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March 24, 2022updated 30 Sep 2022 11:09am

How to debunk misinformation coming out of war in Ukraine

By Andrew Kersley

There has been a huge swathe of misinformation flowing from the battlefields of Eastern Europe since the war in Ukraine began a month ago.

From Tiktok videos of fake bombings to staged government propaganda, several viral myths have been disproven in the ‘Information War’ over Ukraine. But how do people work out what’s real and what’s not?

Press Gazette spoke to the verification experts at Full Fact and Bellingcat to find out how they’ve been fact-checking the information coming from Ukraine and to understand how journalists and readers can work to make sure the information they’re seeing is true.

How much misinformation is coming from the war in Ukraine?

The biggest challenge to finding the truth of what’s happening on the ground of this conflict, according to those Press Gazette spoke to, is the sheer amount of content they have to sift through.

“I’ve been at Full Fact since 2018, through political cycles, the end of Brexit and coronavirus, and this is the most content that we’ve seen on social media that could be verified but we can’t get around to,” says Abbas Panjwani, acting assistant editor of Full Fact. “We’re having to put aside a lot of things that we’re seeing on social media that could be checked.”

Bellingcat founder Eliot Higgins told Press Gazette the group has been limiting its work to just cases of civilian casualties to avoid being overwhelmed. “There’s a very large number of videos coming from Ukraine, and we aren’t even looking at footage of destroyed vehicles or anything like that,” says Higgins. “The first place we’ll see any of these things being reported will be on Twitter. It’s just an endless stream of war crimes at the moment.”

The amount of global interest in what is happening in Ukraine means fake information can go viral in hours. One video that the BBC proved was several years out of date was viewed more than 27 million times in one day.

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How to spot misinformation about the war in Ukraine?

While Full Fact has focused on verifying viral videos (some that were even used by the BBC), Bellingcat’s work has been largely on archiving footage of civilian deaths and understanding whether the attacks happened and if so, how, where and when.

There are a few simple steps journalists can take to verify information coming out of Ukraine on social media.

To start, Full Fact recommends applying what it calls “the common sense test”. As one example, some viral footage of bombings supposedly happening in Ukraine has just been clips from video games.

Full Fact helped prove footage used by the BBC of Russian fighter jets supposedly flying in close formation over Ukraine was actually from a military parade in Moscow. “Fighter planes that are actually involved in getting from A to B or involved in combat do not fly in military parade formations, it’s just not sensible,” says Panjwani.

Panjwani recommends searching keywords that describe the video, using Google’s reverse image searching or InVID Verification (a type of reverse video searching), to try to see where else has published a video or photo. If you find any examples of the footage from before the date it claims to be from, then it is clearly faked.

Reverse image searching can also help find out if images have been photoshopped. Panjwani cites the example of a viral faked picture of a Ukrainian street sign that had supposedly been defaced telling Russians to fuck off. Even partial matches of images come up on Google, meaning Full Fact could find the original images before they were photoshopped. “You can see the angles are all lining up, everything in the background is identical. The only thing that has changed is the text,” he explains.

A more complicated level of verification involves trying to geolocate a video – a process Higgins says is like “an adult version of spot the difference”. Distinctive features from the footage are used to try to match its location to a specific place using satellite imagery. If there are tall buildings, major roads or other landmarks in the background, investigators just have to look around the town or area the event supposedly took place on satellite imagery or Google street view to check if anything matches.

Sometimes, very few landmarks are needed at all. In 2018, the BBC Africa Eye team determined the location that a massacre of women and children by Cameroon’s military took place using the shape of a mountain range in the background of the footage.

Another useful tool is metadata; data about photos or videos that can disclose when they were first created. Before the war in Ukraine had begun, Russian separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk released a series of videos of supposed attacks on their regions by Ukrainian-aligned forces. One video, was supposedly of bodycam footage from the body of a Polish saboteur who attempted to blow up chlorine containers at a sewage treatment plant on 18 February. Bellingcat found out through checking its metadata it was filmed days before the stated date.

How Bellingcat finds out when, where and who committed a civilian massacre

If you want to do more than basic verification on a video or photo, like work out which side is responsible for an attack, things become more complicated.

The first step taken by Bellingcat, as Higgins explains it, is to find the original source of a video. The organisation can do that by reverse image or video searching, or by searching the purported location of the video in Russian, Ukrainian and English on Facebook, Twitter or on popular Telegram channels. Next, the group tries to find as much extra footage of the event as it can – from different sources and angles – and try to establish a count of verified casualties by counting the bodies on the footage to compare to any official accounts of the incident.

“Then we start looking for the remains of the munitions so we can start identifying them,” explains Higgins, who says many munitions have their classification, date of production and name printed on them. Even something as simple as a date can be a vital clue to identifying which side is responsible, as he says Russia stopped selling many of its cluster munitions to other countries after 2012.

If Bellingcat can determine the type of munition involved in multiple attacks, and the exact locations, often it can work out the source. The specifications, including the maximum range of a large number of weapons, are available on sites like Wikipedia, meaning Bellingcat investigators can draw a line on a map from the location of an attack to the furthest distance it could have originated from. If its investigators have information on any other targets from the same attack, they can draw a second line from that location and where the two lines intersect is where the attack originated.

 Why Ukraine is different to previous wars

Those Press Gazette spoke to said this conflict was unlike any they had worked on before, largely because of the sheer amount of information to sift through.

Full Fact also cited the issue of Telegram, which is particularly popular in Russia and Ukraine and has been the source of much official and unofficial information about the conflict.  Telegram is harder to search than Twitter or Facebook because you have to locate which channel something came from before you can search for it.

Higgins adds that the conflict has also revealed new types of open source information.  Much Russian radio communications during the conflict haven’t been completely encrypted, leading some volunteers to create live transcripts of what’s being said on the frontline by the Russian military. CCTV camera footage is another new source in Ukraine, meaning live footage of bombings as they happen often circulate online, allowing groups like Bellingcat to more accurately determine if the intended targets were military or civilian.

The size of the open-source community – essentially volunteers on social media helping to geolocate and verify footage themselves – has grown in recent years. “Ten years ago, you can probably fit everyone in the community in a minibus, a few years after that it’s an entire coach, and now it’s more like a jumbo jet. And it’s constantly expanding each day,” Higgins explains, who used to be an open-source blogger himself writing under the pseudonym Brown Moses. If a video has already been geolocated by those volunteers, all Bellingcat staff have to do is check that they’re right – a far quicker process than manually searching themselves.

That open source community has also managed to gather some startling information on military losses from the frontlines. In one example, the Oryx blog has managed to verify and use pictures on social media to document 1785 pieces of military hardware lost by the Russians and 525 lost by the Ukrainians.

Verdict

While there are certain levels of video verification that are too hard for the average person, Full Fact’s Panjwani says it’s still important that people ensure they do a basic level of checking of the information they’re sharing on Ukraine. Full Fact even recently published a step-by-step guide on the ways people can fact check misleading videos about Ukraine.

“Our strapline is bad information ruins lives. While it’s sometimes hard to see the impact of what we’re doing to others through sharing misinformation, it can still hurt people,” he says. “People in Ukraine don’t deserve to have their tragedy exploited for the sake of shares.”

Picture: Reuters/ Vitaliy Gnidyi

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