Over the past week, most social media feeds have been filled with posts about the Russian-Ukrainian war. While some of these messages come from valid media outlets, many can be considered misinformation – inaccurate information passed on as fact with the intent to deceive. While there may be some truth to these posts, they should be taken with a grain of salt. For example, the “Ghost of Kyivmay have shot down several Russian MIGs; however, the story has not been validated and the viral image is of a pilot modeling a prototype helmet. Moreover, Ukrainian President Zelenskyy did not flee Ukraine, despite Russian reports indicating otherwise.
Misinformation is not inherently false; rather, it is an essential part of warfare. Moreover, given the state of current technology and the socio-political climate, disinformation has the potential to play a very significant role in this war.
Disinformation has been exploited in all wars, from the Trojan War to World War II. Basically, military strategies and tactics require commanders to make battlefield decisions. These decisions are fueled by information, so misinformation can influence an enemy force to make poor decisions. During this war, this tactic was clearly employed when Russian forces claimed to withdraw their fighting forces from the border in the days leading up to the invasion.
Disinformation is also commonly used by warring nations in propaganda campaigns. Propaganda allows a country to weaken the resolve of its adversary, which reduces the effectiveness of the fighting force and erodes internal support. Meanwhile, propaganda can also boost the morale of a country’s military and civilian population. At the start of the conflict, the Russian media claimed that the Ukrainian army had fled the battlefield, a claim which was clearly not true. These claims were intended to crush Ukrainian resolve while helping to stir up patriotism on the Russian home front.
Although common in wars, the amount of misinformation in this conflict is significantly greater than usual. Moreover, much of the misinformation appears to come from third parties independent of armies or governments. Individuals around the world, intentionally or unintentionally, are using social media to spread vast amounts of misinformation.
Some of the disinformation is intentionally spread, to help strengthen Russia or Ukraine. In particular, Ukraine entered this conflict as a classic outsider, which would naturally gain popular support. However, it is a slippery slope for Ukraine to go from an outsider to a lost cause, which people will not see as worth their efforts to support. As such, social media has been flooded with posts about how the Ukrainian military and civilians are fighting the Russians. Meanwhile, the Russians entered the war considered a formidable fighting force. Despite the setbacks of the war, many Russian supporters post videos of Russian military successes in an attempt to maintain the image of an unstoppable force.
For example, supporters of both sides post fake videos of success for the Russian and Ukrainian air forces. A viral video showed a Ukrainian plane shooting down a Russian MiG over a Ukrainian town. Meanwhile, another trending video showed a Russian MiG dodging a barrage of surface-to-air missiles. In reality, these two videos were from the popular video game weapon 3 and were eventually removed from social media.
However, much of this misinformation by individuals is unintentional. The “fog of war” creates great uncertainty about the real situation on the ground. Additionally, Ukrainian soldiers likely do not carry cellphones to prevent their locations from being triangulated, a process used by the Russians in 2014. Even if they carry cellphones, commanders of both armies likely banned the use of cellphones. use of social media by their forces. As such, there is little information from the warfront. Without actual images of the conflict, people are turning to online repositories for images of memes and posts. They find old images, misinterpret them as being from the current war and include them in their posts to try to bolster their arguments. For example, a trending video showing a Ukrainian girl confronting a Russian soldier was actually a 2012 video of a Palestinian girl confronting an Israeli soldier.
Whether intentional or not, disinformation will play an important role in this war. The main channel for spreading this misinformation is social media posts. Algorithms for displaying posts in an individual’s feed are based on that person’s interests and views gathered from metadata, including previously viewed posts. Therefore, if someone views posts that support one side, their news feed will fill more posts that support that side. Given the abundance of posts about the conflict, a person’s feed can quickly be filled with a combination of real news and misinformation about the war, often in favor of one side. With misinformation mixed in with real news, viewers are more likely to accept misinformation as fact, reinforcing and solidifying their existing point of view.
Given the nature of social media, misinformation can spread quickly and reach a huge global audience. A trending post can be seen by millions of people within hours and influence public opinion. Public opinion in turn pushes political action to include sanctions, financial support, humanitarian aid and military aid. As such, the proliferation of disinformation can have a significant impact on the outcome of the Russian-Ukrainian war as well as future wars.