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How to spot disinformation and propaganda coming out of the Ukraine-Russia conflict


The onslaught of images, videos and audio coming out of Russia's invasion of Ukraine gives the world a vivid sense of what's happening on the ground. But is it really what's happening on the ground? Take this example.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Yelling in non-English language).

SIMON: It was shared widely online as a young Ukrainian girl confronting a Russian soldier, and fact-checkers determined the girl was Palestinian. She was yelling at an Israeli soldier in the West Bank 10 years ago. We're now joined by Joan Donovan. She's the research director at the Shorenstein Center of Media, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard. Thanks so much for being with us.


SIMON: This example we just played, of course, is an old video from another conflict being, to use a word of our times, repurposed for this one. Do we see a lot of that going on?

DONOVAN: Yeah. So we see it in different ways. So, of course, there's the repackaging of old media, which we call re-contextualized media, on all platforms. And even the format of a app like TikTok, for instance, it's got a lot of built-in tools that allow for the re-contextualization of images and video and sound, even. And so we have been seeing quite a bit of people just trying to get clicks, likes and shares. Some is financially motivated, and then other parts of it are propaganda.

SIMON: What are some other examples that you've encountered?

DONOVAN: So one of the ones that seems to be working as propaganda is a video of what are purported to be Russian paratroopers. And the video is quite stunning.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Russian).

DONOVAN: Russian soldiers parachuting over this vast landscape - and the claim is that they're paratrooping into Ukraine. But this is also an Instagram post from 2015. Typically, images and video like that, that evoke emotion or give you that sort of wow sensation, you want to stop yourself before you share them and either look at a fact-checking database or do a reverse image search just to do a simple gut check before you participate in the sharing.

SIMON: What is a reverse image search?

DONOVAN: So everybody has access to Google. If you're online, you can just simply - you right-click, you download a picture, and you can upload it to Google and get a look. There's another service that we highly recommend called TinEye - T-I-N-E-Y-E. It just searches images that are online, and they'll tell you when the first time that image appeared. And so reverse image search is just one tool that everybody has at their disposal to fight back against misinformation.

SIMON: Companies including Twitter and Facebook - and we should note, Facebook's parent company, Meta, pays NPR to license NPR content - do have some tools to combat misinformation. But should they do more and not leave people to essentially fend for themselves?

DONOVAN: We're at a very strange time with the design of technology platforms. If you look at the design of Facebook, Twitter and even YouTube, these are amplification systems. They are built to provide massive openness as well as to just increase the volume on any types of content. It's also incumbent upon these platform companies to realize that the disinformation campaigns that have been run for years by Russia are also something that is a product of their platforms. And so you can't have massively open information environments and then expect it not to be leveraged by media manipulators, disinformers and propagandists.

SIMON: Is it, in your experience, realistic to expect people to spend 10 and 15 minutes researching the veracity of a 30-second video?

DONOVAN: No, and that's why I'm on NPR today, right? It's because I want people to actually stop themselves and have some skepticism about what they're seeing online. The only people that need information in real time are the people who are in the conflict zone. In this minute, I think turning on your local news at 5:30 or tuning into the radio is going to prevent you from, one, sharing potential propaganda, and it's going to give you the best and most current information that has been verified.

SIMON: Joan Donovan is research director at the Shorenstein Center of Media, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard. Thanks so much for being with us.

DONOVAN: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.