Sorting out what is real in Ukraine and what is misinformation designed to provoke an emotional response is hard enough for professional journalists. For everyday people seeing photos and videos cascade through their social media feeds, it is even harder.
But the stakes can be high for anyone with an audience, no matter how big or small, if sharing false information — reposting a link on Facebook or retweeting a story that feels urgent — means unwittingly playing into war propaganda. Experts in misinformation say everyone has a responsibility to pause and do a bit of work to verify content before sharing it, even if it would benefit the side you support in a conflict.
“It matters because we all have the right to truth, and the more we do to pollute the information environment, the worse it’s going to get,” said Joan Donovan, the research director at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, which has studied the proliferation of misinformation.
Claire Wardle, a co-founder of First Draft News, a nonprofit that focuses on misinformation, said your credibility matters, even if you’re not a journalist.
“If we all keep doing that, it means we’re all going to stop believing anything anyone else is saying,” she said.
There are simple steps you can take to limit the misinformation that circulates online. If you can’t verify the authenticity of something you’re tempted to share, you can at least look for warning signs that would give you pause.
Here are some quick red flags to think about before you share:
Who’s sharing it?
Are they verified? On Twitter, Instagram or Facebook, many people, including journalists, have blue check marks next to their names to indicate their identities have been confirmed. These accounts make mistakes, too, and good information can come from people who are not verified, but the absence of a check could give you a reason to look for other red flags and pause before hitting that retweet button. Also be wary of parody or impostor accounts.
Even when you come across verified accounts, look for hints that they have some reason to know what they’re telling you: Are they reporters on the ground or researchers who have studied the area? Or are they a celebrity having the same quick-twitch reaction you’re trying to avoid?
Beware TwitterBot120362824. A user name consisting of a noun followed by a long series of numbers is often a sign that an account has been created inauthentically, Dr. Donovan said. A brand-new account with few prior or unrelated tweets or a low follower count might be a sign to move along.
When an Instagram post seems a bit desperate for engagement, adding unrelated hashtags that might be popular like #catoftheday, it’s likely the post is coming from a disreputable place, Dr. Donovan said.
If you do a quick web search and can’t find any news articles about what you’re seeing, it’s possible you could be looking at miscaptioned images from a previous war, Dr. Wardle said. If you’re feeling especially Sherlockian, you can search for the original source of a viral image yourself.
In one recent example, a 2012 video of a Palestinian girl confronting Israeli soldiers was widely recirculated by people suggesting it happened in Ukraine.
Seek out the fact-checkers.
Many news organizations have special teams to fact-check or debunk claims that spread during high-intensity news moments. Reuters, The Associated Press, the BBC and Agence France-Presse all have dedicated hubs that you can check first to see if that post you’re about to share was debunked days ago.
Do they want your shares, or your money?
Scammers prey on creating emotional responses and might say they’re raising funds for victims. Carefully look into any organization you’re tempted to donate to or post about by using a site like Charity Navigator to ensure it is legitimate.