Fake photos and footage spread across social media as conflict in Ukraine erupts

When Russia launched an attack on Ukraine earlier this week, people around the world watched in shock and horror as airstrikes hit the country and tanks began rolling in.

"The prayers of the world are with the people of Ukraine tonight as they suffer an unprovoked and unjustified attack by Russian military forces," wrote President Joe Biden in a tweet Wednesday night.

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But in the last few days, it's become clear that while some of the footage and images being disseminated across social media are depicting the tragic beginnings of a new war, some are not actually what they appear.

Some of the photos and footage being shared on Twitter, Facebook, and TikTok are increasingly being debunked as fake, some from previous conflicts years ago, explosions in other countries, or even from video games.

While social media is commonly used as a link between others and a way to communicate in times of conflict, fact-checkers and experts are warning that in this latest conflict, misinformation might be spreading at an unchecked rate.

"Lots of videos and images alleging to show Russian attacks on Ukrainian towns and cities going viral on social media already," wrote BBC journalist reporting on disinformation Shayan Sardarizadeh on Twitter on Wednesday. "It is customary for old or false footage to go viral during a conflict, so please try to verify or check the source of the footage you see before sharing."

In an earlier post, Sardarizadeh pointed to one such example, a TikTok clip alleging to depict a face off between Russian and Ukrainian troops. The video wound up getting 18 million views, but it's from a conflict eight years ago.

According to Ethan Porter, an assistant professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University and with the Misinformation/Disinformation Lab at the George Washington Institute for Data, Democracy & Politics, the spreading of disinformation during wartime is nothing new.

"The challenge here is that this is like a hot war, that's broken out in a country that has lots of access to media, lots of access to social media in particular," he said. "And it's broke out in a time where Tiktok, YouTube and other platforms make communicating via video really easy."

Videos can be doctored or changed to support a particular narrative or further an agenda, he said, and Russia, obviously, has a history of this kind of behavior.

"It would be stunning if Russia were not engaged in that kind of disinformation warfare," said Porter.

But Russia isn't necessarily the main actor behind this effort. Disinformation, particularly on social media, can be spread easily by individuals.

"Disinformation, we often think of as like something organized by a state actor or institution with the intention of deceiving, whereas misinformation, people might spread it intentionally or not, but doesn't necessarily have to be organized by a state actor," said Porter.

There are different motivations for spreading false information over social media, one being people who are able to monetize it, to get financial benefits from every click their post gets. "That's the simplest motivation," said Porter.

The second motivation is ideological, where people simply want to paint their opposition in a bad light, he said.

As the conflict wages on, more false videos and photos may crop up, but it's unlikely to get worse than it already is.

"I think as things begin to, not necessarily settle down, but sort of reach a sort of almost status quo, it becomes harder and less profitable to spread misinformation properly in the sense of monetary benefits or ideological benefits," said Porter.

"People sort of get used to it," he added.

In the meantime, it would be best for people to continue to rely on verified, trusted media sources that have strong track records of reporting in war zones. New outlets, outlets that people haven't heard of before should be viewed with a healthy amount of skepticism, said Porter.

Featured Image Photo Credit: Bethany Clarke/Getty Images