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Fact-checking fake videos of Ukraine conflict

By Tara Subramaniam, CNN

The way the conflict in Ukraine has unfolded across social media has made it hard for many people to figure out what’s real and what’s not. Cell phone videos from locals have circulated on Twitter, Facebook and TikTok, but some of the videos alleging to depict the situation on the ground in Ukraine have turned out to be fake.

Many showcase old footage from elsewhere instead, while some even used scenes from video games.

To combat misinformation around Ukraine, Facebook set up a “Special Operations Center” Thursday afternoon to respond to war-related activity and “remove content that violates our Community Standards faster,” while Twitter shared tips for using its platform in conflict zones.

Texas A&M University professor Jennifer Mercieca, whose research focuses on propaganda and political rhetoric, said it’s not a surprise that a conflict involving Russia includes what she calls “information warfare.”

“Information warfare was always going to be a part of this,” Mercieca said. “Obviously the Russians have been highly evolving their information war operations over the last five or six years. We certainly have seen the effects of that on US politics, on Brexit, on other kinds of campaigns around the world.”

While information warfare is not new, according to Mercieca the extent to which misinformation currently is being spread is a consequence of the sheer volume of information about the situation in Ukraine available across different forms of media.

“What’s different now is that there are so many more nodes for the distribution of propaganda,” Mercieca told CNN. “We have the problem that we always have on social media of having too much information and not being able to sort through that and filter it to say what is real and what is not real. One thing that we always observe when there’s a crisis or a natural disaster is that people will circulate content that they know is fake.”

This has proven especially true for the current conflict. Journalists have debunked several viral videos of old footage often from other conflicts being shared on social media and even in one case on TV as if they reflect the situation on the ground.

Here are three such examples:

  • NBC News reporter Ben Collins who covers disinformation debunked a video of a parachuting soldier with over 20 million views on TikTok, where the top comment suggested he was “recording an invasion.” The same video was posted in August 2015 by an Instagram account with the same username and what looks to be the same profile picture as the TikTok account. The original poster has since made his TikTok account private but videos by other accounts which include clips of the original video are still viewable, including one which has over 31,000 likes where the text overlaid on top of the original video implies the footage is of the ongoing conflict, with the individual expressing shock that they’re “watching a war on TikTok.” That shock would be understandable, except in this case, they aren’t actually watching footage of war.
  • Multiple videos have claimed to show Russian aircraft flying in formations over Kyiv, but a reverse image search of screenshots from the videos suggest it’s footage from a flyover in Moscow ahead of a Russian holiday celebration. Clips from the posts also match a YouTube compilation of military planes entitled “Flyby Moscow (May 04, 2020).” The videos, which were initially fact-checked by USA Today, are now flagged as false information on Facebook. One of the videos was captioned “Russian Jets in the skies of Kiev,” another “Russian planes are flying over the skies of #Kiev, the capital of Ukraine.” Both videos had over 700 views.
  • On Newsmax’s “National Report” Thursday, host Shaun Kraisman said, “You’re seeing some of that thermal imaging there just of tanks, troops on the ground as this is just getting underway.” However, the video Newsmax aired is not of Ukraine but of Syria in 2020. Christiaan Triebert, who is part of The New York Times visual investigations team, noted on Twitter that the footage was a mirrored version of a 2020 video showing a Syrian convoy of tanks destroyed by UAVs. Newsmax cited the source of the video as “Ukrainian Armed Forces.” Though a Twitter account with a similar name did share the footage on Thursday, the 2020 video was originally from the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs and posted by Clash Report.

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