When a humanitarian crisis like Russia’s attack on Ukraine occurs, many people’s first reaction is to wonder how they can help. And in the age of social media, online activism often takes the form of sharing emotive content, like photos, videos, or infographics through Instagram stories, Facebook statuses, Tweets or TikToks.
But, with the wide availability of content online, it’s often difficult to verify the legitimacy of sources and many have found themselves unknowingly sharing outdated or manipulated content with their followers, which can do more harm than good for a country plunged into a state of war.
‘During any big event, even the Olympics, but also (of course) conflict, there’s lots of images and video that circulate claiming to be of said event but actually are either faked or more likely have come from something else months before,’ author of The Reality Game: How The Next Wave Of Technology Will Break The Truth, Professor Samuel Woolley told Grazia.
‘There lots of instances of this in Ukraine right now, people reporting alleged videos of fire and fights and people injured that are actually of events and other places,’ he explained. ‘Sharing those images if they’re not real or outdated risks creating more confusion but also risks hysteria and large scale worry.’
This has been seen on Twitter and TikTok as many were left panic stricken and googling ‘Am I going to be deployed’ after Western users began making jokes about GenZ on the battlefield or in the trenches during ‘World War Three’. Some accounts were even calling Vladimir Putin ‘Vladdy Daddy’.
More seriously, Russia-backed reports claiming Ukraine is conducting genocide of civilians were posted without challenge on Twitter and Facebook this week. Meanwhile, videos from the Russian government, including Putin’s speeches, made money from Western advertisers on YouTube. Similarly, unverified TikTok videos and live streams of the battle zone were doctored and posted before garnering massive audiences and revenue.
‘It becomes a vicious cycle because people start posting an image that’s fake and then news organisations will pick it up and say this thing is real,’ said Woolley. ‘It’s a spiral of propaganda and confusion. It makes it difficult to understand and get help to those that need it.
‘From a war like this to a natural disaster, people are looking for information —particularly, people on the ground in Ukraine —that could save their lives, find resources, find lost family members…And when they encounter falsehoods and lies and propaganda it makes it very difficult for them to get the help they need,’ he said.
Of the internet’s current favourite social media app TikTok, Woolley said: 'TikTok and Instagram reels are dangerous because there’s the goal of posting content to get views and engagement. If you’re claiming to have a scoop you can get likes and make money. So, TikTok as a platform incentivises sensationalism. Also, it’s a new platform, so it doesn’t have the built-in fail safes that have been put into Facebook to stop misinformation flowing. '
And, of course, people that have large followings on these apps need to be especially careful when re-sharing videos or information. ‘Influencers, they influence,’ Woolley said. ‘It’s particularly important that people in positions of power on TikTok are very careful about posting things to do with conflict and reporting them to be real. They think they’re doing something to help and actually they’re really harming the situation.’
But this isn’t to say that the average social media user can’t be just as problematic. ‘If you receive a video from a person you know, it’s called relational organising,’ Woolley explained. ‘Those videos have more potential to impact your beliefs because it’s come to you from a friend or family member and you’re more likely to believe it.’
So, what can people do to stop the spread of misinformation on social media? Actually, Woolley suggests we just stop and breath, then do our research. ‘It’s crucial to slow down and think very carefully before you post anything related to a conflict online,’ he said. ‘Particularly if you’re not familiar with the source.
‘You can do a number of things to check the provenance of something. With images, Google’s reverse image search is useful and if you find that image from two years ago then chances are it’s not from the current conflict.'
But really, sometimes it’s best to say nothing at all and let the witnesses and experts take up the space online: ‘People need to practise strategic silence,’ said Woolley. ‘We should leave it up to the people that really understand the situation to post as much as possible. We should give them our support, but we should allow people with expertise on the Ukrainian conflict, and Ukrainians themselves to do the talking.’