Already, bad information about the Russian invasion has found large audiences on platforms fundamentally designed to promote content that gets engagement.
On TikTok, a 2016 video of a training exercise was repurposed to create the false impression that Russian soldiers were parachuting into Ukraine; it was viewed millions of times. A mistranslation of a statement that circulated widely on Twitter, and was shared by journalists, falsely stated that fighting near Chernobyl had disturbed a nuclear waste site (the original statement actually warned that fighting might disturb nuclear waste).
Harmful propaganda and misinformation are often inadvertently amplified as people face the firehose of breaking news and interact with viral posts about a terrible event. This guide is for those who want to avoid helping bad actors.
We’ve published some of this advice before—during the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020, and again before the US election later that year. The information below has been updated and expanded to include some specific considerations for news coming out of Ukraine.
Your attention matters …
First, realize that what you do online makes a difference. “People often think that because they’re not influencers, they’re not politicians, they’re not journalists, that what they do [online] doesn’t matter,” Whitney Phillips, an assistant professor of communication and rhetorical studies at Syracuse University, told me in 2020. But it does matter. Sharing dubious information with even a small circle of friends and family can lead to its wider dissemination.
… and so do your angry quote tweets and duets.
While an urgent news story is developing, well-meaning people may quote, tweet, share, or duet with a post on social media to challenge and condemn it. Twitter and Facebook have introduced new rules, moderation tactics, and fact-checking provisions to try to combat misinformation. But interacting with misinformation at all risks amplifying the content you’re trying to minimize, because it signals to the platform that you find it interesting. Instead of engaging with a post you know to be wrong, try flagging it for review by the platform where you saw it.
Mike Caulfield, a digital literacy expert, developed a method for evaluating online information that he calls SIFT: “Stop, Investigate the source, Find better coverage, and Trace claims, quotes, and media to the original context.” When it comes to news about Ukraine, he says, the emphasis should be on “Stop”—that is, pause before you react to or share what you’re seeing.
“There’s just a human impulse to be the first person in your group to share the story and get known as the person who reported this thing,” he says. And while this impulse is a daily hazard for journalists, it applies to everyone, particularly during moments of information overload.
Shireen Mitchell, a disinformation researcher and digital analyst, says that if you’re consuming news about Ukraine and want to do something to help, “what you should be doing is following people from Ukraine who are telling their stories about what’s happening to them.”