British Columbia

How to avoid spreading misinformation about Ukraine

The public is dealing with an "information tsunami" as events unfold, and social media algorithms focused on engagement and disinformation efforts are muddying the waters, say experts. Here's what the average person can do to wade through all the information.

Follow credible news sources, check when an account was created, and think before sharing, say experts

The mobile phone app logos for Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp are pictured in this October 2021 file photo. As Russia's invasion of Ukraine play out in real-time online, experts say it's important to be critical about information on social media. (Richard Drew/The Associated Press)

As Russia's invasion of Ukraine plays out in real-time on social media, it can be difficult to determine whether what we're seeing is an accurate reflection of what is happening on the ground. 

Jaigris Hodson, associate professor at Royal Roads University and Canada Research Chair in digital communication for the public interest, says the public is dealing with an "information tsunami" as events unfold in Ukraine.

Muddying the waters, she says, are social media algorithms that focus on engagement and Russian disinformation efforts. 

"It's very easy to inadvertently share something that helps to facilitate the agenda of a country that's trying to spread propaganda," she said.

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So what can the average person do to wade through information about the conflict in Ukraine, without getting caught in misinformation or spreading it?

Apply a critical eye

Heidi Tworek, associate professor of public policy at the University of British Columbia, says it's important to view information with a critical eye. 

Footage claiming to show what's happening in Ukraine could be out of date, or have been shot in another country. There are also instances where the audio and video don't actually match. 

Conducting a reverse image search can help verify whether a photo is out of date or unconnected to a given event, and checking a video's metadata before sharing is also valuable.

Consider the source

Tworek says the most basic way to check information is to see whether the person posting is working for a legitimate news source — although a growing distrust with mainstream news outlets can complicate matters further.

Hodson adds that it's useful to look for information from people with specific expertise in a relevant field.

It's also good to check when a social media account was created.

"If their account was created over the last couple of months and it has relatively few followers, that might be an indication that it is not reliable and perhaps has been created to spread disinformation," Tworek said.

Think before sharing

Tworek says there is value in "prebunking," or getting ahead of misinformation by understanding misinformation tactics.

Hodson also notes that it's important for people to be critical about information that confirms their beliefs.

Social media platforms are optimized for users to "click without thinking," she says, and people are less likely to follow up and verify information that strikes a chord. 

"If you're feeling a lot of anger or fear or disgust or surprise, then that's a sign that you need to stop and be extra careful about whether you forward something or share it because those emotions are usually what short circuits our critical thinking and causes us to to share a lot of the propaganda that's going around," she said.

Tworek says it's also always a good idea to take a breath and think before sharing.

"Asking ourselves a few questions before we share something does really make a difference in this information environment," she said.

"So if we want to share something, let's spend an extra 15, 30 seconds to make sure we're being responsible citizens online."