Propaganda and disinformation — including fake videos and manipulated images — heighten anxiety among Ukrainians and Russians alike

WASHINGTON (AP) — Among the messages, videos and photos flying across Twitter TWTR,
Facebook FB,
And Telegram, some are real, horrifying images of this war, while others had been lurking on the internet for years before Russia launched this largest attack on a European country since World War II.

They purport to show Russian fighter jets being shot down or Ukrainians running for cover inside their own homes. And they also purport to show soldiers deserting their units — on both sides of the conflict — alongside an unverified claim that Russian soldiers had been unaware until it was under way that their mission was an attack on Ukraine.

On Telegram and Twitter, Russia’s invasion was “unprovoked” and it was “necessary,” depending on the sender of the message. On the Russian side of the equation it was not even called an invasion.

This new incursion into Ukraine is shaping up to be Europe’s first full-scale armed conflict of the social-media age, with the small screen of the smartphone now the dominant tool of communication, carrying with it the peril of an instantaneous spread of dangerous, even deadly, disinformation.

TikTok videos, propagandized headlines and tweets pinging out across screens around the world are confusing millions about the reality of how this nascent war is unfolding on the ground.

See: Zelensky records video in Kyiv street to reassure Ukrainians that he’s staying put amid Russian attack

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“The prayers of the world are with the people of Ukraine tonight as they suffer an unprovoked and unjustified attack by Russian military forces,” US 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 mischaracterizing 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.

On Friday, according to US observers, was describing the Ukrainian government, too, as populated by Nazis — Zelensky, the head of that government, is not only not a Nazi but of Jewish heritage — and drug addicts.

He reportedly signaled to members of the Ukrainian military his encouragement to mount a coup against the Kyiv government.

Last week, RT’s news director had 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 this week has worn on, truth has become 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 .

The US government had sought to get ahead of the disinformation, or dezinformatsiya, for which Russia is justifiably infamous, by declassifying intelligence suggesting various false flags and other tactics it was Putin might deploy, theoretically rendering them ineffectual.

From the archives (January 2022): Russia mapping out ‘false flag’ incident in eastern Ukraine as pretext to invade, according to ‘very credible’ US intelligence assessment

Also see: Russia has plan for faked video that would give pretext for invasion of Ukraine: reports

One clip, taken from a videogame, 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 — that didn’t stop the clip from racking up more than 22 million views by day’s end.

See: ‘It wasn’t Putin who invaded Ukraine’: How state media in Russia are depicting the ongoing attack

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 rumors 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, and in the US among some hardline backers of former president Donald Trump, 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 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 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.”

Misinformation and disinformation can also commit sins of omission, some US experts have noted.

Ben Rhodes, a national-security expert and author who served in the Obama administration as deputy national-security adviser, said Friday on MSNBC that it remains unknown how successful the Putin regime might be in keeping news of military consequence from the Russian public.

What’s certain is that it will try, attuned as Putin is to his personal approval ratings.

See: Mass arrests reported as Russians protest Putin’s invasion of Ukraine

Evelyn Farkas, deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia under President Obama, recalled in an MSNBC interview that in 2014–15, as Russia annexed Crimea and participated in the initial stages of the long-running Donbas conflict cited as a rationale For this current, families of fallen military personnel were advised to schedule burials under cover of darkness and were threatened with physical beatings if they wrote about the conflict’s death toll.

MarketWatch contributed.

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