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

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

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