Feb 28, 2022 - Technology

Ukraine misinformation spreads as users share videos out of context

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

Much of the misinformation spreading around Russia's war with Ukraine doesn't involve AI-generated deepfakes or expertly-edited videos but originates when everyday social media users take and share images out of context.

Why it matters: "Especially in a war, there is a human cost to false info going viral," said Graham Brookie, director and managing editor of the Digital Forensic Research Lab within the Atlantic Council.

  • Low-tech misinformation is often conveyed by well-meaning people trying to make sense of a confounding situation to feel less helpless, said Rachel Moran, postdoctoral fellow at the University of Washington's Center for an Informed Public.

The big picture: No previous war has been quite so fully documented on so many digital platforms by both official channels and people on the ground and around the world. That comes with advantages and drawbacks.

  • "This might be the best-recorded, almost live-broadcasted, conflict as of today," said Lukas Andriukaitis, the Belgium-based associate director of the Atlantic Council's Digital Forensic Research Lab.

Details: Many of the images being shared that look like they're from the current crisis are actually from older wars or events or simply not presented with proper context.

  • On visual platforms like Instagram and TikTok, designed to keep users on the app without many chances for users to click away to external sources or fact-checks, misleading information can proliferate, Moran said.
  • That's made even worse by the emotional climate surrounding a war, which enhances misinformation's velocity thanks to its shock value or pull on users, she added.
  • "It's a lot easier for someone to search around for a photo or video and repost it rather than create a deepfake, which are hard to make," said Daniel Funke, a reporter on USA Today's fact-checking team.

For example, one widely-spread image that was debunked by Funke's team claimed to show a Russian attack on Ukraine but actually depicted an air strike in the Gaza Strip from May 2021. That same image, Funke noted, was also circulated out of context during the 2021 fall of Afghanistan.

  • Another video claimed to show a recent explosion in Ukraine, but the TikTok post the video originated from was created in January.

Between the lines: Videos that appear to show what's happening on the ground are spreading widely on social media, in part, because algorithms have shifted in the past few months to elevate more vertical video content from everyday users.

  • Funke noted an explosion of misinformation on TikTok: "It's just a platform that's kind of like on steroids in some ways, where its algorithm is really strong and it does have a really dedicated user base."
  • Moran said users share non-vetted information as long as they feel it "raises awareness" of the conflict, which adds to the churn of out-of-context images or misleading videos.

Be smart: Certain images or videos that are engaging, but lack easily-identifiable information (like street signs), tend to be recycled from one conflict to the next.

  • "In any crisis information environment we expect to see misinformation that we’ve seen before (like the shark swimming on the interstate meme every hurricane). Some users think it’s funny, some users do it for the engagement," said Brookie.

Yes, but: Content with manipulated context can also be promoted intentionally by official channels, as the Russian state media has done to falsely frame the invasion as a response to Ukrainian aggression.

  • "[T]o be clear, Russia is the only actor in this conflict deploying influence operations dependent on disinformation at scale," Brookie said.
  • "General posts from users saying inaccurate things like 'this just happened in x location' can be harmful, and is certainly a content moderation challenge for platforms. But [it] isn’t comparable to the concerted, state-backed disinformation effort the Russian government."

The big picture: Tech platforms have taken measures to slow Russian state propaganda by restricting their accounts and limiting their ability to sell ads. It's much harder to combat misinformation posted by well-intentioned users.

Go deeper