Following the news of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine can be difficult, but not because there is a lack of information. Social media, be it TikTok, Twitter or Facebook are flooded with updates whether in the form of words, pictures or videos. But for those unfamiliar with the geopolitical context of the situation, or even this region of the globe itself, it can be difficult to contextualize information, or know whether a source of information is trustworthy, by making its best to be exact. .
WGLT spoke with two experts from Illinois State University’s School of Communication to get their thoughts on how to navigate news, social media, and misinformation or misinformation campaigns aimed at targeting passive consumers .
Nathan Carpenter is director of convergent media for the School of Communication and leads its social media analytics command center. In late 2019, Carpenter traveled to Georgia to give presentations on various social media topics as part of a media literacy program set up by the United States Embassy. Georgia was the first republic to break away from the Soviet Union in the early 1990s; its history of conflict means that democracy and freedom of expression are under threat.
Joseph Zompetti is a communications professor who recently received a fellowship from the Center for Civic Engagement at ISU. Zompetti has a background in political science and communications and has studied fake news phenomena and Russian disinformation tactics. He has conducted research on these issues alongside colleagues from the Republic of Georgia and Kyrgyzstan.
Here’s what they had to say:
More than a wallet problem
Zompetti: I think people should pay attention to what’s going on. Even if we feel disconnected – we are on the other side of the planet and may not have Ukrainian friends or family or from there – that does not mean that it does not affect us directly. There are going to be economic repercussions; gas prices will increase and we will see an increase in other prices for goods and services because of the sanctions imposed on Russia.
But it also affects us on a more principled level: I’m not sure the Biden administration has said this explicitly, or as clearly as they should, but it’s really a battle between democracy and authoritarianism. This, really, I think is a fight for the soul of democracy and what that means. I hope people put that into perspective when they feel the pinch in their wallets.
Carpenter: I think one thing that we all need to recognize and understand is that it is almost beyond our ability to comprehend the amount of information being produced on social media sites right now. We have an innate desire to be truly above that and consume as much of it as possible; we want to keep consuming that until we find an answer to what’s going on, or find some sort of solution.
I think one of the biggest (tips I have) is to really take it slow and not necessarily follow the trends. Trends will tell you what everyone is looking at right now and they can be deceiving. Pay less attention to what these trends say and instead think about what they mean. Be careful and slow down – you don’t need to know first. Being able to accept this can help – and it can even help you rely on experts who can be much more nuanced. It’s okay if it takes you a few more minutes to get information, process it, and review it.
Find sources that challenge you
Zompetti: We’ve seen the (misinformation) happen before – there’s already a conspiracy theory sprouting where people are speculating that maybe Russia and China have some sort of military alliance and that as a result of that , China could take over Taiwan, or something of that nature. There is no evidence to suggest that Russia and China have any alliance; in fact, it’s probably more the opposite.
Here’s the problem with a lot of disinformation campaigns or conspiracy theories: they’re often based on a single fact, or a few facts, that might be true. Then people interpret them in weird ways without checking any further proof facts and speculations run wild. I think people should be critical consumers of information in that they should try to get their information from the most reliable sources they can find and then diversify those sources. In other words, don’t just take the word from one source. Listen to a variety of different sources, or read a variety of different sources, so you can find the best possible perspective.
Carpenter: I think you have to find reliable sources. When I say trustworthy, I don’t mean people you like, or people who are popular just because they’re popular and you go with their first “hot catch”. You need to find professional, knowledgeable people to assess – and that can take time. It’s really important that you’re also willing to accept things that are going to be uncomfortable, that you’re willing to listen to things that may not affirm your view of the world or the trajectory you think the situation should take. Events don’t really care how you feel, so it’s important that you’re prepared to find sources that challenge you.
Zompetti: Many people will hear, especially when browsing their social media feeds, about the role of propaganda, disinformation and cyber warfare attacks. I want people to understand that it’s no small feat, that in the 21st century, the use of information and knowledge as a tool, as a weapon for political and military purposes, is now a reality. Of course, the propaganda has been around for centuries, but it has never been used to the extent that it is now, or that we might see. So when people entertain things like conspiracy theories or disinformation and misinformation and don’t critically question what’s going on, they’re really doing themselves a disservice. It’s really part of this much bigger problem that we all have a part to play in: making sure that this information is as accurate and verifiable as possible – and protecting and preserving it. Because that’s ultimately one of the ways we can fight the bully.
The STOP method
Carpenter: There’s a researcher and specialist in civic engagement and disinformation by the name of Mike Caulfield and he actually came up with a great assessment method called SIFT.
The first thing he says is Stop — slow down, don’t share right away.
The next thing in the acronym is Investigate The source. It’s one of the hardest things we can do in this process because we know there’s a lot of bias. By investigating the source, we can say, “Where did this information come from? Especially right now, because we have plenty of players on the wider social web who are intentionally trying to sow the seeds of mistrust.
The third is To find better coverage. This one is interesting because it doesn’t assume that you have wrong or bad information, but what it says is that there could be corrections. Especially when hearing early reports or breaking news, there may be information that is not yet fully understood, or inaccurate but accurate at this time based on the information provided. We need to be able to slow down and ask if there are other people on the ground saying the same thing.
Finally, the last part of this SIFT assessment method is what is called Trace, which means tracing claims, quotes and media to their original context. And that goes to the classic idea of, say, images potentially distorting things. We see a lot on social media where someone will share, say, in the event of a war, pictures of destroyed buildings or vehicles. What we’ve seen in a lot of cases is that people share things, want attention, and just share a photo they find on Google and say, “That’s something I see right now. moment”. It’s really important that when you see an image like this, that you research the caption, look at the date it was posted and created, and use tools like Google’s reverse image search to find the original source in many cases that you can.
We see this method used with great success in many spaces – not just college classrooms. I think it’s something that anyone can do a really good job with.
Zompetti: So much is happening and everything is changing so quickly, but I just want to point out that this idea of misinformation is no longer something we can brush off. It’s a completely different world and while on the one hand it’s great, I’m also worried that so much information is making us lose sight of some of the most important things.
Carpenter: Another thing I can recommend is taking breaks. It’s a very, very depressing thing. It’s very heavy. What is happening right now is beyond many of our abilities to comprehend. It feels like there’s not a lot of action we can take and it can be difficult, it can take us to very dark places. Take this knowledge, at this point, and find ways to help others, especially as you consume a lot of bad and dark news.