In recent weeks, for example, clips from video games and scenes from old wars presented as views from Ukraine’s front lines have gone viral alongside legitimate images. Heart-wrenching videos of families torn apart have been shared thousands of times, then debunked. And official government accounts from Ukraine and Russia have each made unfounded or misleading statements, which quickly get amplified online.
In some ways, it’s the latest in a long list of recent crises — from the pandemic to the Capitol riot — that have spurred the spread of potentially harmful misinformation. But misinformation experts say there are key differences between the war in Ukraine and other misinformation events that make false claims about the conflict especially insidious and difficult to counter.
“People feel helpless, they feel like they want to do something and so they’re online scrolling and they’re sharing things that they think are true because they’re trying to be helpful,” said Claire Wardle, a Brown University professor and US director at misinformation-fighting nonprofit First Draft News. “[But] in these moments of upheaval and crisis, this is the time that we are worst at figuring out what’s true or false.”
A ‘torrent of images and videos being shared’
Unlike the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, when many viral false claims have been text-based, much of the misinformation about the war in Ukraine has been in the form of images and videos. And those visual formats are harder and more time consuming for both automated systems and human fact checkers to evaluate and debunk, to say nothing of everyday social media users.
To vet an image or video, fact checkers typically start by searching the web to see if it has been posted previously, indicating that it is not from the current crisis. If it does appear to be recent, they can use tools to do things such as analyze shadows or compare the terrain shown to satellite images to confirm whether it was truly shot in the location it purports to show.
“Obviously, that’s going to be much more time consuming,” said Carlos Hernández-Echevarría, public policy and institutional development coordinator at Spain-based fact checking organization Maldita.es. By comparison, he said, “plainly false narratives about vaccination, say, like, ‘They create autism’ … all that stuff is pretty easy to debunk.”
This difficulty is clear with the deluge of videos moving through apps such as TikTok. These clips include not just misinformation in its original form but videos perpetuating misinformation as users post their own reaction videos.
“I’ve opened TikTok a few times and the video that pops up is something that is not an accurate presentation of what it claims to be,” DiResta said. “Facebook and Twitter have had some rather extensive experience in content moderation during crises; I think TikTok is finding itself having to get up to speed very quickly.”
The speed with which false claims and narratives are spreading from one country to the next has also increased — from several weeks in the case of the pandemic and other recent crises to just a matter of days or, in some cases, even hours now, Hernández-Echevarría said. This may be due in part to the fact that so much of the content is visual, and thus less reliant on a shared language. Images and videos also often have a more emotional appeal than text-based posts, which experts say makes users more likely to share them.
“Right now there’s this torrent of images and videos being shared,” said Brandie Nonnecke, director of the Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society (CITRIS) Policy Lab at UC Berkeley. “The more the imagery moves you, the quicker it’s going to move through social media networks.”
In many cases, false or misleading narratives are spread through mildly conspiratorial videos or images. Each individual piece of content might not be harmful enough to violate platforms’ guidelines, but when users watch hundreds of videos a day, they may walk away with a skewed idea of what’s happening on the ground, according to Wardle.
“The wider narratives here that are shaping the war, shaping people’s ideas of Europe and NATO and Russia, it’s less about an individual TikTok video. It’s like the drip, drip, drip of what those narratives are doing and the way that they’re making people shape their understanding,” she said.
Platforms fighting back against misinformation
Even if a piece of content is labeled on one platform, content is often repurposed on others that may not have equally robust fact-checking practices. When social networks host misinformation, the platforms’ algorithms can quickly amplify its reach so it’s seen by thousands or millions of users.
There are now some efforts underway to use social media platforms to spread accurate information and teach users how to avoid amplifying falsehoods.
In order to cut down on the spread of misinformation online — and in light of constantly changing rules at social media platforms — Nonnecke would like to see a set of standards or best practices that these platforms must engage in during times of war, enforced by an outside group. “They shouldn’t just be deciding on a whim what they want to do,” she said.
Major social media platforms must also boost their content moderation capabilities in languages other than English — in this case, especially in Eastern European languages such as Polish, Romanian and Slovenian, Wardle said.
Why Ukraine war misinformation is so hard to police