‘Our mission is to expose the truth’: Ukraine’s female data warrior on the frontline of the information war

·3-min read
Smoke rises from a building in Severodonetsk, in Ukraine’s Donbas region (Getty Images)
Smoke rises from a building in Severodonetsk, in Ukraine’s Donbas region (Getty Images)

Many miles from the frontline in Ukraine’s Donbas region, Nataliya Mykolska and her team are fighting a different war. Every day, members of her “data battalion” sift through footage of some of the most gruesome atrocities committed by the Russian army to ensure the world “knows the truth” about what is happening in her country.

Dattalion was set up by Nataliya just four days after the beginning of Russia’s invasion on February 24. A former businesswoman, she fled Kyiv for Lviv with her two children as tanks crossed into central Ukraine.

After settling in a safe location, Nataliya reached out to her contacts in the foreign media and business worlds for advice and established a network of volunteers. Within days, she had built a team working night and day to collate video, pictures and eyewitness testimony of Russian atrocities. All content is verified and placed in an open-source database, accessible to anyone with an internet connection.

A quick dive into Dattalion’s Google Drive folders reveals a clip of a Mariupol school blown to pieces by artillery strikes and a farmhouse in the Chernihiv region engulfed in flames after being struck by a mortar.

Smoke billows near residential buildings following a missile strike in Bakhmut (via REUTERS)
Smoke billows near residential buildings following a missile strike in Bakhmut (via REUTERS)

Dattalion was conceived, Nataliya says, because she wanted to show the horrors of the conflict in places international media might struggle to reach. In doing so she hopes to combat “war fatigue”.

“I believe that when people see this footage, they are more emotionally engaged, rather than just reading a briefing or a newspaper,” she tells the Standard. “The stories of people who lost their houses, relatives and businesses will help to keep the world’s eyes on Ukraine.”

Reviewing and verifying the footage takes its toll on Nataliya and her team. Watching bloodied civilians emerge from a collapsed residential building, or children weep after their childhood home is hit by a missile, can be extremely traumatic.

“I watch the videos weekly now, but I do it on the weekend when my children are in bed so they won’t see me crying and shaking.

“It’s even harder when you think that someone is behind this video. Somebody had to film this.”

Nataliya says that members of her team never work for longer than six hours as the experience is so mentally and emotionally exhausting.

“Many have also left – not because they don’t want to help but because it is just so hard on them,” she adds.

Natalia Mykolska fled Kyiv four days after the war (Natalia Mykolska)
Natalia Mykolska fled Kyiv four days after the war (Natalia Mykolska)

Around three-quarters of the Dattalion team is comprised of women, which Nataliya says gives her huge pride.

“I am so proud of Ukrainian women as we are going through the worst possible situation you could imagine. Every one of us is working three shifts – our work, taking care of our children and volunteering in the war effort.”

She hopes the footage may one day help international prosecutors investigate war crimes.

“Our mission for now is to tell the truth. But when the war stops, our mission will be to punish the people that are behind this. Their names are known.

“We will never forget and we will never forgive them. Just as I will never forget relatives I lost in the war or the friends of mine in the army who were killed.”

One of the most notable features of Ukraine’s information war has been the use of social media by civilians to share their stories with an international audience. Young Ukrainians, such as Valerisssh, have filmed TikToks showing them having “breakfast in a bomb shelter” or wandering through the remains of a burned out cinema.

For Dattalion, social media is a “powerful tool”, Nataliya says. Since March, they have picked up more than 4,000 followers on Instagram and recently launched a TikTok account.

“We have a presence on every platform so that we can target all ages and social groups,” she adds. Only together can we win this war.”

If you would like to help out with a contribution please do it through: https://dattalion.com/donate-to-dattalion/

helpukraine@dattalion.com

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