Fact-checkers overwhelmed by sheer volume of images from Ukraine

A man lying on the ground, clutching what appears to be a severed leg, screams in pain. The pro-Russian account that posted the video days before the Russian invasion of Ukraine claimed the man was the victim of a Ukrainian attack. But skeptics were quick to point out that the leg was a prosthesis.

Although a simplistic fake, it’s one of thousands of images flooding social media around the invasion of Ukraine, keeping fact checkers, like Giancarlo Fiorella, with Bellingcat, very busy.

Bellingcat, named after an old fable about mice conspiring to neutralize a cat’s threat by putting a bell on it, is a collective of researchers, analysts and journalists who investigate online using accessible data. to the public – or open source information – to track the origin of images, videos and information.

“We’re all on deck right now,” said Fiorella, speaking from Amsterdam.

Open source intelligence investigators use a wide variety of tools to verify the images they see, including metadata embedded in images and videos, as well as geotagging tools, which help determine the time and location where 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 amount of events they flood social media with “, said Fiorella. “There are so many.”

Giancarlo Fiorella is working with the journalism collective Bellingcat to verify footage and reports of attacks, damage and casualties from Ukraine. (Submitted by Giancarlo Fiorella)

Several Western governments, including Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom and the European Commission, are also pledging to counter Russian disinformation amid the ongoing invasion.

In a joint statement released on Saturday announcing new sanctions against Russia, including the blocking of certain Russian banks from the SWIFT global banking system, the allies pledged to “escalate or coordinate disinformation and other forms of hybrid warfare.”

Investigators focused on footage from Ukraine

Bellingcat, which has documented numerous incidents of Russian aggression over the years, tends to focus on humanitarian concerns. Right now, however, they are using this focus to sift through the constant stream of information bombarding social media and verifying images of destruction and potential war crimes.

In a recent example in Ukraine, Bellingcat investigators were able to use geolocation data to verify certain images and match them to reports of damage to certain apartment buildings following a Russian attack near the town of Chuhuiv. This created a reliable visual record of ground damage.

“We try to focus on incidents that show damage to civilian infrastructure, like buildings, or civilian casualties,” Fiorella said. “It is heartbreaking to see the videos and images of residential areas in Ukraine being indiscriminately targeted by Russian bombardment.”

Most of the images encountered by the group come from Telegram, a messaging app created by two Russian tech entrepreneurs and widely used in Eastern Europe.

Fiorella says Bellingcat’s near-term job is to give people an accurate account of what’s happening in real time. But in the longer term, it’s about setting a record, which he publishes on his website and social networks.

The evidence they collect, he said, “hopefully will arrive in a courtroom at some point in the future.”

The Russian story

Misinformation disguised as information about the conflict has proliferated via Telegram accounts.

On Thursday, a Russian-language Telegram account, SCEPTIK, claimed that 82 Ukrainian soldiers surrendered to Russia at Snake Island – a remote, rocky island in the Black Sea – and were signing papers, declaring their refusal to continue participating. to military action. .

However, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said there were 13 Border Patrol agents at the outpost and they died after refusing to surrender. All 13 have since been posthumously awarded the title “Heroes of Ukraine”.

This bulletin, left, from the Russian-language Telegram account SCEPTIK claimed that 82 Ukrainian soldiers surrendered to Russian forces on Snake Island, a small isolated Ukrainian island in the Black Sea. But Ukrainian officials said 13 border officials died there when they defied Russian orders to surrender. (Telegram/Google Earth)

“From the moment Russia invaded…Russia tried to portray the Ukrainian military as weak,” said Valentyna Shapovalova, who studies Russian propaganda at the University of Copenhagen.

“I saw several articles in the Russian media about how Ukrainian military personnel either gave up or tried to join the Russian side.”

Shapovalova said that while the fact-checking done by open-source investigators is important, it may not have an immediate enough effect to sway the Russian narrative.

“Once people consume certain narratives, certain stories, it’s very difficult to then go back to the messages they’ve already received,” she said.

“So it’s always important to come out and call something disinformation or propaganda or outright lies, if they are. But if it has an immediate effect, that’s very hard to say, unfortunately.”

Valentyna Shapovalova studies Russian disinformation and propaganda at the University of Copenhagen. She expects Russia to continue telling its own story about the Ukrainian invasion. (Submitted by Valentyna Shapovalova)

Shapovalova thinks the flow of misinformation could worsen as the conflict continues.

“I think what we’ll see is a continuation of that piece in grand narratives to build support for Russian stocks,” she said. “So I think we’ll see even more stories about Russia being a peaceful nation, just trying to keep the peace in their neighboring country.”

WATCH | Investigators are working to debunk misinformation about the Russian attack:

Investigators work to debunk misinformation about Russian attack

Open source investigators are working to debunk Russian misinformation, disinformation and propaganda circulating online about the conflict in Ukraine. 5:00

The propaganda audience

Using propaganda is a well-worn Russian playbook — and Russians have a specific audience in mind, according to Wesley Wark, security and intelligence expert and senior fellow at the Center for International Governance Innovation (CIGI).

“The idea is, in part, to see if there is a part of the population that [you] can win your case,” he said. “And of course the Russians hope that Russian speakers in the eastern part of Ukraine might be convinced by some of this propaganda campaign.

Wark said the other purpose of sowing false stories and images is to destabilize, confuse and instill fear among Ukrainians.

“And then there is an international audience for these kinds of propaganda disinformation campaigns – and the idea is there to win as many friends and supporters as possible,” he said.

Ukrainians have seen this before. Many have grown up with a constant stream of misinformation from their powerful neighbor on TV and social media and have become savvy enough to sift through it.

Illia Maslyanskyy, who moved from Ukraine to Canada in 2013, attends a rally in Toronto in support of Ukraine. (Radio Canada)

“With the huge amount of Russian propaganda, we have learned to trust good sources and be wary of bad sources,” said Illia Maslyanskyy, who moved to Canada from Ukraine in 2013.

“I would say for most young college graduates, who use social media, who are tech-savvy, it shouldn’t be too hard to spot fakes.”

Maslyanskyy worries more about older generations who are dependent on television and may not be as sophisticated when it comes to very fast-changing information.

“We live on the half hour, everything changes on the pitch so fast,” he said. “We rely on what we hear from our loved ones, from our friends who are unfortunately stuck there and who are indeed hostages of the situation.”

He says it’s not just the war on the ground that they are waging. “We are also talking about information 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, everyone must take a stand.”

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