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March 3, 2022updated 30 Sep 2022 11:07am

Ukraine information war: False claims spread on Twitter, Facebook, RT and Sputnik

By Aisha Majid

One week into the Russian war on Ukraine, a Press Gazette analysis has found that almost three quarters of fake news and misinformation about the conflict was spread on Facebook and Twitter.

Sixty percent of the 350 false or misleading claims listed in the International Fact-checking Network’s #UkraineFacts database as of Wednesday were found to be circulating on Facebook, while a further 35% were spread via Twitter.

Social platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and TikTok have played an important role in spreading front line updates from the fast-moving conflict in Ukraine. Press Gazette has compiled a list of 43 UK reporters filing updates from Ukraine.

The platforms have, in the past, come under fire for false claims and propaganda disseminated through their networks.

Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia are among the countries that have asked the tech platforms to take a firmer stance on false and misleading content - some of it directly spread by the Kremlin.

Facebook and Twitter recently removed two anti-Ukrainian "covert influence operations", one connected with Russia and another with Belarus. Facebook’s owner, Meta, has banned Russian state-owned media outlets from selling advertisements on its platforms and has restricted access to RT and Sputnik across the EU.

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Other tech companies including Google have held discussions with western officials on how to clamp down on misinformation shared through their platforms.

But despite the tech giants’ steps, an overwhelming number (almost 90%) of the fact-checked false claims submitted to the database developed by Spanish fact-checking news organisation Maldita were found to be doing the rounds on their sites. Some of these claims were being circulated as recently as yesterday (when Press Gazette last analysed the database).

While the database does not include every piece of misinformation or disinformation concerning the war on Ukraine, so far more than 50 fact-checking organisations have submitted information to Maldita. This suggests the database is a useful indicator of the kinds of falsehoods being circulated and where they are being seen.

Based on our analysis of the data available so far, Facebook was recorded as being a source for 209 claims, Twitter 123 claims and TikTok 22 claims. News websites (or in a significant number of cases, sites purporting to be news websites) and blogs were mentioned as the source for 47 claims. A claim might have been seen in more than one source.

Breaking down the English translation of the summary headline of each claim (fact-checked claims were submitted in various languages) and searching for key terms we found that 16 misleading claims (5%) were related to the war’s impact on civilians.

These included a video purporting to show two young men being covered with fake blood and claiming this as evidence that western media were falsifying videos of Ukrainian casualties.

Another debunked article from a Russian outlet alleges that there have been no civilian casualties in Ukraine. As of 27 February (the day the article was published), the UN recorded 102 civilians killed and 304 injured.

Ten false or misleading claims meanwhile relate to nuclear or biological weapons.

A number of stories say that Russia invaded Ukraine to clear the country of US-run biological weapons labs. Poynter’s fact-checking arm, Politifact, however, points out that there are no such US-run labs in Ukraine.

Another Facebook post alleging that Russia’s "Satan 2" nuclear weapon is capable of "destroying everything breathing in the world” was debunked by factcheckers in the Philippines. While the factcheckers cite sources that point to the missile’s huge potential for destruction, it says that the claims circulating on Facebook are “exaggerated”

Another story claims to show a recorded warning from the BBC that a potentially nuclear war between Russia and NATO is imminent. In 2018 the BBC itself took to Twitter to deny it made the claim, following the same video’s circulation back then too.

Our analysis also found five stories wrongly claiming that Putin had threatened other countries as far away as Kenya, Ghana, Mexico and Spain.

Many of the false stories also use footage from previous conflicts in places such as Gaza alleging that it relates to the current war in Ukraine. Other stories meanwhile use doctored or out of context images to wrongly show either Ukrainian leader, Zelensky or Putin leading their respective armies from the front-line.

While the dataset is currently not big enough to provide a meaningful ranking of which world leaders come up most in misinformation efforts, we found that 50 (14%) of the 350 unique false claims in the database mention world leaders or senior politicians. Unsurprisingly, Putin’s name came up most - mentioned 26 times.

When it comes to where claims were seen, India came out on top. Eighty-eight (88) of the false or misleading claims were picked up in India. It was followed by Spain (65) and the US (37). Of course, while the fact that more false claims were logged as being seen in a particular country could speak to the extent of fake news circulating there, it could also signal that more fact-checking goes on in that country or that its fact-checking organisations are particularly active in submitting entries to this particular database.

Most of the misinformation uses video as the medium to spread the false messages. Video was recorded as the format for 145 claims. It was followed by photographs (104 claims) and text (54 claims).

While the war in Ukraine has led to a new wave of fake news, disinformation and misinformation targeting Ukraine is hardly new.

Although the database has not yet been updated to cover the week since the invasion, we additionally looked at 5,106 pro-Kremlin disinformation messages tagged under Ukraine captured by the European Union-backed EUvsDisinfo database.

Grouping together sister outlets such as RT America and RT France or News front’s various sites, our analysis shows that Sputnik and RT have long been seen as the main disseminators of pro-Kremlin messaging on Ukraine.

From January 2015 to 22 February, 1,080 of the messages deemed to provide a partial, distorted, or false depiction of reality listed Sputnik as their source while 563 listed RT.

A further 344 meanwhile noted multi-language Crimean-based organisation News Front as the outlet where the message was seen.

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