In Ukraine’s fog of war, social media creates further confusion – Grid News

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In Ukraine’s fog of war, social media creates further confusion

The picture was compelling — and its message dire. A soldier planting the Russian flag into an official building in Kharkiv, in northeast Ukraine, on the first day of the war. An early sign that a significant Ukrainian city had fallen.

In fact, the picture is nearly eight years old, captured during prior separatist unrest in 2014. It was one of thousands of misleading photos, videos and stories flooding social media as Russian airstrikes began raining down on Ukraine on Thursday.

Social media users on Facebook, TikTok and Telegram have shared images from unrelated conflicts — in Libya, China and the Gaza Strip — or of other military engagements, such as Russian military exercises and parades.

On Twitter, posts falsely claimed that Odessa had been captured, the site of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster had been seized and destroyed, and an amphibious assault had been launched on the port city of Mariupol. Despite their inaccuracy, they were shared tens of thousands of times.


But social media has also helped to clarify information. TikTok videos showing a buildup of Russian forces along Ukraine’s northern and eastern borders in recent weeks contradicted the Kremlin’s ultimately false reassurances that it planned no invasion.

In a conflict predicated on and fought partly with state-backed disinformation, social media has become a new, often real-time, front line in military propaganda. It reveals the risk that hot conflict poses to accurate information-sharing in a global digital age.

False TikTok videos are getting debunked in real time

For all appearances, the Russian invasion was streaming live on TikTok.

A video uploaded to TikTok on Thursday showed men in fatigues parachuting over farmland. One of the soldiers spoke Russian, filming first his face and then his combat boots as he parachuted downward.

But social media detectives quickly debunked this idea, finding the same video on an Instagram post from 2015. Nevertheless, the TikTok version had been viewed at least 27 million times before disappearing from the platform on Friday. Many commenters expressed shock at how immediately, and glibly, the start of deadly warfare can be shared.


Reporters and internet sleuths found falsified footage and imagery across platforms. As Kat Tenbarge and Ben Collins reported for NBC, videos showing residential neighborhoods under siege and audio of screams and sirens were dubbed over unrelated footage of a neighborhood in the United Kingdom.

And Cecilia D’Anastasio and Jeff Stone of Bloomberg found that videos purporting to show live military engagement on the ground in Ukraine were instead clips from the game Arma 3. According to D’Anastasio and Stone, Facebook livestreams of the misleading videos ran for hours, racking up 25,000 shares and reaching about 110,000 people. A news station in India broadcast the game footage as news.

Social media is full of people looking to exploit a crisis

By design, TikTok is built for mischief. Users play with video and audio to interact with any trending topic. A cottage industry of would-be influencers stand up fresh accounts to fill with content on any trending topic.

It also seems to foster media illiteracy and credulity among its users, Taylor Lorenz, the internet culture and technology reporter, has said.

In a crisis, two types of misinformation spreaders come to the fore of social media, according to Jevin West, who directs the Center for an Informed Public at the University of Washington, which researches how information spreads in a crisis.

Opportunists, he said, take advantage of a crisis to gain followers, influence or clout.

“It might not even be that they’re purposely trying to share misinformation,” he said. “But the benefit — measured here in followers or attention — outweighs the cost of getting something wrong.”

(There’s also moneymaking scams to run, Lorenz found.)

Propagandists, on the other hand — in this case, often actors from or supportive of the Kremlin — actively disseminate disinformation as part of an overall offensive strategy.


Sergey Sanovich, a postdoctoral fellow at Princeton University who studies online censorship and propaganda in authoritarian regimes, said the first round of disinformation in this conflict took place over recent weeks from state-backed channels.

The most sinister example came from Russian President Vladimir Putin himself as he made the case for war by, among other things, falsely accusing Ukrainians of committing genocide against ethnic Russians.

“Now, with this war started, I think the key goal is to demoralize Ukrainians — Ukrainian soldiers and civilians — create panic, distrust in government and military, to facilitate surrender and submission to Russian forces,” said Sanovich.

Some platforms, such as the online investigative website Bellingcat, are attempting to organize and verify imagery from the conflict. But the meticulous work of fact-checkers is dwarfed by the speed and scale of new content.

West said news consumers are particularly vulnerable to consuming and spreading misinformation during crisis events.


“Our appetite for information is especially high during these crisis events, and it’s during those times of high appetite that we actually have the least amount of information about these events,” he said. “So it’s a bad combination.”

  • Anya van Wagtendonk
    Anya van Wagtendonk

    Misinformation Reporter

    Anya van Wagtendonk is the misinformation reporter at Grid, focusing on the impact of false information on policy, elections and social behavior.