False info on Ukraine invasion spreads on social media

“I retweeted it in a knee-jerk reaction out of my hatred for Russia,” said the Japanese company employee living in California.

The man was speaking about retweeting a Twitter post on Feb. 24, the day that Russia began its brutal invasion of Ukraine. Along with a video of jets flying low in formation, the text describes the scene as Russian planes flying over the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv. As of Friday, the tweet had about 260 retweets and about 730 likes from users, including a number that could be Japanese.

But the tweet is a lie, and the man regrets his action. The video was originally from one that has been available on YouTube since 2020, showing what is described as the rehearsal of a parade in Moscow.

False and unsubstantiated information about Russia’s invasion is spreading among social media users in Japan. When such disinformation becomes rampant, it can distort public opinion, leading experts to call on people to refrain from indiscriminately spreading unconfirmed information.

The Japanese man in California, who is 43 and has been a Twitter user for more than a decade, said he tries not to spread false information. “I don’t want to spread fake news, so I usually check to some extent whether it is true.”

But in the case of the Russian jets, he came up short.

“I had been requested from a close Ukrainian friend to spread information about what is going on [in Ukraine],” he said. “But looking back, it’s not possible for airplanes to fly in such formation unless [Russia] had gained air superiority. It was careless.”

Keeping up with the lies

There are actions being taken to verify unreliable information.

The Tokyo-based nonprofit organization FactCheck Initiative Japan, which was established in 2017 by university professors and others, has accumulated more than 100 items of information about the Ukrainian situation. A collaborative partner determined that 13 items — including the “Russian jets flying over Kyiv” video — could be labeled as “false” or “inaccurate” and released the findings on a special website.

To prevent the spread of bogus information, Hosei University Prof. Jun Sakamoto, a specialist in media literacy, urges people to not blindly share or “like” information from sources not confirmed as reliable, and to dig into the background of the information provider by checking their profile and other means. He also recommends using Google’s image search tool and other methods to determine whether an image from the past is being posted.

“We’ve been flooded with so much false information that our fact-checking can’t keep up,” Sakamoto said. “It is important that individuals who receive information take whatever actions they can.”