Manipulation, propaganda, lies, and half-truths that even drive a wedge between relatives on either side of the Russia-Ukraine border – a war on truth is playing out on the digital front as purveyors of disinformation orchestrate large-scale campaigns designed to sway people’s minds, erode trust, and sow discord.
Amid the ongoing battle for hearts and minds: news stories, photos, and videos are being co-opted as powerful weapons in information warfare and are being shared for audiences all over the world. Social media platforms make it much easier for both true and false information to be amplified – and at a much faster pace at that. Not surprisingly, however, news websites and TV are still the go-to places for many people to get their news and may, therefore, play a big role in dis- and misinformation campaigns.
In Russia, for example, 54% of people still “trust television” over other media, a number that went up by 10 percentage points since the invasion of Ukraine. On the other hand, only 17% of people get their news online, with about 30 million unique users per month checking Yandex News, which publishes only news from a limited number of outlets that are registered in Russia.
TikTok, a new (information) battleground
Meanwhile, after a few years of experience with social media and spewing polarizing and hateful content, troll factories have learned that bots don’t make the same impact as content posted and shared organically. Enter a new strategy: hiring people on social platforms to spread their message through comments and shares using their real profiles. Companies such as TikTok and Twitter have seen pro-war accounts increasing their followers by the thousands in a matter of days. Twitter has removed over 100,000 accounts for violations of its spam policies and labelled or removed 50,000 pieces of content.
Even in Russia, where TikTok blocked the uploading of new content, users can still add new videos on their accounts through the app’s web version with VPN on. However, this is not happening on a large scale and it is easily possible to identify users with this content by the use of Russian flags on their profile images.
Journalists and fact checkers have had some sleepless nights debunking false stories about the war. Here are some examples:
- Deepfake presidents
On March 16th, two deepfakes appeared on Twitter that purported to show the Ukrainian and Russian Presidents announcing the “surrender” of Kyiv in an effort to to change the course of the war. The videos are doctored versions of real videos from press conferences.
If reality wasn’t enough to confirm the falsehood of these videos, it is also possible to compare the videos with the real conferences. It is also easy to find incongruencies between their lip movements and words. Zelensky confirmed on his official Instagram account that the video is fake.
It’s often difficult-to-impossible to spot a deepfake at first glance; ultimately, they have the power to erode people’s trust about what they see and hear. The truth itself becomes a relative value depending on someone’s belief.
- Out of context
The image above is real, but it’s not from Ukraine. It is, in fact, a 2016 celebration of the 55 years of Yuri Gagarin in space, a number these children tried to recreate. The picture was taken in Kemerovo, Russia, as it was possible to confirm after a reverse image search.
- Fake fact-checkers
“We don't do politics. But we consider it important to provide unbiased information about what is happening in Ukraine and on the territories of Donbass, because we see signs of an information war launched against Russia”. [WarOnFakes.com]
The messaging platform Telegram has become a prolific space for fake news due to its large Russian-speaking audience. One of the most successful channels is “War on Fakes”. According to its owners, “our mission is to make sure that there are only objective publications in the information space”. War on Fakes is available in six languages, signaling the objective of reaching people outside Russia. In Russian, the channel reached 705,000 subscribers in just two months.
However, the reality is grim. Their channel (and website) use conspiracy theories and blatant lies to proclaim that Russia is not responsible for most of the events in Ukraine. Their fakes have been debunked by news outlets and fact-checking websites that are part of the International Fact-Checking platform.
- Fake livestreams
Livestreams have an immediate effect, telling stories as they happen as we watch them unfold in real time and with our own eyes. On TikTok, however, once again reality is not what it seems. Several accounts have been spotted broadcasting fake live footage of videos on loop with dubbed sounds that most often have nothing to do with the war in Ukraine.
- CGI, films and videogames
War movies and videogames have gained a near reality look. Now, they’re being used as real war footage. The scenes above are from “War of Chimeras”, a 2017 film by two Ukrainian directors. The video was shared several thousands of times.
Reality – a matter of belief?
Calling fake news real and copying the concept of fact checkers will be an increasingly common way of distorting the reality. While for now we can follow a few rules to fight disinformation, even during a war, it will become harder to do it without the support of automated tools.
In the end, it is the truth itself that is a victim and a world with the abundance of information becomes a net of falsehoods where the reality is just a matter of belief.