Ukrainians in the Netherlands increasingly concerned amidst first attacks
By Paula Gibson Pujol and Maya Auer
Artwork by Alexandra Georgieva
24th of February 2022 - After months of Russian troops building up along the border with Ukraine, the first missiles have been fired today in multiple Ukrainian cities. Ukrainians around the world have organized protests as a call to action to stop the Russian invasion and draw attention to a long-lasting conflict that simmered down, but never ended.
“The European Union have seen it coming, and only now they wake up?”, says Marta Barandiy, founding chair of Promote Ukraine, a non governmental organisation based in Brussels, where protests take place today in front of Russia’s embassy.
The Netherlands, as well, have seen a number of protests in the past weeks, with multiple protests taking place today in The Hague, Amsterdam and Groningen. Currently, an estimated number of 10.000 Ukrainians live in the Netherlands, according to the Ukrainian Embassy in The Hague.
Rostyslav Korin, a Ukrainian software developer, is one of them. He moved from the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv to the Netherlands half a year ago, in hopes to avoid the “Russian aggression,” as he calls it. ”Kharkiv is located just a few kilometers away from the Russian border, and night to day they can attack the city” he told 9to5.
Korin’s hometown was one of the first to be striked, and is now one of the more than half a dozen cities to have been attacked by the Russian military forces.
Today, Ukrainian students organized a peaceful protest on Grote Markt, the main plaza in the city of Groningen.
Anastasiya Pronchennko, a bachelor student at the University of Groningen expresses her frustration to 9to5: “I think it’s important to establish that it’s been eight years. I really don’t understand why the media portrays us as victims and panickers and stuff when really it’s just about raising awareness now, since the world didn’t hear us eight years ago. So yeah, I am worried, I am stressed, but… it shouldn’t come out of a person’s mouth, but you get used to it, sadly. “
In the middle of the interview her father calls her and she rushes to pick up.
Later she tells 9to5 that she has been up since 5am in the morning. Pronchennko’s parents are safe, but the rest of her family is in Eastern Ukraine. “It’s scary.”
Many Ukranians in the Netherlands share Pronchennko’s exhaustion. Korin took part on the 2014 revolution. ”I went to the military service and I was there for a year,” he says. He, as many others, lost loved ones eight years ago.
How does the conflict affect Ukrainian students in the Netherlands ?
Regine Van Groningen, Senior policy advisor for International Cooperation at the University of Groningen says today’s news have currently not affected cooperation with Eastern European Universities. “Our relationship with the institutions is without any political interference.“
For students currently worried about not being able to focus and study sufficiently in light of today’s news, Van Groningen stressed that they will still be entitled to their scholarships. But that might not be the most pressing issue: “We had one student who expressed that she felt a bit cut off in a way, because, well, she can’t even go back home now that flights have been cancelled.”
9to5 obtained a press statement from Yuliia Malyonovska, second secretary at the embassy of Ukraine in The Hague this afternoon. She expressed her appreciation for the Dutch media and their support of Ukraine, stressing the validity of inputs from sovereign states and individuals.
But is the input offered by the Netherlands enough? Mayonovska also shared a statement of ambassador Maksym Kononenko regarding the current situation in Ukraine who said: “Suppose the world community would hesitate in the face of absolute evil. In that case, the security architecture we built after World War II would cease to exist. Glory to Ukraine!”
Protestors at Grote Markt in Groningen today
Croatia’s Parliamentarians Speak Up Against Gender Inequality
By Paula Gibson Pujol
29 March, 2022 - A series of press conferences were held in the first week of March in the Croatian parliament. In light of International Women’s Day, feminist members of parliament took the opportunity to speak up against gender inequality.
Ivana Posavec Krivecin, leader of the Social Democratic Party and Sandra Benčić from the Green-Left Coalition emphasized gender based inequality in the workplace and the pressing issue that gender violence is in the country.
In recent years the feminist agenda pushed by women’s rights organizations and NGO’s has been echoed by feminist members of the parliament. “When they talk about this and insist on these issues it makes it easier for that to get into the mainstream media,” feminist activist Paula Brecak says.
She believes gender inequality to be a big issue often not recognized by the public, and considers education through the mainstream media to be the informal education that the public needs. “People who have so deeply internalized these political values don’t recognize the issue,” she says. “We need to re-educated the whole society.”
Gender inequality has been of growing concern within Croatia’s government. The normalization of sexual assault, gender based violence and harassment are key issues feminist ministers are trying to discus in parliament.
According to the Gender Equality Ombudsperson of the Republic of Croatia acts of femicide increased over 50% since the start of the Covid 19 pandemic.
During a party hosted by The Social Democrats last December, an amendment of Article 87 of the Croatian Criminal Code was proposed. If passed, femicide would qualify as a hate crime against women.
Back in 2021 prime minister Andrej Plenković refused the motion whilst claiming that gender based acts of violence already fall under the hate crimes within the Croatia’s Criminal Code.
On a press conference held on March 9th, Posavec Krivecin spoke up about the hesitancy the government has in recognizing femicide as a criminal offense, and demanded once again that the act be included in the Croatian Criminal Code.
“We, as a society, are stuck and we haven’t defined laws against gendered violence against women. Which we, in the Republic of Croatia, keep on encountering,” said Posavec Krivecin.
Feminist NGO’s and media devoted to women’s rights have been vocal about the refusal of the proposal and the distrust of the prime minister’s answers.
Journalist and social media manager Anja Kovacevic wishes that femicide was acknowledged in the criminal law. “I think women will feel more seen, feel more secure and also more confident in the government.”
Kovacevic works for the women’s rights and sexual and reproductive health organization RECI.HR. Her view is that the government should focus on the prevention on crimes rather than the aftermath. “Each time another murder happens the government is like that is an exception, and we are getting to the point where it’s not an exception.”
Women’s rights organizations believe gender based violence is not a priority in Croatia’s agenda. “If they put femicide into law then they will have to address it, and they have other issues to deal with on a national and global level,” Brecak says.
VoxFeminae.net, a nonprofit magazine’s Editor-in-Chief, Tihana Bertek reiterates the importance of including femicide in criminal law to. She believes it will raise awareness among the general public. “Significant barriers exist against women to realize their rights in the areas of safety and security, bodily autonomy, and sexual and reproductive rights,” she says.
Members of the parliament also addressed the gender based discrimination which would follow the passing of the new Labour Law. A law that was proposed in light of the surge of remote work result of Covid 19.
Workers’ Front Katarina Peović stated that the removal of regulation for remote work would extend working hours and would enable employers to “ask any worker to be make themselves available 24 hours a day.”
If the law passed it would increase the overtime and remove regulations for remote work and working from home. “Everyone is unhappy with at least on portion of the law,” says Kovacevic.
Members of parliament took a stand and stressed a feminist perspective against the law.
Bertek says Croatian society’s portrayal of women is still one in which women are expected to perform household tasks. “If the law is approved women could be overwhelmed with work without being adequately rewarded,” she says.
The Croatian government has a long history of conservative influences, such as the Catholic Church. This has affected the way of living inside the country, and according to many activists has perpetuated and old-school mentality which dismisses conversations around women’s rights and sexuality.
Whilst Croatian women’s rights organizations are working toward the betterment of women in Croatia’s society, they agree that members of parliament have the power to reach more voices than they can. “The sooner we start the sooner we are going to get to a safer society for everyone,” says Brecak.
Plenty of (Cat)fish in the Sea
By Paula Gibson Pujol and Anna Zwettler
11 February, 2022 - “Should we really do this?” we wondered, as we entered made up details about our lives on the dating app Hinge. Well, they weren’t quite about our lives. After all, neither of us were born in New York City or had ever received a wheel of cheese as a gift. Instead, these things apply to Maria, a 25-year-old student based in Amsterdam. She’s attractive, charismatic, opinionated and a little edgy. There’s only one catch: She’s not real. We made her up.
It’s not every day that you scroll through a stock image website to look for sets of pictures of a person you don’t know to make a believable dating app profile. We did this as part of an experiment to prove that cheating the system is concerningly easy. Within a few minutes, we were able to set up accounts on both OkCupid and Hinge. Matches started pouring in almost instantly, with messages such as “gurl who leaves new york?” or “hola guapa, how’s ur week going?” flooding our inbox.
We didn’t answer many of them and only sent one or two messages in return, if that. We’d already confirmed our hunch that online platforms have only feeble security measures in place to prevent impersonation and deceit. The last thing we wanted to do was take things too far.
Online dating has become the primary method for meeting potential life partners or casual dates, and it’s no longer seen as the last resort for desperate singles looking for love. Today, swiping on dating apps has gained popularity among younger and older audiences from all over the world, with many appreciating the efficiency and approachability that is offered. A report by apps news platform Business of Apps found that almost 330 million users were active in the online dating scene worldwide, with Tinder being the most popular one in the US and the UK.
A match too good to be true
When digital nomad Chloи-Marie Mignon was active on Tinder herself, she didn’t think that “catfishing” was very widespread. That was until she, herself, fell for an intricately thought out online impersonation scheme. Mignon, who is based in North Yorkshire, spent just under two months cultivating a friendship and connection with a man who she’d matched with at the end of last year. They texted everyday and she even spoke to him on the phone, thinking nothing of it for weeks. She grew suspicious when she came across a second, identical copy of his profile on the dating app.
“I knew that one of them must have been fake,” Mignon explains. “I didn’t know which one so I questioned both profiles, and I got blocked by both of them.” Growing wearier still, this motivated her to try to identify who exactly she’d been talking to.
Despite the many success stories of lifelong partners whose connection started with a single swipe, the anonymity of the internet provides the space for lies on dating apps: According to the Pew Research Center, up to 54% of users have come across others who misrepresented themselves online. This ranges from casual intentions, such as sharing an outdated photo, to downright impersonation, like pretending to be someone else entirely – a practice which has now been largely labeled as catfishing.
Remembering that she and her catfish shared a mutual friend, Mignon approached her in the hopes of getting a lead. The two women found out that they’d fallen into the very same person’s trap after comparing experiences and the snapchat accounts of the man they’d spoken to. Mignon also spread the word on social media, cross referencing stories with fellow victims in her area. She discovered that they’d all been dealing with a serial catfish who had misled around 25 other women.
This is not at all uncommon, since many catfish seek out several victims at once. As 64% are women, men are almost 25% more likely to fall for online impersonators, as stated in reports by Free Background Checks and Metro.
“This is where the plot thickens,” Mignon says in the TikTok storytime where she shared her experience. She couldn’t have guessed that the man she’d matched with was not only pretending to be another person but also another gender: “It turns out that it’s an actual female, it’s not a guy. She has gender [confusion]. She thinks that she’s lonely and has to pose as other people to have conversations with women.” What’s worse is all the information she had collected from her many victims, such as phone numbers, addresses and sexually explicit content.
Mignon didn’t bother going to the police, as the catfish had kept all activities within the perimeter of the law: “Unfortunately for us victims, it’s more hassle than gain because we’re not going to get anything out of it. We can’t stop her.”
Are dating apps doing enough?
The gloomy reality is that online impersonators cannot be prosecuted unless there is visual and measurable proof of fraud, in addition to the creation of a fake profile. As quantifying psychological damage is not easy, victims often find themselves without the closure that a court proceeding could provide. Dating apps are also immune to legal liability, which explains why little is often done to decrease the number of catfish active on the platforms. After all, Hinge and OkCupid didn’t even flag our account, despite “Maria’s” photos that we took from an openly accessible stock picture website.
Steps toward increasing transparency among its users have been taken by Tinder and Bumble, who introduced a preventative “verification check”, which allows people to confirm their identity by taking a profile picture in real time. However, as this is not mandatory, its success rate at lowering catfishing rates remains questionable. While other dating apps have shared guidelines on how to avoid deception and scams, these posts are not largely advertised on their home pages.
“These apps don’t think about catfishing. They were designed to be an addicting game.”
It seems that these “safe dating” tips are shared as a courtesy for the few users who bother scrolling through the fineprint. Fact is that there is little motivation from companies to spread awareness on the risks. According to Zach Schleien, CEO and co-founder of the video-first dating app Filteroff, the issue lies in the habitual nature of swiping: “These apps don’t think about catfishing. They were designed to be an addicting game.”
Filteroff has tried to drastically reduce impersonation by requiring users to go on a number of short video dates before choosing who they’d like to talk to further. “When you go on a video chat with someone and they lied about their photos on Filteroff, you’ll see instantly,” Schleien continues, sharing that only in rare cases accounts are reported for deception. “If there’s something that you’re uncomfortable with, show it. Because why would you want to start your connection with a lie? It still baffles me to this day.”
Catfishing as the ultimate escape
Many people create fake personas due to low self worth or a wish to temporarily escape from their identities. “A lot of it just stems from self-esteem [problems] and not really feeling good about yourself,” therapist and catfishing victim Rebecca Gibson confirms.
This was the case for 26-year-old Cecelia Thompson* who had a brief run as a catfish back in high school. In 2009, being an “emo boy” in Kentucky was all the rage and so was chatting to people online. “I was obsessed with the internet. I was on MySpace all the time and I was introverted,” explains Thompson, who desperately wanted to befriend people from her school. After choosing some pictures of guys with long hair, eyeliner and piercings from Google, she set up a fake profile to get to know her classmates. Rather than doing it for malicious reasons, Thompson was both insecure and simply curious.
“It’s wanting to be someone else because you don’t think that you are good enough,” she concludes. Though she doesn’t regret her actions in hindsight, she does now question why she’d felt the need to lie.
In some instances, catfish are also in it for the money. Some professionals manipulate their victims for weeks before successfully scamming them out of thousands to help pay for a made up “emergency”. According to research by the Federal Trade Commission, Americans reported losses of 304 million dollars in 2020 alone, with corona-induced loneliness likely to blame. However, in some cases, gaining freedom of speech without the repercussions is what the catfish is after.
In March 2018, audience editor Max Benwell started receiving messages from women he didn’t know. They claimed that someone based in Oklahoma City had stolen his pictures and set up profiles on Facebook and Instagram under a fake name to write insulting things to the women he’d been talking to. Though Benwell never felt particularly aggrieved, he still wanted his impersonator to own up to what they did: “I decided to track [the catfish] down and talk to them because I knew that that would probably be way more effective.” He didn’t feel that simply getting the account taken down was drastic enough.
After a series of events – from setting up a “slightly pervy” Instagram entitled “Gorgeous Ladies of Oklahoma” to working with the online dating investigation service Social Catfish – Benwell was left with the name, personal accounts and phone number of the man who’d stolen his pictures. “I was so nervous before phoning him because I felt like it was so likely that he was gonna hang up almost immediately,” Benwell says, clarifying that he’d really tried to seem non-confrontational.
He never got a confession, even though he spoke to the catfish for an hour. Benwell does believe that he got through to him, however, as the man acknowledged the severity of sending hateful messages toward the end of their conversation: “I don’t want to psychoanalyze him, really, but to me, he’s clearly a lonely person and he does these things as a sort of game.”
While Mignon spread the word on TikTok, Benwell wrote an article of his thrilling tale for the Guardian. We asked him what he would do if he ever found himself in the same situation again – where a catfish stole his photos to say mean things to women. He says he’d try to talk some sense into them again, as well as use his past experience to his advantage: “I’d probably send them the piece I wrote as a kind of warning shot,” Benwell explains, laughing. “Like, ‘do you want to be in the sequel?’”
Dating without deception?
Since it is unlikely that large strides toward a catfishing-free world will be made any time soon, it is vital that people learn digital literacy to help them safely navigate the internet and critically question the intent of the people they come across. As Benwell sees it, this especially applies to both younger and older generations: “If you go to Gen Z, the internet’s all they know and it’s all very real to them, so they’re not as cynical and suspicious as they should be. And then the older generations, it’s all new to them, so they’re a bit gullible.”
As long as impersonation is not considered an illegal practice under constitutional law in many countries, it’s likely that catfishing will continue to increase in the coming years. According to Gibson, if the system doesn’t change neither will the numbers of fake profiles online: “So long as people can put on a mask and have the anonymity of the internet, there’s going to be people pretending to be people they aren’t.”
*Name followed by an asterisk has been changed for privacy reasons at the request of the source.