I draw five lessons. First, we should recognise that a lot of disinformation is absurdly simple. For many decades, people have fretted about “damned lies and statistics”, fearing that cleverly manipulated data was the ultimate weapon of disinformation. More recently there has been something of a panic about “deepfake” video technology. But it doesn’t take a master of video effects to fool us. For a receptive or distracted audience, a simple lie will do.
A lot of the disinformation that is circulating is kindergarten-level stuff: clips from computer games or relabelled footage. UkraineFacts.org, a collaboration between fact-checking organisations, has hundreds of examples, including video of paratroopers filmed years ago in North Carolina, a photo of a Soviet-era missile taken in a museum, and footage from the movie Deep Impact. The camera may not be lying, but the caption is.
Such “recontextualised media” are ideally suited to social sharing. TikTok’s main function, for example, is to make it easy to edit then share clips of media, stripped of their original context.
Second, we should slow down and pay attention both to the claim and to our reaction. We don’t fall for misinformation because we’re stupid but because we’re emotionally aroused. We can often spot the lie if we think calmly. But if we are angry, fearful, lustful or laughing out loud, calm thinking is what we don’t do.
Third, we have allies in our fight for the truth. There’s a growing movement of diligent independent fact-checkers, and there are also people out there called “journalists” whose job it is to figure out what is going on. Some of them are pretty good at what they do, and some of them are risking their lives right now to do it.
Fourth, we must remember that indiscriminate disbelief is at least as damaging as indiscriminate belief. It might seem smart to reject every claim as potential disinformation, but it is wiser to try to figure out the difference between truth and lies.
Indeed, disinformation is often designed less to con the gullible, and more to force us all into a reflexive crouch, instinctively rejecting the very idea that the truth will ever be known. Few people are fooled by clumsy footage of a fake President Zelensky ordering Ukrainians to surrender, but rather more will go on to reject footage that is perfectly genuine.
The non-profit news organisation ProPublica recently reported the phenomenon of fake fact-checking. Social media posts, amplified by Russian state TV, appear to be fact-checkers debunking Ukrainian disinformation. In reality, they are themselves disinformation, debunking claims that were never made.