The War Online
Propaganda and media manipulation have always been an essential part in waging wars to foster hatred and fear. However, with the current Ukraine conflict it becomes apparent how powerful the social media machinery has become in polarizing the situation. Since Putin’s invasion into Ukraine on February 24th, our social media feeds have been flooded with images and videos that show the devastation and brutality of the conflict. There are undoubtedly benefits to this exposure and interconnectedness: protests have been organized, humanitarian aids were gathered, and information was distributed for potential escape routes. Yet, much content has circulated which aims at framing the conflict in favorable political terms, depending on the political affiliation of the actors. Over the last few weeks, online users have been exposed to a plethora of disinformation. In this post I will show you what you can pay attention to to not fall for fake news.
Disinformation and Its Effects
Although disinformation, or so-called fake news, is not a new phenomena, its impact and means of distribution has changed gravely with the prominence of the internet. The ability to disseminate information globally, and allow people to share their opinions directly via comment sections amplifies emotional responses and allows communities to form which share similar narratives. This can involve both the intentional spread of fake news as well as unintentional ways by which people truly believe in what they claim.
Russia has been known to have perfected the art of generating fake news, as could be seen during the US presidential elections in 2016. Although it is still unknown to what extent Russia’s endorsement of Trump contributed to his win, there is considerable evidence that Russia made attempts to influence the election outcomes via fake news
These practice runs are coming in handy now with the Ukraine conflict. However, Russia is not the only actor in this current informational warfare. Various online trolls and Ukrainian organizations participate as well, making it difficult to discern these different actors and their intent. As such, various videos have emerged on TikTok, Facebook, and Co. allegedly depicting attacks on Ukraine. Yet, in many cases, these videos constitute recontextualized media, which basically means that old footage from different international conflicts or even video games is repurposed to create a new narrative. One video, taken more than 10 years ago during the Libyan conflict, was claimed to show the Russian invasion into Ukraine. Another short clip, which allegedly showed a Ukranian girl standing up to Russian military, originated in fact from the Palestinian conflict where a Palestinian girl yelled at an Israeli soldier. Meanwhile, Russian people are manipulated by state media into believing that a Nazi uprise and a genocide are taking place in Ukraine, which allgededly poses a serious security threat to Russia.Therefore, based on which narrative one is exposed to, the Russian invasion can either be recognized as an unprovoked attack or necessary intervention
Which Role do Instagram, Reddit, and Co. Play?
Social media has established itself as an important medium for both communication and information production. Whereas in Central Europe, less than 40% of people consume news via social media, this number increases in Eastern European countries such as Hungary or Romania, where around 50% rely on social media for their news. Especially in emergency situations, such as the storm on capitol hill early last year, or the Gezi Park protests in Turkey in 2013, social media has played a pivotal role for groups to organize and track developments.
The same holds true for the current events in Ukraine. Shortly after Russia’s invasion, Reddit’s comment section was flooded with information on where Ukrainians could find refuge in response to alleged Russian trolls spreading misinformation. Even Google Maps was used as a tool for political resistance. The hacker collective Anonymous called on Twitter for people to review restaurants and businesses in Russia and use the comment function to inform Russian civilians on the political situation in an effort to fight the misinformation propagated by the Russian government.
So considering that social media has become an essential arena for propaganda and manipulation, the question to be asked is: What are Instagram, Reddit, and Co. doing to fight disinformation? Somewhat paradoxical is the fact that the main problem in the battle against fake news lies in upholding the fundamental right of freedom of expression, which is not only enshrined in most national constitutions, but also laid down in the European Convention of Human Rights and the EU Charter. Although freedom of expression is not an absolute right, and therefore subject to limitations, it is incredibly difficult to strike the right balance between removing disinformation that could be harmful to society and full-on censorship. In order to provide some form of guidance and consistency, the European Commission created the Code of Practice on Disinformation, a soft law tool which has been signed by major online platforms including Facebook, TikTok, Twitter, and Google. While the Code of Practice is not legally binding, it is the first effort to establish harmonized practices and proposes strategies to regulate information sharing in a way that respects democratic principles.
Next to that, specific measures have been adopted by Meta in response to the recent info war regarding the Ukraine conflict. As such, Meta announced that a network run by users in both Russia and Ukraine was taken down due to inauthentic behavior including the creation of fake profiles and news outlets. Nevertheless, there are also ways for us to identify fake news and thus do our part in the resistance against fake news and media polarization.
How to Recognize Disinformation?
One major tool for fake news is the above-mentioned recontextualization of old footage and use of manipulated images. The best way to identify whether such information is reliable, according to Shelby Grossman, research scholar at the Stanford Internet Observatory, is to conduct a reverse-image search But let’s be real, no one wants to do a reverse-image search with every single video or image they come across. There is just too much content on our feeds. A compromise could be that if you would like to share or repost content that you come across, make sure that what you post is legitimate. Tiny efforts like that already have a strong impact, at least on how you interact with your online community.
Another way of fighting fake news is to pay attention to the sources of posts and claims. The very nature of fake news implies that their claims and information are not based on reliable and verified sources. So again, before falling for outrageous or highly emotional headlines, maybe check the content first and look out for references.
Lastly, be aware of the actors behind news that may appear on your feed. Recently, a lot of Kremlin sponsored news have been circulating with the aim of fostering suspicions against Western politics. While it is important to also question the actions purported by the West, it is equally important to understand the motivations behind such critique. Therefore, pay attention to the affiliations of broadcasts, as many are affiliated with the Russian government.