A version of this article first appeared in the “Reliable Sources” newsletter. You can sign up for free right here.
From a media perspective, what distinguishes Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is the sheer amount of information. The staggering amount of data. Some of it is reliable, some is misinformation, some is outright disinformation, and so on. On Thursday Slate’s Daniel Johnson, a U.S. Army veteran, wrote that Ukraine “could be the most documented war in human history.” The content is all over TikTok, YouTube, Instagram, and other platforms.
“If you’re interested,” he wrote, “you can find footage of airstrikes, ground battles, Russian helicopters getting shot down, civilians being targeted. Most of it isn’t coming from traditional sources. The amount of information flowing in live is so great that there are whole social media accounts devoted to analyzing Russian and Ukrainian combat strength, the front lines, and the losses of equipment down to the vehicle. This sheer amount of information being widely available is unheard-of for a major conflict.”
Craig Timberg and Drew Harwell of the Washington Post also wrote about this dynamic on Thursday. They said sites like “Twitter, Telegram and Twitch make following war faster and easier than ever, but also are vulnerable to rapid-fire disinformation.” The key quote: Social media’s intensity and immediacy “are creating a new kind of fog of war, in which information and disinformation are continuously entangled with each other — clarifying and confusing in almost equal measure.” For example: “Accounts supportive of Russia have already been working to share old videos and photos — taken out of context and repackaged with false descriptions — at the same time and with the same hashtags as people’s authentic footage from the real world.”
Here’s how to navigate social media right now
With all of that in mind, here are some pieces of expert advice on how to navigate social media — and avoid unwittingly amplifying misinformation — during a major unfolding news event like the attack on Ukraine:
– First and foremost: Be skeptical. Be on the lookout for propaganda. Think twice before hitting send or share. “If you’re online you are a potential stooge in the information war,” professor Jennifer Mercieca commented.
– David French, a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom and a senior editor at The Dispatch, wrote: “View battlefield reports with extreme caution. The fog of war makes it difficult for even the combatants to understand what’s happening in real time. As dense as the fog is on the battlefield, it’s almost infinitely more opaque” on sites like Twitter.
– Professor and disinformation expert Kate Starbird said on Twitter that consumers should be “be wary of unfamiliar accounts.” Check their profile, Starbird wrote: “Are they brand new? Or low follower? What were they tweeting a couple of weeks or months ago? Make sure they are who they say they are. If you’re not sure, it’s okay to not retweet.”
– Christiaan Triebert of The New York Times’ visual investigations team recommended: “Do a reverse image search with Google and Yandex.” That’s good advice for images that seem especially striking or surprising. “If nothing shows up, mirror the image,” and try again, he said. Storyful’s Rob McDonagh noted that you can do the same with screenshots of videos…
– CNN’s Daniel Dale said there are “old war clips going around social media and being captioned as new. There are also new clips being captioned definitively, by people not on scene, even though it’s not actually clear what happened (which side fired, what was fired, etc.). Lots of caution warranted.”
– As always, be wary of anyone asking for money. NBC’s Kat Tenbarge and Ben Collins reported that some TikTokers were pretending to livestream from Ukraine and soliciting donations, using doctored or dubbed footage.
– Within an hour of the military action, Twitter Safety shared tips for securing accounts in English, Russian and Ukrainian. One of the intended audiences: Ukrainians who may need to erase digital evidence of past political activism.
– Facebook set up a “Special Operations Center” to respond to war-related activity across the platform. One of the priorities: To “remove content that violates our Community Standards faster.” Facebook also said it turned on “a new feature in Ukraine that allows people to lock their profile to provide an extra layer of privacy and security protection over their information.”
This is an evergreen but currently relevant tip for journalists as well as others who may be involved in sharing information about the conflict, from Harvard Shorenstein fellow Jane Lytvynenko: “Make sure your reporters, [editors], photographers, admin staff, and anyone else involved in covering this war has strong cybersecurity hygiene. Vet sources. Check documents. Be aware of phishing attack potential. 2fa everywhere via an app. Password variation. Everything.”
War through the lens of an Instagram influencer
Twenty or thirty years ago, the stories of innocent families suffering in war were told largely through the lenses of professional photographers and reporters. Now they can tell their own stories. The Information’s Kaya Yurieff wrote about Instagram influencers and Twitch streamers in Ukraine who “showed how quickly life in the country went from normal to a nightmare.” Tanya Parfileva, who has 1.7 million Instagram followers, “shared a selfie in an elevator wearing a fluffy beige coat and a photo of tea and chocolate” a day ago, but now Parfileva is sharing the wartime reality of Kyiv, like her to-go bag packed with “documents like passports, a first aid kit, cash, clothes, a lighter and a knife.” For now, according to Parfileva’s posts, she is staying in Kyiv.
How will this change the nature of conflict?
Circling back to Johnson’s column for Slate, he made the point that “the scale and impact of what’s occurring and what we’re seeing can’t be understated.”
“We’re watching a massive conflict — the scale of which hasn’t been seen on the continent in almost 100 years — rock the second-largest country in Europe. From our offices, our porches, our cars, and our schools, we can watch battles as they happen,” he wrote. “What could this possibly mean? It’s too soon to tell. But it signifies a historical change in how we fight — and how the world watches those fights.”