The Weaponization of Social Media

The Weaponization of Social Media

We Are All Globally Connected:

Because we are all globally connected news junkies, this war is being played out in real-time on social media. Everyone has a phone and most everyone has access to social media. It’s as if you’re right there in the middle of all the fighting. Live social media streams and posts from people within the Ukraine top Google’s search algorithms and highlight some of the most up-to-date news on the war.  For example, Maksim Chmerkovskiy, one of the professional dancers on the Dancing with the Stars live-streamed Russian tanks rolling in Ukraine from his personal instagram account. And so with over 1 million followers his video went viral in minutes. Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine’s current president is a social media mogul. By choosing YouTube, Instagram and Facebook as the main platforms for communication, Zelensky has benefited from the social media’s flexibility and championed the way his message is presented in public.

To add to that, Russian tennis superstar and currently no 1 in the word Daniil Medvedev used social media to communicate to his millions of followers how there should be peace not war. Finally, recycled in many Facebook feeds and retweeted thousands of times NHL star Alex  Ovechkin responds to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine saying he would like peace. It’s obvious that Putin underestimated the influence of social media on this war. And I think it’s one thing to wage war with a powerful army using 20th century means but another thing to factor in the 21st century and social media and the fact that virtually every moment, every inch of this aggression is being captured and being shared and spread on every social media platform available around the world.  It’s like everyone has a front row seat since social media seems to be the fabric of our society. I mean you even got the kids of some of the Russian oligarchs posting on their social media denouncing this war. Other billionaires close to the Kremlin are voicing their opinions on social media and urging an end to the war. So, to say this war has been fought using social media is an understatement.

Is our reliance on social media is always a good thing?

Absolutely not. Case in point: After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine officially began, social media was flooded with photos of bombed out buildings, first-person accounts from Ukrainian civilians fleeing their homes, and even videos purporting to be from soldiers engaged in the fighting. Users were left to sort through what might be real or old, fake or manipulated content meant to sow confusion and discord in a conflict that is being waged in part through the use of propaganda. In one instance, a video appearing to show a soldier parachuting into the conflict went viral on TikTok, racking up millions of views. It was later debunked by an NBC reporter stating it had originally been posted to Instagram about seven years ago. Also, last week video game streamers were caught passing off video game footage as live from Ukraine.  They were since removed by Facebook. So as you can see there is much disinformation out there and social media is one of those main outlets.

What responsibilities do the big tech giants play in all of this?

The social media companies should be making sure there’s no overt manipulation on their platforms, and then trying to surface accurate information, particularly within trends, to help the public understand what’s going on. The platforms being as transparent as they can be is very important this time around. Twitter and Facebook made statements that they have teams monitoring for misinformation, coordinated inauthentic behavior and other potential issues related to the conflict. Even with those preparations, there have already been some missteps. Just the other day, Ukraine’s official Twitter account requested that Russia’s official Twitter page be removed from the platform due to disinformation. Also, YouTube is facing scrutiny for allowing a Russian broadcaster who is widely viewed as part of the country’s propaganda machine to continue making money from ads on the video site. And TikTok, a service that didn’t even exist during the 2014 crisis in Ukraine over Russia’s annexation of Crimea, is now offering an unprecedented close-up of the front lines through videos — some authentic, others not so much. So, as you can see there are issues.

How can we make sure the news we read is accurate?

First you want to consider the source. Just relying on one source is not a good idea. Multiple sources from different but reliable news outlets is a better way to go. If it’s a social media site, check to see when the social media account was created. Newly created accounts with relatively few followers might be an indication that the site might not be reliable. 

Also you want to apply a critical eye to the information you are viewing. For instance, checking the date of content and looking to see if the audio and video are out of sync for a video clip could be an indicator.  Conducting what is called a reverse image search can help verify whether a photo is out of date or unconnected to a given event.

Finally you want to think before sharing. Social media platforms are optimized for users to click without thinking. If you’re feeling a lot of anger or fear or disgust or surprise, then that’s a sign that you need to stop and be extra careful about whether you forward something or share it because those emotions are usually what short circuits our critical thinking.

The bottom line here is, I don’t think there is one easy solution to determining fake news or disinformation on social media so consumers have to keep their guard up and understand that not everything they read is accurate. Learning how to judge news or determine the validity of social media content to protect oneself from consuming or sharing inaccurate information is a skill we all need to further develop. 



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