christopher Miller, editor of the English-language Kyiv Post, told Journalism.co.uk. "I just got back from Crimea and the day I arrived you could still find Ukrainian media on the televisions, although it was mostly just the hotels full of journalists that were airing it. Elsewhere in cafes and in people's homes, at least the few I visited, it's all Russian state media on all of the news stations in the peninsula."
These Russian channels are repeating the same messages as "what the Kremlin is releasing via it's press releases" and what Putin is saying publicly, said Miller, in painting a picture of ethnic Russians under threat from a far-right agenda.
"They're there under the pretext of protecting ethnic Russians from these terrible neo-nazi extremists and nationalists who have stormed the capital Kiev," he said, "and they're protecting the peninsula now and the ethnic Russian people who live there."
Swastikas, antisemitic graffiti and far-right slogans have appeared around Crimea, sprayed on the walls, as the rhetoric of division escalates. Jewish leaders do not blame the nationalist groups that ousted President Yanukovych for this, and on March 5 wrote an open letter to Vladimir Putin, urging him "not to destablisise the situation".
Miller describes the anti-semitic propaganda as "an absolute farce".
"They're only now appearing in the manner in which people are seeing them," he said. "They weren't present before."
The paint seems fresh and unweathered by winter, he said, as more people with Russian accents arrive in Simferopol and other cities, and hundreds of armed men – not wearing insignia but travelling in Russian-marked vehicles – block entry to strategic locations.
"Unless someone sees a busload of people crossing the border it's really hard to say whether or not they are being bussed in," said Miller of the civilian arrivals, "but that's a tactic being used in Lugansk, Kharkiv and Donetsk which are all Eastern Ukrainian cities on the border with Russia.
"I've lived here for four years and saw it happen, even before all of this, during rallies back in 2010 when Yanukovych was running for president."
In Donetsk yesterday, Thursday March 13, thousands of Ukrainian residents took to the streets to call for peace and unity only to be attacked with bricks and fireworks by pro-Russian demonstrators, reported Vice News.
Faced with an apparent campaign of misinformation, major Ukrainian media groups – including Media Group Ukraine, Inter Media Group, Starlight Media, 1+1 Media, and 5th Channel – have united under a common logo, accompanied by the slogan 'United Country', to "prevent further aggravation of tension".
Leading executives appealed to their Russian counterparts for "open, balanced and objective coverage of events" in an open letter published last week, but received "a similar appeal" in response, as Russian broadcasters asked all parties to "remain objective and reasonable".
Media Group Ukraine and TV Channel Ukraine acknowledged criticism of their own reports in a press release accompanying the collaboration with other Ukrainian channels, but declared any attempts that would "classify the situation as interference with mass media operations" as "infringements on freedom of speech in Ukraine".
Crimean authorities shut down Ukrainian television channels within a week, followed by Kiev's closure of Russian TV channels across the country, a decision condemned by the Committee to Protect Journalists and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe.
With such conflict in the media, other public-facing organisations have sought to distribute the news themselves, including PR firm CFC Consulting, of which Kiev resident Vasyl Myroshnychenko is a partner.
Along with individuals from other PR companies, members of think tanks, academics and former public service officials, Myroshnychenko established the Ukraine Crisis Media Center last week to "to provide objective information to international media on Ukraine, on Crimea and the developments here", he said.
The daily work of the centre involves live-streaming "four or five" press briefings a day and working with Ukrainian, Russian and Crimean groups to publish objective stories, but Myroshnychenko is also passionate about stopping what he sees as Russian propaganda before it spreads too far afield.
"We react in a proper manner," he said, citing recent articles from Spiegel and the Guardian, as cases where the centre has felt it necessary to respond with counter claims via letters from high-standing Ukrainian public figures, promoted on social media.
An alternative source of news
With television channels flickering on and off depending on the current political climate, the internet is the main source of news for many young Ukrainians, playing a "massive role in both the dissemination of information and where people are getting their information from" said Miller.
"Instead of going first to a news site, which is what most people might have done prior to 21 November [when protests began], people are now looking at sources that they have been with for three months now," he said, "and feel that they can trust before they go to these news sites."
Internet penetration in Ukraine was estimated at 33 per cent in 2012, and 53 per cent in Russia, so many people are still used to getting their news from television said Myroshnychenko. Nonetheless, the Ukraine Crisis Media Center has amassed nearly 9,000 followers on Facebook in the ten days since it was established and StopFake, a fact-checking website in Russian and English, has more than 2,000 followers on Twitter since going live last week.
"Perhaps the biggest chance Ukraine and Europe have of fighting the Russian misinformation is the use of social networks," said Jan Lepetun, one of the earliest volunteers at StopFake
Lepetun spent the last five years working for a Financial Times Group publication before relocating to Holland but is connected to StopFake as an alumni of the Kyiv-Mohyla school of journalism, the alma mater of many activists behind the website.
StopFake is devoted to the exposure of "fake information" regarding events in Ukraine, publishing daily updates on stories that have been debunked and disproved.
"The biggest fallacy of journalism is perhaps when you misreport or omit facts," he said. "Here we have something different, it's creating facts, so reporting things which never happened."
Social media as an outlet
Social networks have become the first point of distribution for sites like StopFake as more citizens go online for their news, trusting their personal contacts over official networks.
"So it's basically an electronic version of talking to a neighbour," said Lepetun. "The question is where do you go to get the news and I think the first reference point is to go to your friends to see what they talk about."
Facebook, VKontakte and LiveJournal have been popular networks for years, said Miller, but it is only with the advent of Euromaidan and the following protests that Twitter has become widespread.
"Twitter has become overwhelmingly popular... extremely popular," he said. "Journalists that have never used it before have opened accounts and now have 30 to 40,000 followers. Myself, I have more than 20,000, I think I had 1,000 prior to this."
People on the street will have their own "five to a dozen" sources for news that they deem credible and have been following for months, said Miller, slowly building trust in certain individuals as they share information.
Verification is "a big issue" though says Lepetun, "and I would say that here the greatest asset you can possess as a blogger on Facebook, Live Journal or Twitter is your integrity and the trust that people hold in you". In one post on VKontakte, a prominent Cyrillic social network, a photograph was said to depict "neo-fascists in Lviv beating up an elderly lady" when in truth the photo showed a group of men fighting at a demonstration in 2009.
Social media has continued to prove vital especially as some networks and websites came under attack, stopping information being published at important times.
"In December a number of media outlets were faced with DDoS attacks," said Miller, "our website was under attack and we couldn't publish when things were happening very very quickly in the first week of December.
News site Ukrainian Truth, Channel 5, Ukr.net and the opposition political party Bakishvina all suffered from similar attacks, he said.
"All the websites went down and the only place we could publish information was Facebook and Twitter so we were still putting things out even while we were down," Miller said.
Such attacks have since escalated to include the Ukrainian National Security and Defense Council, on top of news outlets, and similar DDoS attacks on Russian media reported by RT.com, amplifying the importance of social media in distributing information and seeing through the fog of war.
On Sunday the people of Crimea will go to the polling stations, casting their votes on their national future and the de facto effectiveness of the varying information campaigns. Myroshnychenko hopes the tensions do not develop into a more serious split in Ukraine, a top-down schism from politicians pursuing their own agenda rather than representing the will of the people.
Prior to the conflict, the only divisions existed "between the autocrats and those who have freedom," he said. "That was the only division that existed."
"This sort of geographical division which is being promoted and written about by international media does not exist. It's a myth."
Attempts to contact a number of Russian state media organisations were met with no response.