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March 17, 2022updated 17 Nov 2023 2:45pm

Ukraine information war: Facebook and Twitter weaponised to support Russia

By Aisha Majid

Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine on 24 February, an information war has raged with Twitter and Facebook used as weapons to support Vladimir Putin’s forces.

New analysis by Press Gazette finds that tech platforms Twitter and Facebook continue to be the main outlets for misleading claims.

Press Gazette analysis has found that 396 (65%) of the 614 unique instances of false or misleading claims listed in the International Fact-checking Network’s #UkraineFacts database as of 14 March were spread on Facebook. A further 182 claims (30%) meanwhile were spread on Twitter. Just 59  claims (10%) debunked in the database did not appear on either of these platforms.

Our previous analysis, which looked at data a week into the Russian invasion of Ukraine, found that almost three quarters of fake news and misinformation about the conflict was spread on Facebook and Twitter.

The platforms have also provided a platform for journalists and others to report real news direct from Ukraine. This Press Gazette Twitter list aggregates reports to the platform from 53 UK reporters currently filing from the country.

Other key channels for the spread of disinformation were news websites, sites purporting to be news sites, and blogs – with 15% of all fact-checked false claims (94) found on such sites. TikTok meanwhile was the third most prominent social network after Facebook and Twitter for false claims with 46 (8%) of debunked narratives found to be circulating on the video platform. Most claims appeared on more than one source.

Five false narratives were found to be doing the rounds on Chinese social network Weibo.

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Facebook paid to promote pro-Russian coverage by China

Despite announcements last month from Facebook’s parent company Meta and from Google that Russian state media would be prohibited from selling advertising on their platforms, critics continue to say that the tech platforms are not doing enough to counter misinformation. Media from countries friendly with Russia, such as China, are still able to buy ads promoting a pro-Kremlin line on Facebook. Chinese state broadcaster China Global TV Network for example has a number of live adverts that present its messaging on the war – as reported by Axios.

Twitter, while putting warning labels on content from state-affiliated media, has not done the same with government-controlled accounts such as the Twitter accounts of Russia’s embassies around the world which continue to tweet out propaganda.

The Ukraine Facts database does not include every piece of misinformation or disinformation concerning the war on Ukraine, but as of Monday 14 March 2022 some 614 unique false claims fact-checked by over 60 fact- checking organisations around the world had been submitted to the database which continues to grow by the hour. Some claims have been debunked by more than one fact-checker either because they have appeared in multiple countries or continue to circulate after being debunked.

Some topics of false news have remained consistent while others continue to evolve in line with events on the ground.

Press Gazette looked at the headlines of the 614 unique debunked narratives in the database as of Monday for groups of key words to see which themes emerged among them.

Some 208 debunked narratives (34%) were found to contain military terms such as “army”, “soldier”, “troops” and “offensive” in the headline.

Twenty claims (3%) related to the use of unconventional – nuclear, chemical or biological weapons.

One widely-circulated narrative emanating from the Kremlin seeking to justify the invasion claims that Ukraine is close to developing nuclear weapons and that Russia invaded the country to prevent a forthcoming Ukrainian nuclear attack.

According to conclusions by Western experts, the Kyiv regime was extremely close to creating a nuclear explosive device based on plutonium obtained covertly from spent nuclear fuel stored in the country’s territory. Ukrainian specialists could have made such a device within several months,” claims one alleged source cited by state-affiliated outlets Ria and RT Russian.

A related claim found on a Facebook page known for conspiracy theories and debunked by Polish fact checkers claims that Russia invaded Ukraine to thwart a plan by Jews in Ukraine to blow up the Chernobyl power plant and contaminate Europe.

Syrian factcheckers meanwhile disproved another claim circulating on Arabic language social media pages claiming that Russia had tested a palm-sized nuclear bomb capable of destroying everything in the oceans. 

Incorrect claims that Russia invaded Ukraine to clear the country of US-run biological weapons labs that we picked up in our first analysis also continue to circulate.

False narratives about civilian casualties also persist with a key word search for terms related to attacks on civilians bringing up 20 fact-checks. 

These include claims that Russia was not attacking civilian targets as well as another photo (possibly aiming to be in service of the other side) that AFP reveals wrongly uses the image of a child wounded in Syria as an example of a civilian suffering in this war. 

Another photo meanwhile incorrectly claims to show members of the Azov Battalion (a group linked to neo-Nazis which is now part of Ukraine’s National Guard) preventing the evacuation of Ukrainian civilians under fire. The photo instead, say fact-checkers, shows another unit helping civilians to flee the fighting. 

Invocation of a Neo-Nazi threat, a feature of Russian propaganda campaigns for years, has emerged repeatedly to justify the current invasion of Ukraine. Press Gazette found terms related to Nazism in the headlines of 12 separate false claims in the database.

One claim disproved by Taiwanese fact-checkers alleged to show Ukrainian president Zelensky wearing a t-shirt with a Nazi symbol. 

Another claim disseminated by outlets including Russian state-owned and Russia-friendly accuses the Ukrainian side, in particular the Azov Battalion, of bombing a residential building in Mariupol. Western media has however, widely reported on the fact Russia military is behind attacks on civilians in the city. 

Of the attacks on the city, among the most widely reported was last week’s Russian strike on a maternity hospital which led to the injury or deaths of dozens of civilians. Ten debunked claims relate to the hospital attack alone, including claims that the building was empty of civilians when it was hit. 

Despite images by AP photographers that show that the hospital was in use by women and children when it was hit, Russian officials claim that the building had been taken over by Ukrainian extremists and that the AP images were falsified. Several fact checks in the database relate to allegations that the widely-circulated photos of a pregnant woman injured (and who later died) in the attack were staged by an actor. 

When it comes to where claims were seen, our analysis shows that debunked misinformation submitted to the database now covers close to 70  countries (up from 56 one week since the start of the invasion). 

India continues to come out on top with 211 debunks by Indian fact-checkers. It was followed by Spain (145) and Brazil (57). The number of debunks done in a certain country as well as reflecting the number of false narratives on the war circulating there, could also reflect how active the local fact-checking community is.

Some Ukraine-related disinformation in India wrongly claimed that a prominent monument in Delhi was lit up in the colours of the Russian flag to show support for the invasion and that Putin supports India’s claim to parts of Pakistani territory.  Claims in Spain meanwhile attempted to discredit a left-wing politician by falsely claiming that he tweeted that Ukrainian casualties do not matter. 

Our analysis shows that the number of debunked claims in this particular database jumped with the start of the invasion, but disinformation about Ukraine did not start with the war. 

An examination of six months’ worth of Ukraine-related rhetoric from Russian state media and official Russian accounts in the run up to the war by the EU vs Disinformation project reveals that pro-Kremlin outlets  regularly portrayed Ukraine as a Nazi state as part of its effort to justify the invasion. Press Gazette’s previous analysis of Russian disinformation targeting Ukraine also revealed the leading role of RT and Sputnik as mouthpieces for official disinformation. 

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