The danger of misinformation in the era of social media news

Editorials Opinions

Now, more than ever, it is important to look critically at the content we consume

File graphic by Emily Thiessen.
File graphic by Emily Thiessen.

When social media first spread its wings, there was a feeling of optimism that the people had finally found their voice. Now, with the war in Ukraine, we are seeing the potential of social media to empower, inform, and unite people across the world.

Major news platforms like the Washington Post and the New York Times have written articles detailing all the ways social media is being used to expose and humiliate Russian military personnel, as well as share realistic details of what it is like to be a Ukrainian civilian on the ground.

The reality of how this information is spread, however, turns out to be messy — and sometimes dangerous.

We’ve all been warned about the dangers of misinformation by friends, family, and teachers. We like to believe we’re good at spotting it and that we’d never spread it. But with the rise of social media as a news source and amplifier, the way news spreads is controlled by an algorithm that’s unaware of what’s fake or what’s real — an algorithm that values only what’s garnering the most attention.

The New Yorker has called the Russia-Ukraine War the world’s first “TikTok War.” The app has emerged as the most popular platform for sharing videos about the Russia-Ukraine war — but some of the widely shared videos on the platform, like videos of Ukrainian tanks firing on Russian troops, have been edited, modified, or altogether faked.

For example, a video of a Russian soldier paratrooping into Ukraine has been widely circulated on TikTok. A quick fact check or reverse image search will show you it’s actually from a 2015 Instagram post. 

Using memes to convey information on current issues can also lead to the spreading of misinformation. When subjects become Internet memes, it becomes easier to spread false information in favour of delivering a punchline. Memes are sometimes used as a tool for marketing and manipulation. 

There has also been an increasing amount of disinformation: the act of purposely spreading false information for malicious purposes. Sputnik has propagated tags like “criminal Zelensky,” “empire of lies,” “fake news,” and “Nazi.”

China’s state-sponsored news outlet Central Television Station (CCTV) made the false claim on Feb. 26 that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky had fled Kyiv.  Zelensky himself made use of social media with shaky selfie videos to combat these claims, and to document his continual presence in the country. 

News outlets Russia Today and Sputnik are reportedly to be blocked by YouTube in the European Union, while Twitter and Meta — Facebook’s parent entity — have vowed to mark potentially false content as “state-sponsored.”

One of the easiest ways to avoid spreading misinformation is to slow down. Social media platforms are designed to share information quickly, but when it comes to sharing news it’s important to resist. It’s easy to see a post on your feed, hit the share button, and feel like you’ve done something helpful because you’re sharing information. 

But if the article, post, or image you’ve shared turns out to be misleading or false, you’re actually doing more harm than good.

Instead, pause before you hit the share button. Take a moment to look at the information critically. Where did it come from? Who posted it? Has the writer cited their sources? If it’s a photo or video, does it include context? If you reverse image search, where does it take you? 

Slowing down and taking the time to ask these questions can be the difference between spreading awareness and spreading misinformation.