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InfoLit 101: The War in Ukraine on Social Media

Question: Is it true that in Lenin Square in Moscow they are gifting Volvos?

Answer: Yes, it is true, but with a slight modification. Not in Lenin Square in Moscow but in Moscow Square in Leningrad, not Volvos but Volgas, and not gifting but lifting.

(From Radio Yerevan jokes, source: word of mouth, translation J. H. Ward)

DISCLAIMER: This post contains examples that might be disturbing for audiences. The selection expresses the author’s intention to explain information literacy with current material.

Illustrating how communication used to work back in the day––it sounds funny, but no one feels like joking these days. An expression of resistance during Communism in the 20th century, such political jokes continued the German tradition of the “whisper joke voicing criticism of the totalitarian regime in the Nazi Germany. In both cases, what was used as a coping skill could easily have led to arrest, jail time, or, in the Soviet Union, forced labor camp, the infamous Gulag.

As Orwell wrote in Funny, but not Vulgar“every joke is a tiny revolution.” In the 21st century people turn to social media to share stories or express feelings: resistance, compassion, support, or just restlessness. Are you eager to post or retweet?

Hold your horses, check your sources!

In some countries there’s no persecution for spreading news while others strictly control the media, including social media. The Russian government recently blocked access to Twitter, Facebook, and multiple news sites to stop people from speaking out against the war in Ukraine. The government-supplied information, including lesson plans for teachers at all levels, is an unintentional treasure trove of cautionary examples for teaching information literacy and critical thinking.

Needless to say, we are talking about more than just the popular term “fake news.” Instead, malinformation, disinformation, disorientation, manipulation, wrong or no context, hoax, urban legends, myths, half-truths, deception, lies, conspiracy theories, satires, and plain old bullshit have been flooding the Internet for more than a week now. Well-meaning citizens inadvertently might become representatives of a side they didn’t mean to take.

Enter libraries teaching information literacy.

From its name the so-called CRAAP test might not sound like a terribly scholarly way evaluate resources, but serves its purpose very well. Currency, Relevance, Authority, Accuracy, and Purpose are the no-nonsense criteria to check the reliability of a source.

Images from the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2014 have often popped up in the past weeks along with the current ones, which means that careful media consumers should double-check the dates before reposting. The photo of baby strollers that Polish mothers have left at train stations for refugees to use does count as current and relevant as well as heart-warming. It can be confirmed to have been first posted on March 5, 2022 with Tin Eye, the reverse image search engine. A Telegram social media channel (graphic content, viewer beware) set up by the Ukrainian Ministry of Internal Affairs on February 26 provides images and videos of captured and deceased Russian troops, calling all mothers to “find their own”––providing either hope or closure to grieving families, and perhaps (the Ukranians hope) spurring them to antiwar activism. Looking up place names on Google Map helps one get oriented geographically.

Last but not least, one should always consider “Purpose” before reposting or retweeting and answer the proverbial question: Cui prodest––who benefits? It applies to bias, half truth, and hoaxes. The Lithuanian and Latvian ladies who have started to inundate dating apps by creating profiles in Russia? Their goal is the same as that of people from all over the world who add Google reviews about random Russian restaurants and cafés: to share information about what’s actually going on in the world with those completely cut off from other alternatives to state-sponsored news. These fake dating profiles and restaurant reviews are not actually a source of information about local singles or menu highlights; instead, they are spreading news of the invasion to Russian citizens who have been told it is merely a “special operation in the Donbas.”

A few more ideas to check news items are as follows.

  • Emergent, a real-time rumor checker, as a source for English-language content.
  • Google Street View on Google Maps can provide geographical and contextual information to news.
  • Snopes is probably the most often used site to check myths. It is regularly updated and contains relevant information.
  • Truth or Fiction follows stories as they emerge.

The following two tools are excellent to evaluate images and videos.

  • Tin Eye is a reverse image search engine. Upload an image or its URL to TinEye to find the source, track down how the image has been used since its first occurrence, and find its modified versions. TinEye index contains over 52.7 billion images. It is safe to use as the site never saves your images, and browser extensions are available.  Read more about how to use TinEye or watch the video.
  • InVID WeVerify is a knowledge verification platform to detect emerging stories and assess the reliability of newsworthy video files and content spread via social media, according to their homepage. The browser extension not only offers a reverse image search on search engines, but also allows fragmenting videos from various platforms (Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and Twitter) into keyframes. The enhanced keyframes and images can be explored through a virtual magnifying lens “to query Twitter more efficiently through time intervals and many other filters, to read video and image metadata, to check the video copyrights, and to apply forensic filters on still images.” Watch their video.

The viral story of the Ukrainian border guards who refused to surrender to the Russian battleship near Snake Island may sound similar to various lighthouse vs. battleship jokes, with a twist: it taught the world how to swear in Russian. Just like jokes, swearing is not only a coping mechanism, but an act of resistance in a crisis. However, before you buy the t-shirt or mug, you may want to verify whether your contribution will legitimately contribute to support Ukraine. But that’s another post.

*George Orwell: Funny, but not Vulgar. Leader. July 28, 1945.