There’s no shortage of information about the Russian invasion of Ukraine, but knowing which news sites, broadcast outlets and social media platforms are providing truthful information isn’t always easy. As is the case in most wars, each side wants to get its message out, while painting the other side in a negative light.
What can consumers of news and social media do to separate fact from fiction? Inga Kristina Trauthig is a senior research fellow at the Center for Media Engagement at the University of Texas at Austin, where she serves as a member of the Propaganda Research Team. She told Texas Standard that the conflict in Ukraine is the most significant major event to take place in the current climate of social media, with increasingly aggressive and sophisticated attempts at spreading propaganda.
“Propaganda now, in the 21st century, relies heavily on digital tools to manipulate public opinion,” Trauthig said.
European countries and several tech platforms have taken steps to block access to Russian government-backed outlets like Russia Today – commonly known as RT – outside its home country. Trauthig says those blockades have been successful when it comes to broadcast channels, but RT has used its social channels to deliver propaganda to Russians living abroad, as well as to its audience at home.
Propaganda inside Russia includes erroneous claims that Ukraine is run by Nazis. Trauthig says the goal outside Russia is to persuade expats that their home country faces a threat from Ukraine, and is defending itself.
“Outside Russia, it’s just kind of like the constant confusion,” she said. “Basically directing people to false information that shows aggressive attacks by Ukrainian forces which, however, aren’t Ukrainian forces.”
Trauthig says Ukraine has done a good job of getting its own narrative out to the world. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has become a social media star, appearing in the streets of Kyiv, defying Russian invaders and asking for help from the world at large.
“The Ukrainians, especially President Zelenskyy, have been much better with this kind of unfiltered communication, and getting his message out this way,” Trauthig said. “The Russian disinformation system is still catching up with being under less control. With our current social media, we have two-way communication, so it’s harder to control propaganda campaigns, and they are struggling with that.”
Propaganda is seductive, though, Trauthig says.
“Believing in propaganda or believing in misinformation is sometimes also a self-protection mechanism,” she said. “Sometimes we want to believe something, and that’s why we do it.”
To avoid believing or spreading misinformation, Trauthig suggests being critical of all kinds of content related to the war in Ukraine.
“Ideally, we would like to know the original source,” she said. “Try to understand how the content came about – for instance, comparing how an event is portrayed by different journalists has the potential of being verified.”