Fake news is not a new concept – it has been around for a while, though the ways it has been used vary. Sometimes it’s about celebrities or events but sometimes these fake news tread the thin line between trolling and misinformation that can badly damage the course of current events.
The most recent examples are the avalanches of disinformation that has blossomed online in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Hundreds of videos and images linked to the conflict have been uploaded to various social media networks in order to push different narratives to a public who finds it harder and hard to distinguish truth from fiction.
So it’s best not to share information on a whim, if there is any doubt about its legitimacy or if there are no other ways to verify it.
In this article we will document some of the fake news and misinformation instances that have taken up the online space by storm following the Russian invasion of Ukraine. We will also look at some general guidelines that should help you distinguish between real and false information.
What Is Fake News?
Media Literacy Expert Martina Chapman explains the basic elements that make up fake information: mistrust, misinformation and manipulation.
Fake information can be anything from news and stories to images that have been created deliberately to deceive those who see or read them in order to create a false narrative. In the case of the Russian invasion, the process of disinformation serves to create support for its actions in Ukraine.
Is It Fake News or Is It Propaganda?
This is where things seem to get a little blurry but once you get to the roots, it’s easier to tell them apart.
The definition of fake news is stories that are fabricated – they have no factual basis but are still presented as such. With a strong enough command of language and writing, as well as a good editor, you can make anything sound like a legitimate story if you try hard enough.
Propaganda on the other hand, is real information or images that only presents a limited part of an argument or (political) belief system. This information, though biased, can be verified, and is spread to the public by broadcasts or in writing, in order to influence their opinions.
Misinformation in The Russian Invasion of Ukraine
It’s no secret that the Kremlin has used misinformation for decades and, with the rise of the internet and social media, false information can now reach more people than ever before.
Just a couple of days after Russia launched its military offensive in Ukraine, on the 24th of February, videos and images linked to it have appeared everywhere online. Some of them were easily debunked as fake, while others have taken hold of the public’s imagination.
A good example is the anti-misinformation outlet NewsGuard, who is known for running tests that assess the trustworthiness of news outlets. Recently, the outlet tested the TikTok app to check how it dealt with information regarding the conflict.
It did not take them long to see how, after scrolling through videos related to the invasion, the For You Page was filled with videos about the war. These videos contained both reliable information as well as misinformation.
“Toward the end of the 45–minute experiment, analysts’ feeds were almost exclusively populated with both accurate and false content related to the war in Ukraine – with no distinction made between disinformation and reliable sources,” the research team told The Guardian. “Some of the myths in the videos TikTok’s algorithm fed to analysts have previously been identified as Kremlin propaganda.”
Another example, of a different kind this time, is a website called War On Fakes, which prides itself with exposing false claims. The articles on the website are written in English, French, Spanish, Chinese and Arabic and, of course, claim to show an honest view of what is currently happening in Ukraine.
As you may have noticed, the Russian language is missing from that list. And, once you read the news carefully, you can see how the news from Ukraine is distorted and presented in a way that benefits the argument of the invasion.
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One example is a tweet from British journalist Larisa Brown, who shared a video of a man saying goodbye to his wife and child after Ukraine’s decree that men aged 18 to 60 have to remain in the country.
War on Fakes stated that the video is from February 21st and shows a family from the separatist Donetsk region that had left for Russia. This was proven to be true, however, the website implies, by saying that the mother and child are “no longer in danger”, that they had fled the country in fear of the Ukrainian people.
Once again, remember that the war started on February 24th.
The website does not provide the readers with information on how it spots these fakes or who the fact-checkers are.
It also popped up shortly before the invasion of Ukraine, and, most importantly, has often been mentioned in state-run Russian media channels.
As you can already tell, while some fake news are so outlandish no one would think twice about them, others are more subtle than you’d initially assume.
Below we compiled an inexhaustive list of just a few of these misinformation attempts.
Claims That Volodymyr Zelensky, President of Ukraine, Fled The Country
This news appeared at the beginning of March and details how Ukraine’s President had left for Poland.
Numerous publications ran with it, though some were careful enough to add “could have fled” or “allegedly fled”.
It didn’t take long for Zelensky to take to his Telegram channel and refute those news. Moreso, he filmed the streets of Kyiv from the presidential building and recorded himself in his office.
“Night in Kiyv, our office, Monday”, he says in the first video and adds “I stay here, I stay in Kyiv, on Bankova Street. I do not hide. I’m not afraid of anyone.“
Since then, he has made numerous statements to the media from a Kyiv bunker.
Russian Embassy in Spain Publishes Photos Of Russian Soldiers Providing Humanitarian Aid
The Russian Embassy in Spain had published photos on Twitter of Russian soldiers offering humanitarian aid to Ukrainian civilians.
The set of photos was easily debunked as it has been in circulation since November 2020 and has been used in the past by other state-owned media outlets in Russia.
Soon after, the Russian Embassy deleted the tweet, saying that the images published were not recent and apologized for the error, stating that it “will be more careful in the future”.
“CNN” Reports Steven Seagal Has Joined The Russian Special Forces
Come on guys, do we really need to get into this one?
The War Is Made Up Of Crisis Actors
This is one of the most outlandish claims to have come out of the misinformation machine and it basically states that there is no war happening at all.
According to the people who have shared this news, the war is nothing more than smoke and mirrors, perpetuated by crisis actors – people who stage false flag attacks or war conflicts.
However, the video that accompanies this news is actually from a reenactment festival that takes place in Russia every year. The festival is pretty well-documented and there are plenty of images and videos available of it.
Deepfake Video of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky
One of the most recent misinformation clips circulating online is one where Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky urges his countrymen to surrender to Russia.
Проти кого ми воюємо? Ці каліки навіть діпфейк не спромоглися нормальний зробити…. боже))) pic.twitter.com/RqAj0qLuSO— йди на хуй (@_delanay) March 16, 2022
The clip is around one minute long and in it, Zelensky says that “it has not been easy” and that “It is time to face the truth. It didn’t work out. There is no more future. At least for me. […] I advise you to lay down your arms and return to your families.”
It wasn’t hard to figure out the video was fake – the quality is bad, the rendering is off, the President does not move his arms and the proportions give it away as a fake immediately.
At the time this article is being written, the video has been taken down from most social media networks, though it still circulates on Russian websites in spite of the video being obviously a fake, even to untrained eyes.
Soon after it popped up online, the real Zelensky posted a video to Twitter, stressing that he does not plan to surrender to the Russian troops.
“We are at home and defending Ukraine,” he said. “We are not going to lay down any weapons. To our victory.”
Now, with all the above being said, the question remains:
How Do We Spot Fake News?
Media literacy in this situation is paramount.
This means being able to think critically about the information you are being offered and understand how the media can turn a narrative on its head, if it so pleases.
You have to also consider some of what is considered fake news might be nothing but an opinion piece or even satire.
In addition to that, consider your own bias towards a subject – it might be the tipping point for being gullible to trust fake news or search for the truth.
Consider The Source
Is the author of the story/post/image/tweet even a real person? If so, is there evidence they exist? A blue verification badge on sites like Twitter are a good indicator the person is legit, but you need to do a bit more digging too, just in case.
A quick search should answer your question and show you what else they’ve published and if their pieces tend to have a biased point of view.
Is the website you’re on a legitimate one? Check out the website’s writers, the About Us section, and so on.
Media outlets like CNN, the BBC and The New York Times are well-known for their journalism work while websites like War On The Rocks or Bellingcat are just some of the more legitimate sources of information out there.
Headlines are the ones that grab our attention, so look at any article with an eye-catching headline with a critical eye.
A large number of these articles contain sloppy journalism and quite a few are riddled with spelling mistakes.
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Have a good look around via your search engine of choice and see if other, reputable media outlets are reporting on the story you’re reading about. Does it even exist? If it does, then check multiple reports about it, as well as their own sources, when available.
We hope this article has helped you better understand how to navigate fake news and misinformation in the current climate and also that you now have a better understanding of how propaganda works online as well.
So, until next time, keep your eyes peeled and always check your sources.