Ukraine war: How social media does not become a fake news sling

After the Russian invasion, many false reports appeared on the Internet. Social media users need to learn not to spread them too. A guide.

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The flood of online news about the Russian invasion of Ukraine follows a pattern familiar from other crises the world has had to go through in recent years: photos, videos, and other information are being published much faster in posted and shared on social media when they could be cross-checked.

The result is the spreading of untruths (also) by well-meaning people. And this, in turn, can help problem actors terrorize innocent people, spread problem ideologies, and thereby cause real harm.

The disinformation is central to the Russian government’s campaign to justify its invasion. Russia, for example, claimed that Ukrainian forces were planning violent attacks, shelling people, and even committing genocide in Donbas, a region in the country’s southeast that is home to many pro-Russian-leaning people with separatist aspirations. Fake videos of such attacks became part of a domestic propaganda campaign.

It is now increasingly common for people not involved in such government campaigns to intentionally spread misleading or false information about the invasion in order to promote certain ideological narratives or simply to generate clicks. They don’t seem to care about the damage done. In still other cases, mistakes that can occur in the fog of war are simply unwittingly made – they are propagated and go viral. And fake news about the Russian invasion has found particularly large audiences on platforms fundamentally designed to distribute content that generates so-called engagement – ​​that is, content that users engage with, comment on, like, and share.

Propaganda and misinformation are often unintentionally amplified when people are presented with a barrage of breaking news and then interact with viral posts about dire events. But that doesn’t have to be the case. A short guide should show how you can avoid becoming a fake news slinger yourself.

First, realize that what you do online has an impact. “People often think that what they do online doesn’t matter because they’re not influencers, politicians or journalists,” said Whitney Phillips, assistant professor of communication and rhetoric studies at Syracuse University, back in 2020. But it matters. Disclosing dubious information to even a small circle of friends and family members can lead to its further dissemination.

As a high-profile event unfolds, well-meaning people may quote, retweet, or otherwise share a post on social media—just to argue against its content. Twitter and Facebook have introduced improved usage rules, smarter moderation tactics and stricter fact-checking regulations to combat misinformation. However, if you interact with fake news, even critically, you run the risk of making the content you criticize more interesting to the platforms’ algorithms. Instead of directly addressing a post that you know is wrong, consider submitting it for review by the platform you saw it on.

Digital media literacy expert Mike Caulfield has developed a method for evaluating online information that he calls SIFT: “Stop, Investigate, Find, Trace”. Accordingly, one should first pause, examine the source of a message, seek further reporting and read claims, quotes and media in their original context, i.e. trace back reports. When it comes to news about Ukraine, the emphasis should be on “pausing” before reacting to or sharing what you read.

“There’s just the human impulse to be the first person in a group to spread a message,” says Caulfield. You’re really proud of it. And while this impulse is an everyday hazard in the work of journalists, it now applies to everyone who uses social media — especially in moments of information overload.

The source is and will always be important. Don’t just retweet everything you see that seems to be from Ukraine. Only share information from authentic channels. Journalists – people whose job is information processing – are working to verify TikTok videos showing Russian military movements. They also forward tweets from people who appear to be in Ukraine documenting their own stories.

But even then, experts advise caution. Disinformation researcher Kate Starbird tweeted tips on how to verify social media posts about the Ukraine war — pointing out that this is a situation where even reliable sources within one’s network do less than double-check to let.

If you’re reading this guide, you’re probably not a news journalist or an expert on Ukraine-Russia relations. But they are the very ones who warn against pretending to be one by evaluating information you find online and then disseminating it as if you know what you are talking about. While it’s always good to try to verify information you see. But you should think carefully about whether you actually share new insights or theories that you have cobbled together with your networks.

“People feel like they can do their own research online,” says Shireen Mitchell, an expert on online disinformation — partly because of the increasing attention paid to the spread of disinformation and fake news on social media becomes. “And now that these users think they’ve picked up some important skills, they think they could.” However, these assumptions are only partially correct. The impulse to “do your own research” to send people into entire networks of disinformation has been used by so-called bad actors for years.

Another problem: the conflict does not happen in English or German. “Frankly, the language barrier is a big problem,” says Caulfield, pointing to people trying to check real-time news from Ukraine. “To find out what’s authentic, you can’t look at videos from places you don’t know or rely on videos that are in a language you don’t understand,” he says.

Journalists like Jane Lytvynenko, who is Ukrainian herself and has dealt with misinformation, identify and share resources for those looking to donate in support of Ukrainian charities and media. They provide important information about the invasion.

Other activists have compiled a list of propaganda news channels and social profiles to avoid. Bellingcat has a continuously updated table of debunked tall tales. The Kyiv Independent news portal constantly tweets updates.

“Perhaps your role in this isn’t that of a reporter telling his friends the latest stories,” says Caulfield. There are a lot of people who do this work and are just really good at it, he says. Instead, it is better to clarify misinformation, such as Russia used in 2014 when taking over Crimea.

Anyone is capable of spreading misinformation – even experts who might track them down. When sharing information about a rapidly evolving situation – regardless of role or the size of your podium – you should be prepared to responsibly correct it and deal with the consequences if you get it wrong.

Both Mitchell and Caulfield have described best practices: Whoever spreads errors on Twitter takes a screenshot of it, posts a correction by replying to or quoting the incorrect information. The original tweet with the false information will then be deleted.

Although TikTok works differently, similar principles apply: delete the error, share why the video was deleted, post a fix, and encourage your followers to share that fix. Mitchell added that everyone should be willing to take responsibility for a mistake by providing the correct information to those who passed it on.

When something as horrific as a war or a pandemic is happening in the world, sometimes it feels apathetic to just look the other way or take a break from the internet. But it’s not. Listen to your own voice, go to the park. The end of the world will continue without you.


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