How to choose sources of information during the war | By Otar Dovzhenko 

How to reduce the likelihood of poisoning by enemy attacks and fakes, as well as not to waste time on fiction that someone is trying to pass off as news. 

During almost a month of war, you have heard many times that only information from official sources is worth believing. You are probably already following these sources, listening to the president’s daily appeals and advisers’ briefings as official information. You also know that Russia is trying to “poison the wells” — throwing false information, pressing on the sore points of society to quarrel Ukrainians, undermine their unity and willingness to resist the invaders, to force betrayal or capitulation. As Russia no longer has its own media in Ukraine, and those collaborators who were at the beginning of the invasion, were successfully neutralized by our special services, the main field of its propaganda sabotage is social networks, messengers and YouTube. There are also attempts at hacker attacks and the spread of fakes through hacked Ukrainian media but these attempts are surprisingly clumsy: “deepfake”, ie imitation of the speech of the President Zelenskyi with the announcement of “capitulation”, laughs no worse than “Kvartal 95” and is unlikely to convince anyone. Sociological polls show that during this time the unity of society and faith in the victory of Ukraine has only strengthened.

However, it is too early to celebrate victory, and in the information war as well. Russia has a lot of resources for information and psychological special operations. And if on the battlefield time is probably playing in our favor, then in the info space it is not always so: people are exhausted, conflict with each other, demand simple solutions and answers. It is also natural that news from official sources is not enough to feel informed about the ever-changing situation. After all, these sources do not publish “the whole truth” about the war”. Therefore, sooner or later everyone starts looking for other sources from which you can get additional facts and opinions. Let’s try to understand how to select these sources, use them and adequately evaluate the information you receive from them.

There is a lot of false, inaccurate, distorted information — both in peacetime and during the war. Only part of the untruth in the media space is purposeful misinformation launched by Russians. And not always those who spread false news do so deliberately. If you have a choice, of course, you should first choose the sources of information that verify the facts, do not publish unconfirmed news or “patriotic fakes”. But the minimum plan is to delete from your information menu sources that lie or deliberately manipulate.

Therefore, it is worth looking at each source from which you directly or indirectly (in the narration of other people or other media sources) receive news, and ask the main question: why does this source spread information at all?

Creating and distributing content (news, analytics, videos, photos) is a resource-intensive job. There are people and organizations that do it professionally: journalists, media, communicators, press services, some bloggers. They get paid for creating and distributing content, it’s their job. Ideally, their goal is to satisfy the audience’s need for information, although there may be other motives, such as promoting the interests of owners, investors, advertisers, political patrons. During the war, the use of the media as a tool to promote one’s interests or political struggle became a marginal practice in Ukraine but from time to time it was still done.

There are people and organizations that distribute content not for money but for a specific purpose — personal or socially important. Now there are many more because citizens who have free time and energy, join the “information army”  (or believe that they have joined it, acting at their own discretion). The goal can be different, or there can be several: to help specific or imaginary people, to influence public opinion (and not always specifically yours or the group you belong to), to confuse or misinform the enemy, to calm your own soul or something.  

This is the main difference between professional quality media and any other source of information. Media, which employs professional journalists who adhere to professional standards, are able to filter information and are interested in it. After all, they are well aware of the consequences of spreading lies, feel responsible for the quality of their content and care about their audience. This does not mean that they never explode on disinformation mines; unfortunately, this happens to everyone. But with them — much less often than with bloggers, anonymous Telegram channels, news aggregators, etc .; and if a mess occurs, the professional media make an effort to correct the mistake and bring the truth to the audience.  

The flip side of this coin is the high (sometimes inflated) level of demands on the media which are positioned as independent and honest. They should be misled once the flow of hatred and destructive criticism pours on them. You can conduct an experiment: write on Facebook or another social network that you completely trust [insert here the name of any well-known independent media], and in the comments you will definitely be told what is wrong with this media and why it is the “bottom”. Well, it’s like the saying: “Our people at least set a trident in Kremlin — they will say that it is crooked”. Seriously, the media from the white list of the Institute of Mass Media, as well as many other Ukrainian mass media, including regional ones, can be trusted and do not expect from them deliberate tricks, pro-Russian propaganda or misinformation. Although, no one is safe from mistakes.

Also, do not forget about the dangers of breakage and hacking — if you see that the media you trust is publishing something atypical and sensational, you’d better look for confirmation in other sources. Russians have repeatedly hacked the leading Ukrainian media and constantly subject them to DDoS attacks. Even before the invasion “Media Detector” fell victim to the hacking — the attackers published the news about “Ukrainian military migrants shot dead” in retrospect to spread it in the pro-Russian media with reference to a “reliable source”.

The joint TV and radio marathon is a relatively high-quality source of information: they will not deliberately spread Russian dez here, they are trying to verify the facts and rely on data from official sources. However, it should be borne in mind that part of the news is broadcast live, when verification of the facts is impossible, and editors and journalists do not influence what the expert or the hero says. If he wants to lie, he will lie. There is also a problem with some presenters who are overly enthusiastic about broadcasting unverified data from social networks and Telegram channels.

Quality media can disappoint readers, viewers and listeners who expect to receive many bright exclusives, “insiders” (ie information from well-known anonymous sources that explains “how things really are”), scandalous columns, etc. After all, journalists use rational self-censorship, not publishing what they insist on not publishing the military leadership, avoiding thoughts that inflame internal conflicts, in short — behaving restrainedly. Therefore, the audience is drawn to Ukrainian bloggers and Telegram channels that offer of less quality and selective but more attractive content. Including what replaced Ukrainian TV series and entertainment shows during the war: pictures from the battlefield with burnt equipment, downed planes, dead Russians and victorious reports of Ukrainian military and civilian leaders.  

In these sources, the share of false or distorted information is much higher, as there are no editorial rules and standards that deter the media from spreading fakes and false messages, or any responsibility that could lead to caution. Unfortunately, I have to say that even journalists in their private channels often spread news which later turns out to be fake or desirable, pretended to be real. One day before going to bed, I read a message in the Telegram channel of one of the most respected Ukrainian soldiers, who said that at that moment the Ukrainian army was chasing the Russian gene for Gostomel and Bucha and drove the invaders several tens of kilometers away. It was nice. But in the morning this news was not confirmed, and so far these cities have not been liberated from the Russian occupiers. This report, as it turned out, was launched by another well-known journalist, who had no reason not to trust, but … If you are not ready to be disappointed every day, learning that the news that caused you positive emotions and added hope, was a lie — it is better to treat the messages of such sources with extreme caution. That is, do not believe until there is official confirmation.

Anonymous Telegram channels and pages, as well as news aggregators and media nouns that do not report anything about their team and publish unsigned material are an even higher risk of misinformation. Many of them see the war as a great opportunity to increase the audience which is now growing like yeast, if you offer it any messages about the course of hostilities and all the same “military-entertaining” content — lined tanks, aircraft flights, etc. At the same time, the authors of these channels and pages do not risk anything, so instead of Russian tanks you can offer Ukrainian, Syrian or Iraqi, the news may be fictional or a week old. And when the truth is revealed, the only thing you can do is unsubscribe from an unreliable source or, at best, express your outrage in the comments.

An even more dangerous source of information is unmoderated groups on social networks or Viber chats. The Russians are throwing a lot of deliberate misinformation here, for example, to sow panic, extort information from Ukrainians about the movement of military equipment or adjust the fire of their artillery. In addition, many false messages circulate there on the principle of viruses. They may seem innocent but they are not. For example, Viber recommendation to leave the house in the open when the shelling begins can cost people their lives. No one will know who and why started this lie — it is possible that it was done by some foolish man who wanted the best. Viber chats and unmoderated communities also distribute phishing links that steal people’s personal data and fraudulent ads to collect money. Fighting such content, trying to convince community or chat users that it’s a fake or a hoax, is more expensive. It is better to just leave all the chats and communities during the war.

Finally, the most toxic of the sources currently available to Ukrainians are anonymous Telegram channels that work for Russia. All these “legitimate”, “residents”, “dark knights” and, of course, Anatoliy Shariy in all his guises. On the first day of Russia’s invasion, the Center for Countering Disinformation under the National Security and Defense Council compiled a list of such channels but this list is, of course, incomplete. These channels were deliberately created and promoted to misinform and manipulate Ukrainians. Not all of them at first glance give the impression of pro-Russian propaganda. Some, on the contrary, pretend to maintain a balance by alternating reports of Ukraine’s defeats, escape of Zelenskyi, or capitulation with “anti-Putin” reports or insiders about the Russian army’s failures. However, this is done only to make readers more vulnerable to the really key messages that Kremlin needs to spread among Ukrainians at the right time. These channels, as well as any Russian propaganda media, should be categorically excluded from their information menu. Even if you think you are invulnerable to Russian propaganda and can maintain critical thinking, it is better not to take risks. Remember that against the background of physical and moral fatigue, stress, information overload, the ability to distinguish fake from truth can weaken.

The hardest part is filtering the information you get from Facebook, Twitter or other social networks. Our attention is arranged so that we first look at the picture, then — read the text, and finally pay attention to who is the source of information. Even if you choose the sources and the circle of communication very carefully, there is always a danger that your tape will get misinformation or Russian propaganda. Therefore, you should make a rule: do not disseminate any information until you are sure that it comes from a reliable source, is not outdated or erroneous. It would be better if you did not spread anything at all than if you inadvertently became part of the mechanism of viral misinformation.

“Do not share” means not only not to post on social networks, not to send by email or in messengers but also not to retell and not to voice aloud in the presence of other people. Just today, passing a stranger on the street, I heard an excerpt from her telephone conversation: “they want to take Odessa in the ring — they have a huge group of troops in Transnistria”. It is true that the Russians want to surround Odessa but the “huge group of troops” in Transnistria is not confirmed by any official data. However, if I hadn’t known this, I could have relayed the news I heard on the street about the large Russian contingent in Transnistria to someone else — and the virus would have gone further.

Sitting on the phone and reading aloud news clips is a common way for millions of Ukrainian families to spend time these days. And a pre-war study of media consumption in Ukraine found that for 28% of people, family, friends and acquaintances are one of the main sources of information. Therefore, one should master oneself and even unintentionally not voice facts that may not really be facts but someone’s fabrications or hostile intrusions.

And I will repeat what I write already, it seems, in each text. Unfortunately, war is a long time, and Ukrainians need to be productive, calm, healthy and resilient. Therefore, you should work on reducing your psychological dependence on news consumption. Take breaks, unsubscribe from writing chatter, read books, communicate with children, loved ones and friends, and don’t let information flow drag you into a whirlpool.

The material was published in cooperation with NGO “Lviv Media Forum” with the support of the Ministry of Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office.

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