The days of “Yellow Journalism” may no longer exist, yet “fake news” remains very much a problem – especially on social media, where there continues to be a spread of misinformation and even disinformation. This issue has only gotten worse in the two weeks since Russia invaded Ukraine unprovokedly.

Although Moscow doesn’t employ full-blown Yellow Journalism yet, it has shut down any independent media outlets within the country. Foreign media have also been blocked in Russia. Russians are also effectively blocked from accessing social media.

There are two main ways Russia controls information flow. Tami Kim is assistant professor of Business Administration in the University of Virginia Darden School of Business. The other way is making it more difficult to find certain information.

Kim stated that Russia was able to accomplish this goal by banning Facebook and restricting access to social media sites over the last few weeks. This type of censorship also means that government can now fill digital spaces with their messages. Russian citizens find it very difficult to obtain untampered information because of both the flooding and restricting actions. At the same time, there is some work showing that awareness of censorship can encourage people to seek out hidden information—which we might start seeing, if not already, amongst some citizens.”

Misinformation and Disinformation Campaigns

It is possible that Russian-state actors have begun spreading disinformation on the war via social media, in addition to limiting information flow.

Cyabra was a disinformation monitoring site that announced that it had logged more than 115,000 Twitter, Facebook and other accounts thought to be spreading Russian propaganda. Cyabra claims that negative tweets about Ukraine increased more than 11,000% on February 14, compared with the previous days. It also discovered that a lot of this content was coming from unverified profiles.

This platform reviewed 53,000 articles about Ukraine that were uploaded by 36,000 users. Nearly 17,000 of these pieces were positive. Cyabra analysts discovered a noteworthy trend in Twitter using the hashtag #standwithRussia when they analyzed the conversations. Out of the nearly 4,000 accounts that had used this hashtag, only 13.7 percent was authentic and most were created in just a few days following Russia’s invasion.

Facebook also had similar results. Researchers reported that they found 15.4% of all the participants in the discussion were not authentic. Across both platforms, Cyabra researchers allege that 56 percent of the Ukraine-related content created in the past two weeks originated from inauthentic profiles that were bots or “sock puppet” accounts – and many of those profiles exhibited similar behavior

Cyabra CEO Dan Brahmy stated that “the current conflict between Russia, Ukraine has witnessed a parallel war taking place on the global stage via social media with a high degree of disinformation being shared and disseminated.”

Brahmy shared via email that “data from the Cyabra platform had highlighted how volume of disinformation as well as the substantial number of inauthentic account participants in the discussion, spiked during the days prior to the conflict started” Russia’s ban of social media will not eliminate online social narratives. Inauthentic accounts spreading fake news on all social media platforms, including Facebook and Twitter, are another source of disinformation.

Spotting Misinformation/Disinformation

The platforms will likely continue to be used to spread falsehoods – and not just from Russia – as it has already proven to be such an effective way of reaching the masses. It is impossible to verify facts and there are often divisions among platform users.

Brahmy stated that “social media users who are exposed to disinformation orchestrated efforts might absorb false or misleading narratives, which may skew the perception of an issue/event.”

Social media users are falling for false information because ‘bad actors’ have become harder to find. Brahmy explained that fake accounts are often sophisticated technologies to fool the untrained eye.

These “sock puppets”, as well as other false profiles, can be identified by certain signs.

Brahmy advised that if there are no photos or profile information, it is likely the account was created to share a specific message. You should pay attention to when an account is sharing information, or just sharing consistently. Also consider the hours of day the account is posting.

Despite the concerns that social media will continue to be used to spread misinformation/disinformation, it remains an important link to many around the world, especially when other forms of communication are cut.

Kim said, “Even prior to this conflict, people oppressed in various parts of the world relied upon social media for spreading awareness of their struggles overlooked through traditional media.”

“Social media platforms enable citizens to act like journalists, and they have played an important role in facilitating information exchange during conflict,” she said. Social media platforms have a powerful role to play, particularly in difficult times. It is important that they review their processes for controlling user-generated content.

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