There's a flood of disinformation about Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Here's who's sorting it out
Online sleuths use publicly available data to find out what's really happening on the ground
A man lying on the ground, clutching what appears to be a severed leg, screams in agony. The pro-Russia account that posted the video days before the Russian invasion of Ukraine claimed the man was a victim of a Ukrainian attack. But skeptics were quick to point out the leg was a prosthetic.
While an unsophisticated fake, it's one of the thousands of images flooding social media around the invasion of Ukraine, keeping fact-checkers such as Giancarlo Fiorella with the organization Bellingcat very busy.
Bellingcat, which takes its name from an old fable about mice conspiring to neutralize the threat of a cat by putting a bell on it, is a collective of researchers, analysts and journalists who sleuth online using publicly available data — or open-source intelligence — to hunt down the origin of images, videos and information.
"We're all hands on deck on this at the moment," said Fiorella, speaking from Amsterdam.
Open-source intelligence investigators use a wide variety of tools to verify the images they are seeing, including the metadata embedded in pictures and videos, as well as geolocation tools, which help pinpoint the time and place an image was captured.
"The real challenge when it comes to Russian disinformation — at least what we've seen for the invasion of Ukraine now — is the volume of it. Just the sheer quantity of events that they're flooding social media with," Fiorella said. "There's so much of it."
Several Western governments, including Canada, the U.S., the U.K. and the European Commission, are also vowing to fight Russian disinformation amid the ongoing invasion.
In a joint statement issued Saturday announcing fresh sanctions on Russia, including blocking some Russian banks from the SWIFT global banking system, the allies committed to co-ordinating their efforts against disinformation and "other forms of hybrid warfare."
Investigators focused on Ukraine images
Bellingcat, which has documented numerous incidents of Russian aggression over the years, tends to focus on humanitarian concerns. Right now, though, they are using that focus to triage the steady stream of information bombarding social media and verifying images of destruction and potential war crimes.
In one recent example from Ukraine, Bellingcat investigators were able to use geolocation data to verify some images and match them to reports of damage to some apartment buildings from a Russian attack near the city of Chuhuiv. This created a trusted visual record of damage on the ground.
The below video showing a cluster munition canister from a BM-30 rocket has been geolocated to 50.3086824, 34.8723472, in the town of Okhtyrka, Sumy. Notably we have also geolocated it just 200m to the east of the kindergarten that was reportedly attacked<a href="https://t.co/14dCjxsFO4">https://t.co/14dCjxsFO4</a> <a href="https://t.co/sbT5YGq2nX">pic.twitter.com/sbT5YGq2nX</a>—@bellingcat
"We're trying to focus on incidents that show damage to civilian infrastructures, like buildings, or civilian casualties," Fiorella said. "It's been heartbreaking to see the videos and the images of residential areas in Ukraine being targeted indiscriminately by Russian shelling."
Most of the images the group has encountered have come through Telegram, a messaging app created by two Russian tech entrepreneurs that is widely used in eastern Europe.
Fiorella says Bellingcat's work in the short term is to provide people with an accurate account of what is happening in real time. But in the longer term, it's about establishing a record, which it posts on its website and social media.
The evidence they gather, he said, will "hopefully make its way to a courtroom at some point in the future."
We continue to seek information about this attack, in particular the remains of munitions at the attack site itself, and any rocket motors from BM-30 rockets in the same town. <a href="https://t.co/Wh5f4q5ckW">pic.twitter.com/Wh5f4q5ckW</a>—@bellingcat
Disinformation disguised as news about the conflict has proliferated via Telegram accounts.
On Thursday, one Russian-language Telegram account, SCEPTIK, claimed that 82 Ukrainian soldiers surrendered to Russia at Snake Island — a remote, rocky island that sits in the Black Sea — and were signing papers, stating their refusal to continue participating in military action.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said there were 13 border patrol officers at the outpost, and that they died after refusing to surrender. He said all 13 would be posthumously awarded the title "hero of Ukraine."
On Saturday, the State Border Guard Service of Ukraine contradicted Zelensky by saying in a Facebook post that it believed the soldiers were actually alive. On Monday, the Ukrainian navy also said in a separate Facebook post that the guards were alive.
"From the moment when Russia invaded … Russia was trying to portray the Ukrainian military as weak," said Valentyna Shapovalova, who researches Russian propaganda at the University of Copenhagen.
"I've seen several stories in the Russian media talking about how Ukrainian military personnel has either been giving up or has been trying to join the Russian side."
Shapovalova said while the fact-checking that open-source investigators are doing is important, it may not have an immediate enough effect to sway the Russian narrative.
"Once people consume certain narratives, certain stories, it is very difficult to then revert the messages that they already got," she said.
"So it's still important to go out and ... stamp something as disinformation or propaganda or pure lies, if they are so. But whether it has an immediate effect is very difficult to say, unfortunately."
Shapovalova believes the stream of disinformation may get worse as the conflict continues.
"I think what we will be seeing is a continuation of this play into grand narratives to foster support for the Russian actions," she said. "So I think we will see even more stories talking about Russia as a peaceful nation, merely trying to preserve peace in their neighbouring country."
The audience for propaganda
The use of propaganda is a well-worn Russian playbook — and the Russians have a specific audience in mind, according to Wesley Wark, a security and intelligence expert and senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation in Waterloo.
"The idea is, in part, to see if there's some part of the population that [you] can win over to your cause," he said. "And of course, the Russians are hoping that Russian speakers in the eastern part of Ukraine might be convinced by some of this propaganda campaign."
Wark said the other goal of seeding false narratives and images is to destabilize, confuse and strike fear in the Ukrainians.
"And then there's an international audience for these kinds of propaganda disinformation campaigns — and the idea is there to win as many friends and supporters as you can," he said.
Ukrainians have seen this before. Many have grown up with a steady stream of disinformation from their powerful neighbour over television and social media and have become savvy enough to sift through it.
"With the sheer amount of Russian propaganda, we've learned how to trust the good sources and distrust the bad sources," said Illia Maslyanskyy, who moved to Canada from Ukraine in 2013.
"I would say that for most university-educated young people, who use social media, who are tech savvy, it shouldn't be too difficult to spot fakes."
Maslyanskyy worries more about older generations who rely on television and may not be as sophisticated when it comes to information that changes very quickly.
"We live by the half hour, everything changes on the ground so quickly," he said. "We rely on what we hear from our relatives, from our friends who are unfortunately stuck there and are very much hostages of the situation."
He says it's not just the war on the ground they're fighting. "We're also talking about informational warfare. We are at war against a professional propaganda machine."
And according to Maslyanskyy, "the propaganda has become very, very clever."
"Disinformation kills. Russian propaganda kills. It must be stopped, everybody needs to take a stance."
- This story was updated after publication to include new information regarding the events on Snake Island.Feb 28, 2022 1:37 PM ET
With files from Sylvène Gilchrist and Madeline McNair