How to tell fact from fiction online – even in wartime

People worldwide are sharing the latest about the Russian military's invasion of Ukraine, including the Kremlin's attack on Mariupol (above). This photo is accurate. Some online information is not. (© Evgeniy Maloletka/AP Images)
People worldwide are sharing the latest about the Russian military’s invasion of Ukraine, including the Kremlin’s attack on Mariupol (above). This photo is accurate. Some online information is not. (© Evgeniy Maloletka/AP Images)

When a country controls media outlets and spreads disinformation as state policy, as the government of Russia does, what passes as “news” is often distorted. With millions of people sharing information online, often in real time, about Vladimir Putin’s unprovoked war against Ukraine, it can be hard to tell what is true. That is especially true since the Kremlin ramped up its disinformation campaign and censorship of independent media before, during and after its further invasion of Ukraine.

Screen grab of a headline from the fact-checking website Politifact.com giving a “Pants on Fire” (“statement is a lie”) rating to a tweet from the Russian Embassy in Canada

Mike Caulfield, a digital literacy expert, created a method for evaluating online information that he calls SIFT:

  • Stop.
  • Investigate the source.
  • Find better coverage.
  • Trace claims, quotes and media to the original context.

When it comes to news about Ukraine, Caulfield says, the emphasis should be on “Stop” — that is, pause before you react to or share what you’re seeing, he told MIT Technology Review.

Organizations like the nonpartisan FactCheck.org routinely verify whether online claims are true. (© Jarretera/Shutterstock.com)

The Russian government has a lot of experience running disinformation campaigns, and its disinformation campaigns can fool anyone, including experts. Internet users should not believe they can outsmart rogue sites on their own simply by reading a site’s “about us” page. Such pages are likely to be misleading on disinformation proxy sites, experts say. Sites that engage in disinformation camouflage their identities to resemble a nonprofit or media outlet, so a web address or institution name is no longer a reliable method to determine credibility. Kathleen Hall Jamieson, co-founder of FactCheck.org, said people “like” and repost items quickly, so she advises users to first reflect upon whether they believe all the information in a post is credible.

(State Dept./M. Gregory)

In a 2018 study, Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers examined activity on Twitter and found:

  • False stories are 70 percent more likely to be retweeted than true stories.
  • False stories reach 1,500 people six times faster than true stories.
  • False stories are retweeted more than true stories by unique users at every level.

Verify, verify, verify

Experts say, with a little effort, anyone can be a more discerning online sharer of news.

Stanford University recently taught 500 Nebraska secondary school students how to verify the credibility of online sources. The students learned to verify information from an unfamiliar site by reviewing other known and reliable sites.

News editors practice similar fact-checking by reviewing original sources and peer sites.

Professor and disinformation expert Kate Starbird urges users to look beyond the initial tweet before resharing. “What were they tweeting a couple of weeks or months ago? Make sure they are who they say they are.”