The messages, videos and photos flying across Twitter, Facebook and Telegram far outnumber the airstrikes raining down on Ukraine. They claim to show Russian fighter jets being shot down or Ukrainians dodging for cover in their own homes. Some are real, horrifying images of this war. Others had been lurking on the Internet for years before Russia launched the largest attack on a European country since World War II.
The invasion of Ukraine is shaping up to be Europe’s first major armed conflict of the social media age, when the small screen of the smartphone is the dominant tool of communication, carrying with it the peril of an instantaneous spread of dangerous, even deadly, disinformation.
TikTok videos, propagandised headlines, and tweets pinging out across screens around the world are confusing millions about the reality of how this battle is unfolding on the ground. Across Telegram and Twitter, Russia’s attack on Ukraine was both “unprovoked” and “necessary,” depending on the sender of the message.
“The prayers of the world are with the people of Ukraine tonight as they suffer an unprovoked and unjustified attack by Russian military forces,” President Joe Biden tweeted Wednesday night to his 40 million followers.
Russian state media, however, echoed Russian President Vladimir Putin’s comments across its platforms, with RT News blasting to hundreds of thousands of followers on Telegram that the action was “necessary.”
Over the last few days, Putin and Russian media have ramped up false accusations that Ukrainians are committing genocide, and mischaracterising the majority of the country’s population as Nazis, said Bret Schafer, who heads the information manipulation team at the Alliance for Securing Democracy, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington.
Last week, for example, RT’s news director claimed on live television, without evidence, that Ukrainians might start gassing their own people.
“You’ve really seen this escalation of the narrative that Russia needs to protect from this Nazi mob of genocidal Ukrainians,” Schafer said.
As Thursday wore on, the truth became even more difficult for the rest of the world to disentangle from a string of hundreds of misleading tweets, deceptively edited videos and out-of-context photos that emerged after the first shots of war rang out.
One clip, taken from a video game, amassed millions of views as users falsely claimed it depicted real attacks. A video captured by The Associated Press in Libya more than a decade ago was revived across Facebook and Twitter Thursday, with users saying it showed a Russian fighter jet plummeting through gray skies to the ground after being shot down by Ukrainian forces. And some TikTok users wrongly believed they were watching a video of soldiers parachuting into Ukraine after a Russian account posted years-old footage while Russia’s invasion was underway — that didn’t stop the clip from racking up more than 22 million views before the day’s end.
People who see these videos, photos and claims online are likely to watch them, share them and move on with their day, said John Silva, a senior director of the News Literacy Project, a nonprofit that works to fight misinformation through education.
“We see a paratrooper, he’s speaking Russian, and so we don’t take the time to question it,” said Silva. “If we see a piece of information that’s new to us, we have this compulsion to share it with others.”
And while some users are unintentionally spreading rumours in hopes of shaping perception of the invasion, others are betting on the idea that they can dupe unwitting social media users into sharing the falsehoods.
“We know disinformation is going to come out of the Russian government,” Silva said. “Then you also have trolls — people who just put things out there to see if they can fool people.” People are consuming these misleading claims because they are desperate for information, Schafer of the Alliance for Securing Democracy said. “You have a huge surge of demand, low supply of credible information, and a lot of sketchy information that fills the void,” he added.
That void became larger Thursday as Internet outages rolled through several parts of Ukraine, making it even harder for people there to contact relatives or follow the news.
As a surge of people tried to access Telegram, a social media and messaging platform popular in Eastern Europe, the app experienced service interruptions, according to a post from Pavel Durov, one of Telegram’s founders.
Key Russian websites, including the main sites of the Kremlin and military, were also unreachable or slow to load following what appeared to be a retaliatory attack. And US officials blamed Russia for disabling major government websites in Ukraine.
Widespread outages in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest city, and the strategic port of Mariupol were experienced Thursday, said Alp Toker, the founder of NetBlocks, a London-based company that monitors Web outages and Internet accessibility throughout the world.
While some outages could be caused by shells or airstrikes, others are part of an intentional effort by Russian forces to disrupt communications and cause panic, he said.
“Blow by blow, the human impact of being disconnected at a time like this is a terrifying experience,” he said. “It makes sense from a tactical view. We know that this is a strategy.”