Still, for all the visuals that are flooding the internet, Alexander isn’t sure if they help most people understand events on distant battlefields. The intensity and immediacy of social media creates a new kind of fog of war, in which information and misinformation are continually intertwined, clarifying and confusing in almost equal measure.
“If you’re a normal person and you go on social media today, you’ll find it confusing,” said Alexander, 28, an M&A analyst for a start-up that for weeks has been spending its free time to analyze Russian videos online for signs of fabrications. “If you don’t follow this thoroughly, you can be misinformed because there’s so much information that’s flowing in all directions.”
Alexander became an expert at seeing the often subtle differences between Russian and Ukrainian tanks and weapons. He learned to identify the main Ukrainian monuments. Most importantly, he’s learned to study the latest videos for clues about what’s happening on the ground, while ignoring written or spoken commentary that he says is often misleading.
The torrent of social media posts during Thursday’s attack on Ukraine recalled the first live TV broadcasts of the Persian Gulf War, when visceral videos of missile strikes helped usher in a new era of military reporting – and brought a foreign war into American living rooms. .
But the modern combination of smartphones, social media and high-speed data links now delivers images that are almost certainly faster, more visual and larger than in any previous major military conflict.
They have also brought new efforts to deceive, experts say, and the new conflict is unfolding alongside an aggressive and widely disseminated disinformation campaign that makes it difficult for crowdsourcing to establish facts on the ground.
“Better to turn on cable news for information than the social media wasteland right now,” tweeted Joan Donovan, research director at Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy.
She added in an interview that accounts supporting Russia were already making efforts to share old videos and photos – taken out of context and repackaged with fake descriptions – at the same time and with the same hashtags as people’s authentic images. of the real world.
Donovan said the goal was to confuse the minds of the public and shape the narrative in favor of Russian interests. And it works when well-meaning people, glued to the news and eager to contribute but confused about what’s right, inadvertently help spread propaganda to their own followers.
Independent sleuths known as “open source investigators,” meanwhile, used social media photos and videos to spot the movements Russian military forces on online maps in real time. To verify the footage, groups such as the Center for Information Resilience, London, looked at geolocation records and assorted the background scenery from the videos to real-world data on Google Earth.
The massive mobilization of Russian military forces has been streaming for weeks on TikTok, with hundreds of videos from nearby onlookers showing the movement of tanks, ballistic missiles and armored fighting vehicles.
And a few hours before dawn on Thursday in Ukraine, people started noticing that Google Maps, which analyzes phone movements to estimate road traffic, had alerted to a traffic jam near the Ukrainian border. Russian military vehicles were on the move – even before President Vladimir Putin announced the attack in an early morning speech on Russian national television on Thursday.
Jeffrey Lewis, a professor specializing in arms control and non-proliferation at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in California, tweeted that he suspected the mapping algorithm responded to the movements of civilian drivers stuck at military roadblocks. Google did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
As the invasion began – and online notices signaled the closure of airspace in eastern Ukraine – millions of people took to Twitter for information from the front lines. The platform has helped spread the images of anti-war protesters in Russian cities that government officials are working to suppress: A photoby journalist Sofya Rusova holding an anti-war sign saying, “War with Ukraine is Russia’s shame”, has been seen, liked and retweeted tens of thousands of times.
Twitter also helped Ukrainian citizens convey their fear and concern to a global audience as explosions rocked the country. Journalist Nastya Stanko tweeted in Ukrainian around 4 a.m. that her one-year-old son was sleeping next to her, adding: “Like my child in this city, there are tens of thousands of children who sleep next to their mother”.
Officials at Facebook’s parent company Meta said they were setting up a “special operations center” to remove content that violates the rules and rolled out a one-click tool that Ukrainians can use to lock down their accounts.
An official Twitter account started on Wednesday tweet instructions in Ukrainian on how to delete accounts, turn off location services, and implement security measures like two-factor authentication. And the official account of Ukraine donations solicited for the Ukrainian army and urged people to tweet to Russia to “tell them what you think of them”.
But Twitter has also helped amplify arguments to reject or defend Russian attacks, despite the company’s efforts, he said, to defend against the use of “synthetic and manipulated media”.
A Twitter account that has regularly boosted Chinese government talking points, SpicyPandaAcc, posted a video from Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying, wondering if the United States and NATO had ever thought about the “consequences of pushing a great country to the wall”.
A new series of video apps also offered an unusually intimate look. On video-sharing app Snapchat, which allows people to stream their videos to a real-world “Snap Map”, a man in Kyiv shared images of empty streets. ” What am I going to do now ? He asked.
On live-streaming platform Twitch, audiences flocked to Russian-language streamers who continuously commented on new information as it came in, mostly on popular social platform Telegram. in Russia.
In one stream, the host mocked the formalities laid out in a video of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko addressing his cabinet. In another, a popular video game streamer delivered comments to an audience of nearly 25,000 viewers as he watched a new YouTube video from Russian comedian Danila Poperechny titled “No to War.”
“In the chat, I can see people giving clearly unverified information,” streamer Viktor Agarok said as he scrolled through open tabs on Telegram and CNN’s YouTube channel. “The most important thing is not to panic and to be insightful.” Earlier in the stream, he warned viewers that he was not an informed political observer or historian and was only aggregating the views of other commentators.
Russia has sought to tighten its grip on global perceptions. The communications regulator Roskomnadzor has threatens bans and fines for journalists who quote anyone other than “official Russian sources”.
International audiences have also criticized US-based tech companies for giving megaphones to the Russian government. On Facebook, pages run by RT, the Moscow-based web and TV channel that echoes Kremlin talking points in multiple languages, have received millions of views and hundreds of thousands of interactions over the past week. , according to data from CrowdTangle.
As the invasion grew, people again called on tech giants to stop hosting RT and similar state-backed networks. On YouTube, RT’s main channel has more than 4.5 million subscribers and its videos have been viewed more than 3 billion times since 2007.
“If you grew up during the Cold War, it’s hard to imagine an American company knowingly pushing Russian propaganda into our homes, but here we are,” tweeted Sleeping Giants, an activist group that organizes online boycotts and advertiser pressure campaigns to advance social causes and undermine the far right.
The battle to shape discussion around the war has also swept through discussion forum giant Reddit, where volunteer moderators of the r/Russia subreddit, which has 250,000 subscribers, banned all political and military posts on Wednesday, saying that they wanted to “avoid provocations”. ”
Moderators also deleted most comments on a thread announcing the decision and then locked it for further discussion. Many of the top articles now focus on light topics, such as Russian art and architecture, though another subreddit, r/RussiaPolitics, has become an active but smaller forum for discussing the war. A Reddit spokesperson declined to comment.
The overall picture – compelling in its speed and granularity, vexing in its potential for manipulation – can take a while to resolve.
“If you know how to organize your menu and your feed, it probably adds more visibility than confusion,” said Thomas Rid, professor of strategic studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. “We won’t know if this is definitely true for a few weeks.”
Mikhail Klimentov and Elizabeth Dwoskin contributed to this report.