A real photo, of Ukrainian servicemen in the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine. Associated Press

Disinformation, Ukraine and the war of words on social media

In the first 14 hours of the invasion fact-checkers had already found 34 pieces of disinformation about the conflict.

AS THE RUSSIAN invasion of Ukraine escalates, an information war is being waged online as fact-checkers across Europe brace for a new, targeted wave of false news. 

Reports of pro-Russian disinformation started to filter in as open source intelligence (OSINT) specialists picked apart viral videos in the days leading up to this morning’s pre-dawn assault.

Bellingcat‘s Investigation Team tracked claims made by Russian state media and pro-separatists channels in a spreadsheet. They then verified photos and videos of alleged Ukrainian aggression using metadata and YouTube. 

Elliot Higgins, founder of the fact-checking website, debunked a video of a saboteur attempting to blow up a sewage treatment plant that was described as “evidence of the criminal intentions of the Ukrainian side.”

The video shown on Russia’s state-run broadcaster was supposedly shot from the enemy’s helmet camera and stolen after a gunfight with pro-Russian militia. Except internet sleuths scraped the metadata (info attached to media that reveals things like creation dates and file names).  They found the video had been made up with extra sources of video and audio, then searched YouTube for the same filenames and found out the video actually contained audio ripped from an old Finnish military video. 

AFP similarly disproved a video of Ukrainian troops entering Russia by revealing they were actually made up of years-old military drills and footage from the 2014 Crimea conflict. 

That kind of content is aimed at Russian viewers to drum up support for a Ukrainian invasion according to Eliot Higgins, who told the Guardian that international audiences were ‘impervious’ to this kind of disinformation. 

However, false reports around the Ukrainian conflict have leapt from the depths of pro-Russian Telegram (a messaging app) channels and into the news feeds of wider European audiences. 

According to fact-checkers monitoring the situation closely, the rates of false news relating to Ukraine were low. However, Tommaso Canetta of Pagella Politica and the European Digital Media Observatory (or EDMO, of which this publication is also a member) told The Journal that as February went on, a “growth” in dodgy content was detected. While levels of disinformation were not “alarmingly high”, Canetta said following the invasion he “expects the situation to change substantially”.

Fact checkers from Spain and Portugal picked up a fake BBC video in early February claiming a nuclear war between Nato and Russia was imminent. The video isn’t a real newscast – instead, it was made by an Irish company with an actor to see how their clients “would react in a disaster scenario” in 2016. The post with the false claims was in English and had popped up in both Portuguese and Spanish news feeds, which means Ukraine-related disinformation is being targeted outside the countries in the conflict to wider European audiences. 

Evidence of a Russian government campaign to spread fake information remains to be seen, according to Canetta. 

“I cannot say we see a state sponsored spread of false news in the EU about Ukraine,” he said. Instead he describes claims coming from official Kremlin sources, such as those made in Putin’s latest speech, “more at propaganda level than disinformation”.

Propaganda Canetta describes as an ideological belief based on an element of truth, for example the Russian government stating that Nato started the aggression by building up more bases in the region. Disinformation would be more specific about an alleged event happening, eg a fake video of Ukrainian soldiers defecting to Russia. 

Ruslan Stefanov, programme director at the Bulgarian Centre for the Study of Democracy disagrees and called pro-Russian content springing up in Serbia “a state-sponsored reality.”

“In the last weeks, we have observed all sorts of false flag operations. It starts from the Kremlin, it goes through the official media, it goes through all these fringe and social media with photos that are doctored, with claims that are doctored,” he said. 

There are now more platforms than ever to get information instantly, leaving little to no time to check if it’s true during an unfolding crisis. As international communities turn to digital sources to keep up with on-the-ground Ukrainian updates, it puts them in the firing line of questionable reports. Ukrainian English-language publication The Kyiv Post tweeted this morning that its website had been “under constant cyber attack from the moment Russia launched its military offensive”.

With the website cutting in and out all day, it turned to social media to put out rapid fire updates in English on the number of Russian aircraft shot down, for a large international audience locked out of other local outlets due to a language barrier. Then it was revealed that the established outlet had used an image of a 1993 air crash under a tweet claiming it was an image of the sixth Russian aircraft shot down today. 

So what to do in the avalanche of information? According to Canetta for fact-checkers it’s keep calm and carry on. 

“I think we must be ready and continue our monitoring of the situation. Moreover, we need to have a clear and honest picture of what is happening,” he told The Journal

The EDMO page tracks in real time how many European fact-checks are completed on the Ukranian conflict. In the first 14 hours of the conflict, 34 claims, mostly videos and photos of ‘explosions’ or ”shelling’ were debunked or verified. That number is expected to grow as the conflict goes on. 

- Contains reporting from AFP

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