“How to avoid sharing bad information about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine”
MIT Technology Review, February 25, 2022
Humans and Technology
by Abby Ohlheiser
“Even well-meaning attempts to participate in the news can play into bad actors’ campaigns.”
The fast-paced online coverage of the Russian invasion of Ukraine on Wednesday followed a pattern that’s become familiar in other recent crises that have unfolded around the world. Photos, videos, and other information are posted and reshared across platforms much faster than they can be verified.
The result is that falsehoods are mistaken for truth and amplified, even by well-intentioned people. This can help bad actors to terrorize innocent civilians or advance disturbing ideologies, causing real harm.
Disinformation has been a prominent and explicit part of the Russian government’s campaign to justify the invasion. Russia falsely claimed that Ukrainian forces in Donbas, a city in the southeastern part of the country that harbors a large number of pro-Russian separatists, were planning violent attacks, engaging in antagonistic shelling, and committing genocide. Fake videos of those nonexistent attacks became part of a domestic propaganda campaign. (The US government, meanwhile, has been working to debunk and “prebunk” these lies.)
Meanwhile, even people who are not part of such government campaigns may intentionally share bad, misleading, or false information about the invasion to promote ideological narratives, or simply to harvest clicks, with little care about the harm they’re causing. In other cases, honest mistakes made amid the fog of war take off and go viral.
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 …
… and so do your angry quote tweets and duets.
Stop. —that is, pause before you react to or share what you’re seeing.
Pick a role you can handle.
Instead, spread good information and amplify reliable sources.
If you do make a mess, clean up after yourself.
Consider logging off. Sometimes when an important and horrible thing is happening in the world, looking away or taking a break feels like apathy. It’s not. Stop doomscrolling.
About the Author:
Abby Ohlheiser – I’m a senior editor at MIT Technology Review focused on internet culture. Before that I covered digital life for the Washington Post, and was a staff writer at The Atlantic Wire.