Ukraine’s ‘data battalion’ combats Russian misinfo from the frontline

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Fighting Russia with a laptop: Meet the women on the front lines of Ukraine’s information war

When it comes to the information war over Ukraine, Russia has President Vladimir Putin, the Kremlin’s well-resourced propaganda machine, and a hammerlock on Russian television and radio. It also has laws Putin put in place in the early days of war, which made any counternarratives a crime.

For its part, Ukraine has a charismatic president and a ministry for digital information. And it has a few dozen women who run an organization called Dattalion.

The name is a blend of “data” and “battalion” — one word for information, the other a reference to war. Practically speaking, Dattalion is an online database of stories from the front lines in Ukraine — a collection of photos, videos and testimonials from eyewitnesses. It gathers and distributes content from Mariupol and Bucha, Kramatorsk and Izium, and lesser-known scenes of horror.

But that description understates the power and reach of the organization.

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Dattalion was founded on Feb. 27, the fourth day of the war, by Nataliya Mykolska and Valentina Synenka, women who were in midcareer when the war turned their lives — and the lives of millions of other Ukrainians — upside down. More than seven months later, Dattalion is still run almost exclusively by women, and its content has been used by journalists, government officials and war crimes investigators from all over the world.

“We are fighting a different kind of war,” Mykolska told Grid. “You can call it a war against the Russian misinformation. It is very difficult, just as the real war. But — just as with the real war — we Ukrainians are fighting hard.”

Mykolska is 41, a successful businesswoman, former deputy minister of economic development and trade and married mother of two. She and her children moved westward from Kyiv when the war began, as Russian forces advanced on the capital and later took refuge in Vienna. Her husband stayed in Ukraine to help deliver humanitarian aid and move military equipment to the front lines.

Today, Dattalion has more than 60 staff members — all are volunteers — and thousands of others who have contributed the raw material that comes in constantly, from cities and small villages that have been occupied or battered by the Russians.

To date, Dattalion has uploaded more than 4,400 videos, just shy of 20,000 photos and more than 120 eyewitness stories, and these have been seen more than 5 million times on various social media platforms. Among its recent posts: this weekend’s rocket attack on an apartment complex in Mykolaiv; the Sept. 30 shelling of a civilian convoy in Zaporizhzhia; and on Sunday, its Twitter feed shared content from the Ukrainian recapture of Lyman in the east.

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“The truth is our weapon,” Mykolska told Grid. “We are collecting data and imagery to show the world exactly what is being done to Ukraine.”

When a laptop is a weapon

On the day the war began, Mykolska was in her Kyiv home, glued to her social media feeds. She received texts and images from friends in the east, where visual and eyewitness evidence of the Russian assault were abundant. She shared these messages with her network of friends and business contacts in Ukraine, Western Europe and beyond.

“For the first two days, I was just posting videos and photos from the front lines, showing what’s going on. I was sharing on Facebook and other social media the messages and photos of friends who were living through a hell,” she said.

In those early days of the war, Mykolska received — and shared — thousands of accounts of the invasion. Russian aircraft overhead, soldiers on the outskirts of towns, the aftermath of airstrikes. Requests for more information poured in.

“They kept asking, people all over the world that knew me — like, what’s going on? It was only on the third day of the war that I understood, when I switched on the international channels, that there was no coverage from the front lines of Ukraine.”

Mykolska and Synenka worried that few people outside Ukraine seemed to know or understand what was happening. They caught glimpses of international news coverage, which in those early days featured reporters standing in Kyiv bunkers or in Lviv, near the Polish border, far from any fighting. The reports bore little resemblance to the torrent of information and images landing in their email and social feeds.

“The TV people, they were broadcasting from the most peaceful places,” Mykolska said. “Meantime, kids were already getting killed and injured, and other awful stuff was just beginning. One morning when I came back from the bomb shelter, I received a call from my former business partner in the U.S., and she said, ‘You know, you need to change this! Because what I see in your social media is totally different from what I’m seeing on major U.S. channels.’”

In a sense, this was the moment when Dattalion was born.

“We were brainstorming with a lot of people working in the media,” Mykolska said, “and asking: ‘What we can do?’”

The what-to-do conversation settled quickly on data collection, data curation and data distribution. It would be a larger-scale, more formal version of what Mykolska had been doing on her own — a shareable archive of raw material from the war zone.


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Dattalion was created and named on Feb. 27. Within days, Mykolska and Synenka had dozens of volunteers.

Lesia Donets, 32, had been working in communications for an online fashion magazine. She joined Dattalion as its press secretary. She told Grid that the value of the database reached well beyond helping the media.

“We have to save all the important data on the war crimes,” Donets said. “Otherwise, these can be lost or buried among the never-ending, updating social media feeds. We don’t want the world to forget anything.”

The online database was launched publicly on March 6. Dattalion was incorporated as a nongovernmental organization on May 16. On a hastily built website, the organization posted a mission statement:

“Dattalion’s mission is to help Ukraine win this terrible war by revealing the brutal truth about Russian atrocities and the genocide of Ukrainians, and by making clear to the world what Ukraine needs to win and rebuild.”

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“It’s funny,” Mykolska told Grid, “I have worked for many years in business, and I always hate these mission statements or taglines, you know? But now we are living in a different world, and you need to have this. It keeps everybody motivated.

“I mean, we are on a mission. And our mission is to help Ukraine to win this war. So when you’re on a mission, you do whatever it takes, 24/7, in order to help your country.”

Women in charge

The all-woman nature of Dattalion wasn’t planned; it happened because of the realities of the moment. Ukrainian men between the ages of 18 to 60 were obligated to stay and fight — they still are. Many women had enlisted; even before the war, some 30,000 Ukrainian women served in the country’s armed forces. But this left millions of other Ukrainian women, including business leaders, entrepreneurs, communications professionals and many more, hungry for something to do.

Mykolska and Synenka heard from dozens of women who wanted to help. Together, they had a large network of professionally active Ukrainian women — Mykolska had worked several years earlier on women’s empowerment projects — but they also heard from many women they did not know.

“Women, when the war began, they had no choice,” Mykolksa said. “Some were staying with their kids, or their elderly relatives, and what can you do if you’re staying at home with your kids or your parents, taking care and keeping them safe? You can work on your computer.”

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“So we Ukrainian women, we had our laptops,” she said. “And of course we had our brains.”

From archives to advocacy — the Red Line project

Much like the Ukrainian resistance itself, Dattalion needed time to demonstrate real impact. It had begun as an online chronicle of the war that would, as its website said, “empower media around the world to tell their audiences the truth about Russia’s war in Ukraine.”

As such, it succeeded. Journalists in particular have used the platform to supplement their reporting, or for leads worth pursuing. Dattalion has also produced longer videos — telling the stories of a 17-year-old girl from Mariupol, president of her high school class, who survived the siege of the city, and the odyssey of an actress from the Mariupol Drama Theater who was deported to Russia and held there until she managed to escape to Lithuania.

As the war ground on, Dattalion’s approach and message grew more pointed. Documenting the war was one thing; now, Mykolska and Synenka decided they had an advocacy role to play as well. As they had hinted in their mission statement, “making clear to the world what Ukraine needs to win and rebuild.”

The organization had never been apolitical; certainly it wasn’t collecting and sharing videos that supported Russian narratives of the war. But now it would do more than just collect information; it would use its information to help Ukraine to win.

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When President Joe Biden and other world leaders warned Putin and Russia’s armed forces not to cross various “red lines,” Dattalion partnered with Alicia Lewis, an American entrepreneur and friend of Mykolska’s, to launch its first campaign, under the heading “What is the RED LINE?”

The organization posed a series of questions — each accompanied with photos, videos and text — to argue that “red lines” were already being crossed.

How many more war crimes do we need to witness? We are already witnessing genocide on the streets of Europe.

Russian airstrikes are targeting foreign aid shipments and reaching ever closer to the borders of NATO Member States. Is that not enough?

Putin is using civilians as human shields. He is bombing maternity hospitals. Is that not enough?

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Bodies lie uncounted in mass graves, and many more lie buried under the rubble of fallen buildings. Is that not enough?

Russian soldiers are using rape as a weapon of war. Women and girls are brutalized then left for dead. Is that not enough?

Dattalion answered its own questions, in bold letters:

THE TIME FOR GLOBAL LEADERS TO ACT IS NOW. ALL THE RED LINES HAVE BEEN CROSSED. HELP US TO HELP OURSELVES.

The Red Line campaign was presented to members of Congress in Washington and parliamentarians across Europe with a series of urgent demands, ranging from a NATO-imposed no-fly zone to safe corridors for humanitarian relief, greater military support from NATO to support for Ukrainian refugees.

Not all those asks were answered — but many were. And while Dattalion could hardly claim all the credit, the organization won praise for cataloging the horrors and sharing what it had found.

When Ukrainian tennis star Elina Svitolina took to wearing her country’s blue and yellow on the court and making public pleas for support for her country, she told reporters, “It’s like what Dattalion are doing with their images. We have to open people’s eyes to what is going on, and how important it is to help those fleeing the country.”

Ukrainian Member of Parliament Oleksandra Ustinova, who lobbied the U.S. government for help, told Harpers Bazaar that Dattalion’s “photographs and videos have opened the eyes of people around the world and are causing them to push their governments to take action.” The organization’s work, she said, “is also one of the best ways to fight Russian propaganda.”

Meanwhile, beyond its growing group of Ukrainian volunteers, the organization has received pro-bono assistance from foreign public relations firms, website developers and lobbyists. When Mykolska and Synenka traveled to London to rally support, the U.K. fashion brand Aspinal of London launched a special collection — Support Ukraine — with proceeds going to fund relief organizations in the country.

“So many people have come and said, ‘We want to help,’” Mykolska said. “They ask, ‘What can we do for you?’”

Challenges

Any wartime startup will have its challenges. The Dattalion team has lost staff because of the draining nature of the work. Mykolska and Synenka have imposed six-hour limits on shifts for workers combing through what is often disturbing and even gruesome material. Mykolska says she takes up the most emotionally difficult work only after she has put her two young children to bed.

Dattalion has also struggled with questions of verification — an almost impossible task for a small organization, which by its own admission was never trained for this sort of work.

“We’re not lawyers; we are not professional journalists or researchers,” Mykolska said. “We are volunteers. We are doing our best. We’re trying to manage expectations of the people who are using our database, and we also try to provide them with all information about the videos and photos, where we are taking them and so on.” The site separates content under “official,” “trusted” and “not verified,” and tries to avoid posting manufactured images. “I know that now we’re living in a world where there are a lot of fakes,” she added.

The organization’s greatest challenge involves resources. Given that its opponents are the Kremlin and Russian media, Dattalion’s leaders are well aware that no amount of volunteers or pro-bono help will match the built-in advantages Moscow has when it comes to the information war.

“Definitely, if you would compare the resources that the Russian Federation is spending on propaganda and on misinformation to the resources of our volunteers, or what the Ukrainian government is funding, it’s of course totally different numbers,” Mykolska said. “It might sound a bit pathetic, but I still believe in the idea that the truth is our major weapon. And so if we’re telling the truth and we are providing data or eyewitnesses that improve access to the truth, that’s what we should do.”

All in: Everyone is a fighter

It’s a long-standing truism in war: The invader may hold the advantage when it comes to military manpower and weaponry, but the invaded nation will have a built-in edge when it comes to morale. It is their territory that is under attack; they are the ones fighting for their homes and their land. Time and again over the last seven months, the Ukrainian people have shown this sort of morale and resilience. Put simply, everyone in the country is doing something.

“The war in Ukraine pits a top-down attack against a bottom-up response,” CNN’s Fareed Zakaria wrote in his newsletter last month. “Russia’s invasion is largely one man’s decision. Russian society might approve but it does not appear enthusiastic. Ukraine’s response is society-wide, starting with its elected government but involving almost all the country’s citizens.”

Ukraine’s digital minister, a 31-year-old businessman named Mykhailo Fedorov, said this all-hands approach in Ukraine has been critical.

“Our main resource in this war is the bravery of our people,” Fedorov told Grid. “Ordinary people who have taken up the fight, on the ground and even with our digital army. Everyone is involved.”

The women of Dattalion are a prime example. Just as Putin probably did not count on a unified NATO response to his invasion, the unprecedented flow of weaponry to Ukraine and the resilience of the Ukrainian armed forces, it’s also likely that he did not imagine this all-in approach of the Ukrainian citizenry.

“We are all, all of us Ukrainians, fighting now,” Mykolska told Grid. “It’s just that each of us fights in different ways.”

Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.

  • Tom Nagorski
    Tom Nagorski

    Global Editor

    Tom Nagorski is the global editor at Grid, where he oversees our coverage of global security, U.S.-China relations, migration trends, global economics and U.S. foreign policy.