Skip to main content

You make this possible. Support our independent, nonprofit newsroom today.

Give Now

Social media is flooded with information about Ukraine. SIFT through your sources first.

smartphone social media generic
Enlarge Icon

As the war in Ukraine stretches toward its third week, misinformation about the invasion continues to cloud the airwaves in Russia and beyond.

Here in the United States, Twitter timelines and TikTok feeds are flooded with the latest updates from journalists reporting on the ground. But it can still be a struggle to separate fact from fiction.

Soundside host Libby Denkmann spoke with Recode reporter Shirin Ghaffary, and Mike Caulfield, a researcher with the University of Washington's Center for an Informed Public, about how disinformation and misinformation is shaping the way we perceive the war in Ukraine.

Russia kicks off a censorship spree

In Russia, the government has limited public access to apps like Instagram, Facebook and Twitter in an effort to control the narrative about its invasion of Ukraine. That's left limited options for citizens to view and share unfiltered information that isn't heavily restricted by the Russian government.

"Both inside the country and outside, we're seeing record VPN (Virtual Private Network) downloads," Ghaffary said. "[It's] a type of system you can use to circumvent the censors and still access some of these apps. But not everyone can use a VPN or buy a VPN. And many people are increasingly only turning to Russian state-approved media."

But Russian citizens are also using social media platforms to denounce disinformation coming from their government, including the children of oligarchs.

"We're seeing a real generational divide in this war," Ghaffary said. "That's breaking out in social media, where even some kind of elite class in Russian society are coming out on social media or younger, and saying that they're against what's going on."

Sifting through misinformation online

So what can people do to separate fact from fiction within their own timeline? And what can we do on an individual level to prevent spreading misinformation?

Mike Caulfield with the UW says any sort of emerging crisis — like a war — creates a demand for information that outpaces the supply for reputable information.

"People want more information that can be provided through traditional means," Caulfield said. "It's a series of events taking place in a foreign country, there are language differences, there are sort of complex political dynamics that the average viewer or reader may not be aware of. And then of course, you know, there's just the nature of war, propaganda."

Caulfield is the creator of the SIFT methodology for citizen fact-checking. SIFT stands for:

S - Stop

I - Investigate the source

F - Find better coverage

T - Trace claims, quotes and media to the original context

"Why do you find this compelling? Why do you have, perhaps, an impulse to share? Why are you upset?" Caulfield said.

Determining why you feel an urge to click, retweet, or share is an important first step in determining the truth and value of a piece of information, according to Caulfield.

Once your motive is determined, taking a moment to investigate your source is next. Caulfield recommends determining whether the source of a particular tweet or post has a level of expertise that puts them in a position to know and verify the information they're publishing. Readers should also check to see if multiple people are making the same claim, or if there's a point of dissention.

And, Caulfield says, you shouldn't be afraid to find and share from a more reputable source, just because their post wasn't the first one you interacted with.

"We don't have to dance with the source we brought," Caulfield said. "Somebody can say something that we doubt [and] we can go find a more reputable source and share from that reputable source."

But on social media platforms, "reputable" is often mistaken for "authentic." Essentially, a blue check mark on Twitter doesn't necessarily mean the tweets from a verified account are truthful or fact-based, and Caulfield urges users to recognize that distinction.

"You realize, 'Oh, I think that this blue checkmark means this person is a news reporter. Maybe I should just check what that blue checkmark is about.' And then you go and you find out that they're a well known comedian," Caulfield said.

Why you can trust KUOW