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5 tips for spotting misinformation amidst Russian conflict

The recent invasion in Ukraine sparked concerns over how Russia may manipulate social media to spread misinformation.

PHOENIX — Misinformation has always been around and is becoming easier to spread thanks to the proliferation of social media. 

The recent conflict between Russia and Ukraine has introduced new digital campaigns that are being launched to try and control the narrative of the international discord.  

Researchers have already noticed an uptick in social media posts accusing Ukraine of plotting genocide against ethnic Russians, according to the New York Times.

Online posts and articles calling Ukrainians "neo-Nazis" have been significantly increasing since November and may continue to do so as tensions start to escalate across eastern Europe.  

Julie Smith, an instructor at Webster University and author of "Master the Media: How Teaching Media Literacy Can Save Our Plugged-in World," said Russia's modern tactics are no different than when warring nations would drop pieces of propaganda from the sky.    

"What the Russians are doing now is the digital equivalent of dropping leaflets from airplanes," she said.

In order to help citizens avoid falling victim to misinformation, Smith shared some tips on how to navigate today's complicated media landscape. 

RELATED: Why is Russia invading Ukraine?

1. Does the content make you angry?

The creators of misinformation are typically trying to elicit a strong emotional response from readers by writing eye-catchy headlines or publishing social media posts in large block letters. 

Smith said readers should be skeptical whenever they come across a piece of media that makes them feel incredibly angry or upset. 

"That's your first clue that you should probably check it out for authenticity," Smith said.

Readers should investigate the media's creator by browsing through their website for an "About Us" page and verify what type of motive they may have for producing content, Smith said.  

2. Check for strange grammar

An article or social media post with missing works and incorrect grammar is a clear sign that it may have been created by someone attempting to influence a foreign audience. 

After the U.S. presidential election in 2016, Twitter removed up to 50,000 Russia-linked accounts suspected of propagating automated material about American politics, according to The Guardian. 

Accounts created overseas can be easy to detect if the creator doesn't use English grammatical articles like "a" or "the," Smith said. 

3. Timestamp on visuals

The spreaders of misinformation will often recycle and manipulate old images to emphasize their message. 

Some images circulating online after the recent attack in Ukraine have already been scrutinized by internet fact-checkers. 

Smith said readers should check the date and time of an online photo to see if it matches with when the article was written. 

If a reader is suspicious the photo might be fake, Smith said they should utilize online photo search engines to prove its authenticity. 

Resources for analyzing photos:

For analyzing videos:

4. Consult digital resources 

Smith said creators spreading misinformation will often misrepresent themselves by proclaiming to be associated with an existing institution. 

If a creator knows their targeted audience has an appreciation for the military, Smith said they'll present their website or account as being connected to the armed forces. 

Thankfully, the internet already has lots of resources available to help readers track down who's creating the content that's coming into their news feed. 

"There are loads of fact-checking websites that are worth checking out," Smith said.

For checking specific stories:

5. Ask questions 

Perhaps the best piece of advice experts can give readers is to be more critical and inquisitive about the media they see. 

"What we're encouraging people to do is ask questions about all the media they're consuming," Smith said.

Readers should consider the types of sources cited on a website, the profits being made off the content, and who the content seems to be targeting. 

Smith said misinformation is not going away any time soon, so it's up to everyone to be more vigilant about sussing out propaganda. 

"I don't think that we can outlaw it, and I don't think that we can outrun it. So we have to outsmart it," she said. "That's our only option."

More resources 

For analyzing social media platforms:

For analyzing ads:

General Resources:

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