Sharing online? Pause, stop lies, save lives

Sickening violence against innocent civilians in Ukraine has shocked the world and left many feeling helpless. But there are many ways we can help Ukrainians. Online especially, we can hinder the spread of harmful lies.

Disinformation monitors say fake and misleading content about Ukraine is flooding the online sphere. A range of bad actors are exploiting the huge demand for news about the war, circulating old and misleading content to warp our understanding of events. They are getting millions of views. Disinformation actors aim to create confusion about perpetrators and a state of information paralysis. Scammers are exploiting public sympathy for financial gain or even worse, taking advantage of vulnerable refugees.

Videos are particularly affected. Clips of past conflicts and even computer games are being passed off as on-the-ground reporting, often appearing alongside appeals for donations. In one case, a video filmed in Palestine in 2012 claimed to show a girl confronting soldiers in Ukraine.

In this polluted information environment, even the smallest actions by online users can have massive impacts. Sharing or commenting on a distorted content, even in good faith, can lend credibility and add to the tsunami of misinformation about Ukraine.

Social media platforms are taking steps to block or flag fake posts and their creators, but harmful, outlandish content is still breaking through. As individuals, there are some simple steps we can take ourselves to stop false information and conspiracies in their tracks.

First and most importantly, we can learn to recognize the tell-tale signs of disinformation. If something looks odd, we can take a moment to verify content before passing it on to others. It’s really that simple.

But recognizing false content can be harder in the heat of the moment. Often, fakes go viral because they trigger our deepest emotions — anger, fear, compassion. Most of us know we can’t believe everything we see online, but if a post gets us worked up, we might share it without checking whether it’s true.

Disinformation about Ukraine is everywhere. That’s why it’s important to keep a cool head online. So, next time you’re about to react to or share some urgent-seeming update, stop. Take a breath and ask yourself these simple questions. If any content seems at all suspicious, don’t share it.

1. Who says?

Take a very close look at the account that shared the post. Read their profile, search for their name online. Can you find any evidence that this person is qualified to share information about the situation in Ukraine? Are they a trusted expert on the region, or a news reporter on the ground? Or are they just another user — celebrity or not — sharing emotive content? If a friend or trusted contact shared the content, still check the original source. Be aware of bots — often very new accounts with few followers, or parody and other fake accounts. Though not a catch-all for disinformation spreaders, a blue tick beside the name means the user’s identity has been verified.

2. What do they say?

Disinformation is cynically designed to reach a wide audience. One warning sign is if a post seems too desperate, using too many hashtags or throwing in unrelated trending keywords. Look at the language. Does it seem emotive, hysterical even? Are there sections in all caps, are there exclamation marks? If so, alarm bells should be ringing. Keep asking yourself, what is the poster trying to get you to do? Make sure you can identify the time and place a video or photograph was taken, ensuring the narrative aligns with the facts. Using Google’s reverse image search can show if the image is actually from another context; YouTube Data Viewer can do the same for videos.

If someone is asking for donations, be especially careful. The war in Ukraine is generating millions in humanitarian funding from the public, but also creating opportunities for scammers. To avoid scams, be sure to donate only to recognized organizations before you part with any money.

3. Do sources agree?

Does the post author name a reliable source for the information? If they don’t, consider asking them for one. If they can’t verify the information, they may take it down. Do your own search online. Are there lots of news articles about what you are seeing? Seek out and cross check the information against reputable news sources. Many media outlets now have dedicated fact-check teams, including Reuters, The Associated Press, BBC, and Agence France-Presse. See if they have already debunked the content as a fake. With images, look out for missing date or geographical information. Consider double checking the source using Google’s image search function.

In this information war, we can all be online peacekeepers. By taking a breath before sharing on social media, and also encouraging others to pause, we can allow the facts to dominate in the fog of war.

Check out the following guides for more in-depth advice on how to spot and stop lies.

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Chief Communicator #UnitedNations promoting a peaceful, sustainable, just & humane world. Author: A Hope More Powerful than the Sea. Podcast: Awake at Night.

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Melissa Fleming

Melissa Fleming

Chief Communicator #UnitedNations promoting a peaceful, sustainable, just & humane world. Author: A Hope More Powerful than the Sea. Podcast: Awake at Night.

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