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  4. Disinformation is the Story of Our Age

Barack Obama, at the Disinformation and the Erosion of Democracy Conference at the University of Chicago on 6 April 2022, queried, “imagine how any of us would process information if we are not getting, seeing, anything else?... It is difficult for me to see how we can win the contest of ideas if, in fact, we are not able to agree on a baseline of facts that allow the marketplace of ideas to work.”

Recent events in Ukraine have underscored yet again the impact that intentional misinformation and propaganda have during times of political unrest and warfare. The news is full of stories of state-sponsored false facts and disinformation, as well as severe limits on access to information not just within Russia and Ukraine but widespread actively across the global infrastructure of information, thanks to the ease, speed, and breadth of the Internet. While it is common to use rhetoric to convince people of a threat, challenge, or benefit, it is also common in battles, invasions, and insurrections to create justifications for one’s best interests, shifting death counts or destruction or blame in whatever light pushes forward those interests. But in today’s world, in which so many have the ability to document what is happening in front of them and potentially share it, such claims can be investigated by many more trained eyes, and it is crucial that we are all critical consumers of the information deluge that we now receive.

The Kremlin has a long history of managing and manipulating information and its dissemination both internally and globally, as do many other seats of government around the world, but has used draconian measures to limit reporting on the situation in Ukraine from its own citizens. Just a week into the invasion of Ukraine, new censorship laws were passed, making it a crime to deviate from the Kremlin narrative with threats of up to 15 years in prison. The government forbade calling the attack on Ukraine a “war” or “invasion,” claiming it is a “special operation,” and forcefully shut down news outlets. “There is no room for independent journalism in Russia," said the editor-in-chief of the last independent media outlet in Pskov, Denis Kamalyagin. International agencies from CNN, BBC, Al-Jazeera, and others suspended reporting from within Russia to protect their staff, and on 28 March, Dmitry Muratov, winner of the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize as editor in chief of the independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta announced it would suspend publication until this “special operation” in Ukraine ends, after receiving its second warning from Roskomnadzor, the Kremlin’s media censorship agency. Access to social media sites such as Twitter, Facebook, and TikTok, which carry news in opposition to Putin, has been cut off, either by the companies or the government, although some Russians are able to get news through VPNs. Many young, post-Soviet era Russians have fled the country for the West as more restrictions are put in place. “Putin doesn’t want them, either, dubbing self-exiled Russians a ‘fifth column’ that is working to undermine their homeland. In a televised address, Putin condemned Russians with a Western mentality as “national traitors” who cannot live without “oysters and gender freedom.”

Since 2008, the relationship between Russia and Ukraine has shifted from a strategic partnership to Russia attempting to delegitimize Ukraine’s government through claims of rising Ukrainian fascism and neo-Nazism, protecting Russian speakers in Ukraine from genocide, and fears that Ukraine would join NATO. From the Russian annexation of the Crimea in 2014, through years of increasing disinformation and rhetoric to the Russian population, Putin’s government has internally controlled the image of Ukraine, allowing him to justify on 24 February 2022 the “special military operation [with the goal] to protect people who have been subjected to abuse and genocide by the regime in Kyiv for eight years. And for this, we will pursue the demilitarisation and denazification of Ukraine, as well as bringing to justice those who committed numerous bloody crimes against civilians, including citizens of the Russian Federation.”

The recent atrocities against civilians in Bucha, potential war crimes as defined by the Geneva Convention, were declared fake news by the Russian press. Ukraine was accused of staging the scene once the Russian army withdrew, although satellite imagery shows bodies strewn in the streets in the same positions, some with hands tied behind their backs, during their occupation of the city.

A claim on Twitter that US military-funded biological warfare laboratories in Ukraine had been discovered spread quickly across media on 24 February, even though they were diagnostic and biodefense labs.

Subsequent coverage from Fox News that the status of the biological work was irrelevant as they could be used as weapons was picked up by the Russian news and quickly received over a million views on just one Telegram post alone by the Russian state news agency RIA Novosti.

On 10 March, Twitter and Instagram posts with the same image and similar language from Russian Embassies falsely claimed that a photo of an injured pregnant woman leaving the ruins of a shelled maternity hospital in Mariupol was fake.

How do we as consumers discern what is real in an age of DeepFake videos created using Artificial Intelligence and Instagram posts of images that can be altered with simple phone apps available globally? And more importantly, how do we help our students become better-informed users of content when they are barraged with media and messages from unknown sources?

At St. Stephen’s, we spend several weeks in the Core 9 class talking about the validity of what we see online, implicit and explicit bias, why it is important to pause before reposting, how our information can be narrowed from our search history known as the Google bubble or filter, and how to determine if claims are true or not. After the events of 6 January 2021 in Washington, we talked about the value of a free journalist corps in a democracy and reiterated the need to consult multiple news sources. We also discussed who has the right to limit someone’s free speech and if we thought it should be left to social media companies.

Librarians used to teach about website evaluation by examining the site itself for clues, but after following a course for teachers and examining the materials from the joint MIT-Stanford University Civic Online Reasoning project, we have introduced Lateral Reading. Our students now see a claim, question its validity, and immediately go online to see what other sites are sharing about the same information. It works if it's a news story, an historic document, an interview, anything that conveys information. Students applied this to assignments on fake Covid news as well as political issues and were surprised at how seemingly believable claims could be debunked quite quickly. It has added more value to their critical analysis of media they are deluged with throughout their day.

One of many fake news items Core 9 students found and reported on during a unit on Fake News in 2020-2021.


How to verify the news you see:

  • Pick several verifiable and appropriate news sources, and check their reporting against each other.  Do not get all your news reporting from sources with a similar political slant or agenda.  Some suggestions:
    • US: The New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, CNN, Public Broadcasting Service PBS, National Public Radio NPR 
    • IT: Corriere della Sera, La Repubblica, RAI News
    • UK: The Guardian, The London Times, BBC
    • Al-Jazeera, Reuters, Associated Press News, ANSA
    • NOTE: the US, UK, and EU, YouTube, Twitter, and other online sites have blocked access to the two major Russian government-sponsored News Channels, RT News and Sputnik.
  • Use fact-checking skills, asking questions such as
    • Who wrote this, and what are their qualifications?
    • Do they have verified status indicated by a blue checkmark next to their name on Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook?
    • What motivated them to write this?
    • Who is the intended audience?
    • What do they hope their audience will take away from this?
    • Do a reverse image search on Google
  • Check fact-checking sites online

See How The New York Times Verifies Reporting on the Ukraine War 11 March 2022, Updated 1 April 2022

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