The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Social media fuels new type of ‘fog of war’ in Ukraine conflict

Twitter, Telegram and Twitch make following war faster and easier than ever, but also are vulnerable to rapid-fire disinformation

A passenger at Boryspil International Airport outside Kyiv, Ukraine, follows news on Feb. 24 after Russian President Vladimir Putin authorized a military operation in Ukraine. (Umit Bektas/Reuters)
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Oliver Alexander, a Danish businessman working in a beachfront apartment in southern Portugal, is watching war play out more than 2,000 miles away in something like real time.

With Twitter on his computer and Telegram on his phone, a flood of videos allow him to identify Russian tanks rolling over Ukrainian bridges and Russian helicopter gunships blasting away at a Ukrainian airport.

Yet for all of the visuals surging across the Internet, Alexander is unsure whether they are helping most people understand events in far-off battlefields. The intensity and immediacy of social media are creating a new kind of fog of war, in which information and disinformation are continuously entangled with each other — clarifying and confusing in almost equal measure.

“If you’re a normal person, and you go onto social media today, you’ll find it confusing,” said Alexander, 28, a mergers and acquisitions analyst for a start-up who for weeks has been spending his spare time analyzing Russian videos online for signs of fabrications. “If you don’t follow this in depth, you can be misinformed because there’s so much information being shot out in all directions.”

Alexander has become an expert at seeing the often-subtle differences between Russian and Ukrainian tanks and weaponry. He’s learned to identify key Ukrainian landmarks. Most of all, he’s learned to study the latest videos for clues to what’s happening on the ground, while ignoring the written or spoken commentary he says is often misleading.

The torrent of social media posts during Thursday’s attack on Ukraine harked back to the first live TV broadcasts of the Persian Gulf War, when visceral video of missile strikes helped usher in a new era of military reporting — and brought a foreign war into American living rooms.

But the modern combination of smartphones, social media and high-speed data links now are providing images that are almost certainly faster, more visual and more voluminous than in any previous major military conflict.

They’ve also brought, experts say, new efforts to deceive, and the new conflict is unfolding alongside an aggressive and widely distributed campaign of disinformation that makes it hard for crowdsourcing to establish facts on the ground.

“Best to turn on cable news to get information than the wasteland of social media right now,” tweeted Joan Donovan, the research director at Harvard University's Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy.

She added in an interview that accounts supportive of Russia have already been working to share old videos and photos — taken out of context and repackaged with false descriptions — at the same time and with the same hashtags as people’s authentic footage from the real world.

Donovan said the goal is to confuse the public and shape the narrative toward Russian interests. And it works when well-intentioned people, glued to the news and eager to contribute but confused about what’s right, inadvertently help spread propaganda to their own followers.

Independent sleuths known as “open-source investigators,” meanwhile, have used photos and videos from social media to pinpoint the movements of Russian military forces on online maps in real time. To verify the footage, groups such as the Center for Information Resilience, in London, have scrutinized geolocation records and matched the videos’ background scenery to real-world data on Google Earth.

The mass mobilization of Russian military forces has been broadcast for weeks on TikTok, with hundreds of videos from nearby onlookers showing the movement of tanks, ballistic missiles and armored fighting vehicles.

And hours before dawn Thursday in Ukraine, people began noticing that Google Maps, which analyzes phone movements to estimate road traffic, had alerted to a traffic jam near the Ukrainian border. Russian military vehicles were on the move — even before President Vladimir Putin had announced the attack in an early-morning address on Russian national television Thursday.

Jeffrey Lewis, a professor specializing in arms control and nonproliferation at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in California, tweeted that he suspected the mapping algorithm was responding to the movements of civilian drivers getting stuck at military roadblocks. Google did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

As the invasion started — and online notices reported the closure of airspace in eastern Ukraine — millions looked to Twitter for reports from the front lines. The platform helped carry the images of antiwar protesters in Russian cities that government officials there are working to suppress: One photo, of journalist Sofya Rusova holding an antiwar sign saying, “War with Ukraine is Russia’s disgrace,” has been viewed, liked and retweeted tens of thousands of times.

Twitter also helped Ukrainian citizens broadcast their fear and worry to a global audience as explosions rocked the country. Journalist Nastya Stanko tweeted in Ukrainian around 4 a.m. that her 1-year-old son was sleeping next to her, adding, “Like my child in this city, there are tens of thousands of children sleeping by their mothers’ sides.”

Officials with Facebook’s parent company Meta said they are setting up a “special operations center” to remove rule-breaking content and have rolled out a one-click tool that Ukrainians can use to lock down their accounts.

An official Twitter account on Wednesday began tweeting instructions in Ukrainian on how to delete accounts, disable location services and set up security measures like two-factor authentication. And Ukraine’s official account solicited donations for the Ukrainian army and urged people to tweet at Russia to “tell them what you think about them.”

But Twitter also helped amplify arguments seeking to dismiss or defend Russian attacks, despite efforts by the company, it has said, to defend against the use of “synthetic and manipulated media.”

One Twitter account that has routinely boosted Chinese government talking points, SpicyPandaAcc, posted a video of Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying questioning whether the United States and NATO had ever thought about the “consequences of pushing a big country to the wall.”

A newer slew of video apps also offered an unusually intimate look. On the video-sharing app Snapchat, which allows people to broadcast their videos onto a real-world “Snap Map,” one man in Kyiv shared footage of empty streets. “What will I do now?” he asked.

On the live-streaming platform Twitch, audiences flocked to Russian-language streamers who were providing running commentary on new information as it trickled in, mostly across the social platform Telegram, which is popular in Russia.

In one stream, the host poked fun at the formalities on display in a video of the Belarusian president, Alexander Lukashenko, addressing his cabinet. In another, a popular video game streamer delivered commentary to an audience of nearly 25,000 viewers as he watched a new YouTube video from the Russian stand-up comedian Danila Poperechny titled, “No to War.”

“In chat I can see people throwing in clearly unverified information,” said the streamer, Viktor Agarok, as he cycled between tabs open to Telegram and CNN’s YouTube channel. “The most important thing is not to panic, and to be discerning.” Earlier in the stream, he cautioned viewers that he wasn’t an informed political observer or a historian and that he was simply aggregating other commentators’ perspectives.

Russia has sought to tighten its grip on global perceptions. The communications regulator Roskomnadzor has threatened bans and fines for journalists who cite anyone other than “official Russian sources.”

International audiences also have criticized U.S.-based tech companies for giving the Russian government megaphones. On Facebook, pages run by RT, the Moscow-based Web and TV outlet that echoes Kremlin talking points in multiple languages, have received millions of views and hundreds of thousands of interactions in the past week, according to data from CrowdTangle.

As the invasion surged, people called again for the tech giants to stop hosting RT and similar state-backed networks. On YouTube, RT’s main channel has more than 4.5 million subscribers, and its videos have been viewed more than 3 billion times since 2007.

“If you grew up during the Cold War, it’s hard to imagine an American company knowingly pushing Russian propaganda into our homes, but here we are,” tweeted Sleeping Giants, an activist group that organizes online boycotts and advertiser pressure campaigns to push social causes and undermine the far right.

The battle to shape discussion around the war also surged onto the discussion-board giant Reddit, where the volunteer moderators of the r/Russia subreddit, which has 250,000 subscribers, banned all political and military posts Wednesday, saying they wanted “to avoid provocations.”

The moderators also removed most of the comments on a thread announcing the decision and later locked it to further discussion. Many of the top posts there now focus on lighthearted issues, such as Russian art and architecture. The moderators directed users to another subreddit, r/RussiaPolitics, that has become an active but smaller forum for debate about the war. A Reddit spokesperson declined to comment.

The overall picture — compelling in its speed and granularity, vexing in its potential for manipulation — may take a while to resolve.

“If you know how to curate your menu and your feed, it’s probably adding more visibility than confusion,” said Thomas Rid, a professor of strategic studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. “We only will know if that’s definitely true in a couple of weeks.”

Mikhail Klimentov and Elizabeth Dwoskin contributed to this report.