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Ten tips to stay away from disinformation during the war in Ukraine

After weeks of tensions, on 24 February 2022,  Russian armed forces invaded Ukraine. As soon as the war  in Ukraine began, disinformation also started spreading: false images, decontextualized videos, or plainly invented pieces of information invaded the internet and, in some cases, ended up on traditional media channels as well.

Politicians themselves and state-controlled media have also been spreading disinformation. For instance, many Russian officials and state-controlled media claimed on 24 February 2022 the military actions weren’t targeting Ukrainian cities, and we already had images and evidence of shelling on Kiev, Kharkiv, Dnjepr and other important centers.

In these sensitive times, knowing if and how to trust content can be even more crucial when it comes to getting a real understanding of what is happening, its roots and consequences. Here you find ten tips not to fall in the trap of disinformation, provided by the organizations that are part of EDMO’s fact-checking network.

1. Think before sharing

Social media are designed to maximize the sharing of content among its users, but in such sensitive times a lighthearted attitude can also prove to be harmful.

Before sharing or liking a post on social media it’s important to stop for a moment and think about its real meaning: what is the post actually trying to say? Does it fit in with what we know about the broader situation? Does it benefit or praise someone in particular? Could it be harmful if it turned out to be false? All of these elements need to be taken into account before deciding to believe what we read or see online and contribute to its circulation.

2. Check the source

The online world offers to each and everyone of us a virtually unlimited audience for everything we want to share. In this context, checking where content comes from, who created it and who is spreading it is crucial to assess its reliability.

When we read or see something that matches our mindset, it’s easy to just believe it and give its authenticity for granted.

For example, on 26 February, Spanish fact-checkers at Maldita.es reported that several social media accounts were claiming that Ukrainian President Zelensky had fled the country while Russian forces were approaching Kiev, an information which was also delivered by Vjačeslav Volodin, President of the Russian Parliament (Duma), through its official Telegram channel. However, this piece of false news was denied by the Ukrainian government and it hasn’t been reported by any reliable news outlet.

When in doubt, in fact, double-checking that what we read or see is consistent with what is being reported by official sources, such as independent research centers and reliable media outlets, is always a good idea.

3. Beware of real content use to spread false information

In order to support their cause, disinformation spreaders often tend to use images and videos that are actually real, but have nothing to do with the event they’re being linked to. During the last couple of years this tactic has become particularly popular, and it has recently been observed also in connection to war in Ukraine.

An example among many: a picture portraying a girl sitting on a bus with a rifle has been associated with the war, but fact-checkers noted that it was firstly shared in 2020 and, therefore, is not related with the current situation.

Again, on 12 February 2022 an Italian Telegram user shared a photo of an alleged «new ipersonic and unstoppable Russian missile,» and claimed that «Russians are extremely advanced» in that field. However, the picture shows a missile developed in the 1970s.

Real images can be as misleading as invented ones: checking their origins, and analyzing the accounts that are spreading them, it’s always important to make sure that what we are seeing is consistent with what we are told to be looking at.

4. Satire can also spread disinformation

Sometimes, satirical posts meant to entertain users can be misinterpreted and exchanged for actual pieces of information, thus spreading unnecessary fears or panic among the public. Furthermore, satirical contents are often tied to reality and quote actual people and events, which makes them harder to distinguish as false.

A 10-seconds video which circulated in Spain on the popular social media platform TikTok, for example, shows Putin giving a speech. Subtitles claim that he’s saying «this is for the whole of Spain to watch, including [Prime Minister] Pedro Sanchez: do you really believe you have a chance at defending Ukraine?». However, while the video is real, the subtitles were invented in order to create satirical content.

To avoid falling in the trap it’s useful to go back to the first tip: think before you share. Where does the content come from? Why was it created, and by whom? Have others reported about it? Asking all of these questions can help us to navigate social media platforms and avoid mixing entertainment with actual news articles.

5. If it’s too good – or bad, or weird – to be true, it probably isn’t

If your first reaction when looking at something is «this is absurd,» that thought is definitely enough of a red flag to investigate further. Shocking news headlines or exaggerated data, both in a positive and negative way, are often used to attract users at the expense of accuracy.

For instance, European fact-checkers in Greece, Poland, and Lithuania debunked a social media post which claimed that Ukraine didn’t register its borders with the United Nations, and therefore it should still be considered as a Ussr – now Russia – “province”. Sounds a bit too weird? It is: the information is completely unfounded.

A good indicator when trying to figure out whether a big news is real or not is to check who else is reporting about it: if the fact at issue is really as huge as it’s being portrayed, then we can expect that all the reliable news outlets would be talking about it. If that’s not the case, you should probably beware of it.

6. Take advantage of online fact-checking tools…

When in doubt, a good way to save time and effort consists in checking whether someone else has already verified a specific news item you came in touch with. A valuable ally can be the Google Fact-Checking Tool, a special search engine which aggregates all the fact-checking articles published worldwide about specific topics, people or events.

7. … and the reverse image search…

When dealing with the verification of visual contents, the reverse image search function can also be a great tool. This service, provided by Google, TinEye and Bing among others, allows users to start an online search from a specific image and discover more details about it, such as its origin, similar pictures, or fact-checking articles that include it.

Expert users can also go on and extract the metadata associated with the multimedia content they’re analyzing, meaning for instance information about when and by whom it was created. However, as noted by fact-checkers at Facta, this process often works with pictures we download from websites or receive from friends and family, but social media platforms generally clean contents from these kinds of data before publishing them.

Reverse search can also be done with videos through specific tools, such as the plugin InVid.

8. … but be real about your own skills

Even though new technologies can be effective allies in the fight against disinformation, ordinary users may not be as familiar with its most subtle dynamics and the way false news items can easily travel around the globe. As highlighted by the Poynter Institute for Media Studies – which launched and manages the International fact-checking network (Ifcn) – users should beware of the «easy-learning syndrome,» meaning the belief of knowing exactly how to debunk a specific claim, video, or picture after reading something here and there about the topic at hand.

Poynter labels this attitude as «one of the most important challenges for the more conscientious users of social media,» and suggests to rely on skilled fact-checkers in order to make sure you’re getting everything right. That leads us to the next tip, which is…

9. Get in touch with fact-checkers

Fact-checkers are there to help you not to get caught in the web of disinformation: in fact, they are journalists trained specifically to verify dubious content, using all the tools needed to do that in a transparent and independent manner.

To get in touch, apart from emails and social media, today many outlets offer a WhatsApp chat service that allows users to easily get in touch, flag potentially false content, and get it verified.

10. Use your common sense

Last but not least, common sense remains your most valuable friend when dealing with disinformation. As soon as you recognize a potential red flag in some content you’re seeing, stop and think about why it feels wrong: is it exaggerated? Is it presented as huge news, but no one else is talking about it? Does it come from partisan sources, whose interests may be at stake?

When in doubt, do your homework: analyze the post, reach out to fact-checkers, and refrain from sharing it if you think it might turn out to be inaccurate. We can all do our part.

Photo by ANSA