Fact-checking in the first month of a war
BBC journalist Shayan Sardarizadeh's ongoing Twitter thread shows how varied viral misinformation has been when it comes to Russia and Ukraine
Just as Russia began its invasion into Ukraine, BBC journalist Shayan Sardarizadeh offered a gentle warning to his Twitter followers: don’t believe everything you see on the internet.
What followed were more than 90 examples (and counting) of misinformation through the first 28 days of the war. There have been deepfakes of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and Russian President Vladimir Putin, demonstrably false posts from the Russian Embassy in the UK, baseless claims about crisis actors, a post that inaccurately claimed that Leonardo DiCaprio donated $10 million to Ukraine, lots of old photos and old, misattributed videos; clips from video games passed off as real, false claims that Putin was having himself green-screened into a video with Aeroflot employees, other false claims that Zelensky mocked Putin for the green screen stunt (that didn’t happen), a lot of altered headlines made to look as though they came from legitimate news outlets (but didn’t), and much more.
In his thread, Sardarizadeh cites the work of others, such as Abbie Richards, CNN’s Daniel Dale, Harvard’s Jane Lytvyneko, the HoaxEye Twitter account, and Reuters. While the war is happening on the ground in Ukraine, Sardarizadeh’s work highlights the parallel battles taking place on our social media feeds.
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Though he’s busy breaking down the latest falsehoods, I was able to get a hold of him for a couple of questions about his work.
When done right, fact-checking can be a useful tool. I’ve written a lot about the importance of context in the past, and I’ve tried to draw attention to and correct some of the more obvious visual falsehoods during this war (for instance, the example below with drones and a statue), but as an American who only speaks English, I’ve struggled to transcend the obvious language barrier surrounding a lot of the claims.
Here’s what Sardarizadeh had to say about the challenge of fact-checking a war when you don’t speak the language:
It’s definitely been an issue, myself included. Thankfully, many news organisations with a global outlook already employ Russian or Ukrainian speaking journalists, but it still has proven to be a serious challenge because obviously any fact-checker or misinformation reporter needs to fully understand a claim first before attempting to check whether it’s factual or not. Sometimes you might misunderstand a claim, assuming it’s false, while it isn’t. Moreover, finding misleading claims first and foremost requires the ability to properly navigate through content in those languages on platforms like VK or Telegram. Unfortunately, there are still many reporters who are unfamiliar with those platforms.
I also asked Sardarizadeh about one of the more common questions I get from people when I highlight that something they’ve shared is false: why should they care, especially if there’s fake information on the “other” side and this fake information supports “their” side? It’s a fair question that I’ve always responded to with some variation on the importance of not adding noise to an already overwhelming puzzle. The more fake stories, miscaptioned photographs, etc., there are out there, the harder it is for people to believe legitimate news.
Here’s what he said:
No one is immune to misinformation, particularly during a war where both sides have an incentive to win not just the battle on the ground, but also the information war. We’ve seen this before, but this war has once again shown sharing content that confirms one’s existing biases is one of the fundamental drivers of misinformation. No matter what people feel, facts matter. And during a war it’s vital that everyone has access to resources that attempt to sift truth from fiction. Policymakers might also be making decisions partly owing to what they see, read and hear online. It’s vital such decisions are made based on accurate information. Fact-checkers must do their job on a non-partisan basis, regardless of the strength of opinion among their audience. That’s the only way to gain trust. If one side is engaging in more outlandish attempts to mislead, that will naturally come across in the coverage. There’s no need to inject personal opinion into our work or exclusively focus on one side or group.
As his thread highlights, there’s a lot of misinformation being spread on all sides of this war.
There are steps you can take to ensure you’re not accidentally spreading false information.
WNYC’s On The Media has a number of entries in its “Breaking News Consumer’s Handbook” worth checking out,1 including the latest guide to the war happening in Ukraine.
Sardarizadeh recommended a few stories he played a role in making for BBC about verifying online information and spotting fake stories. Another great BBC resource is its Beyond Fake News landing page.
Additionally, Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy has an absolutely excellent page of resources and research related to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Stay safe and stay informed.