The Russian invasion of Ukraine has brought with it a deluge of disinformation and misinformation. Although it’s become routine for major events to generate fabricated news, images, and video, the war in Ukraine is featuring a whole new set of special circumstances that will influence how students react to fake media.
So, what do educators need to know and how can they help their students sort the fake from the real?
One big difference with the war in Ukraine is how prominent TikTok has suddenly become in spreading information via video—both real and fake, said Eisha Buch, the director of education programs for Common Sense Media, a nonprofit group that encourages better teaching of media literacy in schools. TikTok is a major source for news for teens and young adults.
TikTok’s audio sharing feature often used for lip-syncing—which is what made the app popular in the first place—makes it easy to overlay audio of gunshots or bombs exploding over other videos and make a video appear to be taken from a war zone when it’s not. And TikTok’s algorithm has swamped users’ feeds with Ukraine-related content. In recognition of the role TikTok is playing in disseminating information about the war in Ukraine, the Washington Post reported that the White House even held a briefing with top TikTok stars on the situation in Ukraine and the U.S. response.
“This has been dubbed the first TikTok war, but TikTok, Instagram, Facebook, all of these, are just rampant with false information and misinformation on the war,” said Buch.
Another distinction between the Russian invasion of Ukraine compared with misinformation and disinformation related to the 2020 election and the pandemic, is that this is a major news event featuring horrific images of victims of missile attacks, mothers with young children leaving the country as refugees, and Ukrainians arming themselves and fighting against the Russians.
“I think the type of content is very much pulling at our emotional heartstrings,” she said. “Which is one of those things to be mindful of when you’re trying to look for whether something is misinformation or not.”
Buch spoke with Education Week about the unique challenges presented by fake news regarding the war in Ukraine and what educators can do to address it. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
EdWeek: Why is it problematic when people are sharing videos that are generally accurate about the situation—what some call “truthy"—but include elements that are doctored, such as adding background audio of gunfire even though those attacks were not actually happening when the video was recorded?
Buch: One, it becomes complicated when we think that maybe it’s OK in some instances and not OK in some instances [to share fabricated content]. We don’t ask ourselves the critical questions in the times where it does matter: “Why am I seeing this? Why is this being served up to me? Are there potential intents or motives behind why this is happening?”
It’s critical no matter what content you’re seeing, even if it is potentially, as you said, “truthy.” It has deep implications on our values and identity and what we believe is true and then ultimately how we act.
We’ve been doing some work on how to talk to young people about conspiracy theories. There are the harmless conspiracy theories; the funny, silly ones; and there are the ones that are more dangerous if you were to share it or try to act on it in some way, thinking that you’re being civically engaged but you’re really following a conspiracy theory. There are deeper implications that come from blindly believing what you see online and not questioning it.
Why are these issues teachers should be aware of and addressing, especially in the context of the Russia-Ukraine war?
I think it’s so foundational to the types of skills and media literacy overall that we want educators to be teaching students. We see that as a core, important set of competencies that young people need to have. We call it digital citizenship, which is equipping young people with [the skills] to be using technology in safe, responsible, and pro-social ways.
It’s also an opportunity when we see all of this misinformation to use real life examples in the classroom to navigate and discuss and evaluate the credibility. There are so many connections to core subject areas. It’s one of those skills that can apply to any subject area.
In what ways is this exposure to war and horrific images of violence through social media affecting K-12 students?
We’re talking about all the negatives and the misinformation and fake news, but it has also been such a powerful avenue for authentic videos around what is actually happening.
It’s powerful because young people are more engaged, and understanding of what is happening, and they are not as removed from it, and they are trying to identify what do they care about, what are their values, how can they support, and how can they use their platform to help. There is a positive piece, too.
But I think your point, yes, there is overexposure to really intense and violent content and I think there has been a lot of general stress and emotional toll over the past two years from the pandemic.
What are your top tips for spotting disinformation and what questions should students (and adults) be asking themselves when they view content on social media?
Look for unusual URLs or site names, including those that end in a “dot co.” Those are trying to appear like legitimate sites but they’re not. A second tip is to look for signs of low quality—words in all caps, headlines that have grammatical errors, bold claims that have no sources, or really sensationalized images—those are signs or clues that you should be skeptical of the source.
Check a website’s “About Us” section. Find out who supports the site or who is associated with it. If this doesn’t exist and it requires you to register before you can learn anything about the backers, then that should be a red flag and you should wonder why they aren’t being transparent up front.
Consider whether other credible mainstream news outlets are reporting the same news—corroborate the story. If they’re not, it doesn’t mean that it’s not true, but it does mean you should definitely dig deeper.
The last one, which is also a question to ask yourself, is to check your emotions: click bait and fake news strives for extreme reactions. If the news is making you feel really angry, it could be a sign that you should dig deeper and check multiple sources.
Consider the diversity of backgrounds of your students. Depending upon the news ... different kids may respond and react differently to what they are seeing and hearing, especially if they have differences in their family backgrounds or situations.
These are tips or strategies for spotting fake news or misinformation in articles. But to how we talked about in the beginning, how are young people finding this fake news? If it is on social media, it does become a little bit harder.
To me, that’s where it’s more about what are the questions you’re asking yourself. So, do you understand how the algorithm works? [For instance, some social media algorithms tend to flood users with information that tends to confirm their worldviews rather than question them, creating a sort of information echo chamber.] What am I seeing? What content is being served up to me? Why is this content being served up to me? And that, to me, goes back to the idea of, do you understand how the algorithm works?
And then being able to, of course, try to corroborate those stories. You can do reverse image searches to really see whether the images are fake or not. There are ways even through social media that you can do additional steps to check the credibility of what you’re seeing.
In terms of questions. Asking yourself, “what’s the difference between a theory and an actual conspiracy? Why is this so appealing to me?” Notice your gut reaction. Is there a motive behind the person or the source who is putting this information out there? Is there potentially an ulterior motive?
Can you go into more detail about the difference between a theory and a conspiracy?
An actual conspiracy is one that can be proven with evidence. There might be some type of historical papers that get revealed that show X, Y, or Z actually happened. A theory is just there’s no evidence to back it. That comes to the bigger piece of, if you’re being told something, try to go corroborate, try to go figure out what can I do to actually prove that this is true.
And one other piece, especially as we see things unfold with the war, be mindful of the 24-hour news cycle, and how when things are evolving on a minute-by-minute basis. The role of journalists is to report on the ground as things happen, but we have to understand that that comes with a level of uncertainty around what is going on.
Anything else you want educators to know?
I think they should consider their own reactions. Like, students look to teachers to see how they are handling shocking news, and so show students that you approach the news, even if it’s disturbing, that you approach it thoughtfully and with a critical eye and that you have curiosity and are going to ask key questions and that you’re trying to stay rational so you are modeling what you want students to be doing.
Be proactive, so when discussing a distressing or potentially controversial topic, it’s best to have done some classroom community building work, specific to being able to discuss challenging topics before having that discussion in the class. So, how are you creating that culture before diving into, “hey, let’s talk about the war in Ukraine.” [You want] to set them up to have active listening skills, to be able to communicate with civility with each other, to be able to explore perspectives, to have a constructive conversation.
Then, I would say consider the diversity of backgrounds of your students. Depending upon the news, whatever the news is, different kids may respond and react differently to what they are seeing and hearing especially if they have differences in their family backgrounds or situations. Be mindful of one’s own potential biases and just remember that students may not interpret events all in the same way.