Researcher: Video, info from Russian invasion could be used as propaganda, psychological operations

Feb 26, 2022, 2:53 PM | Updated: Jun 13, 2022, 4:57 pm

SALT LAKE CITY — Social media has brought the front lines of the Russian invasion into Ukraine closer to home than ever before, with up-to-the-minute updates and graphic videos of the toll that has been inflicted.

From videos of jets firing missiles to images of the dead on the ground, Twitter has captured the opening days of the war in a way not fully seen in previous conflicts.

“We are getting a lot more real-time, updated information from the war, but that’s not going through a traditional media filter,” said Sean Lawson, an associate professor of communication at the University of Utah who studies the use of blogging and social networking by military and intelligence agencies, among other topics.

Lawson said the challenge is sorting through what’s real, what’s not, and what’s the intended message or objective behind individual social posts.

He acknowledged it’s possible those posts could be used to sway the audience in a particular direction, not unlike more traditional forms of propaganda and disinformation.

While noting that the Russians have been well-known to achieve this through the use of their state television as well as their outward media outlets, it’s possible for any side — or even interests on the outside — to twist the narrative.

“What the Russians are doing is totally illegal under international law. It’s a tragedy what’s happening here, there’s no excuse for it, but we have to keep in mind, in war, all sides will put out propaganda to bolster their own morale — to try to undermine the morale of the adversary, to try to gain allies and support from third parties, uncommitted people — and that’s just how war works,” Lawson said. “Some of the stories that we’re hearing about the ‘Ghost of Kyiv;’ and the sailors on that island that told the Russian warship to ‘go jump,’ to put it in a nicer way than the Ukrainians put it; and some of the other videos that have come out — the famous one now with the woman telling the Russians to put the sunflower seeds in their pocket — I mean, yeah, I love that stuff just like anyone else, but that’s propaganda.”

He said anyone could use information, images or video for their own purpose.

“The Ukrainians are just as capable of putting out propaganda to make their side look good as the Russians are,” Lawson said.

He said it is important for everyday consumers of social media to understand how it can be utilized to achieve objectives.

“Social media and the smartphones we carry in our pockets these days are one of the primary vehicles for psychological operations,” Lawson said. “There’s the sort of broader propaganda and disinformation landscape that’s sort of used to try to shape the broader information environment. But then during the actual conflict itself, it’s where you see more pointed, sort of psychological operations that are meant to try to throw the enemy off their game, sow confusion and chaos, decrease the adversary’s morale, and increasingly, there’s a social media and sort of smartphone component to that as well.”

Lawson said he’s seen examples of those carried out over Twitter as well as Telegram.

“I think this is another case where you kind of have to find some expert sources that you can follow online and in the news,” Lawson said. “This is sometimes a little bit easier with legacy news media because they’ve done a lot of that vetting for you, but, yeah, when people are providing commentary or analysis of how it’s going for either side, you really have to try to click and look and see who is this person, what is their affiliation, what kind of expertise are they claiming to have. And if you’re not really sure about that, then, again, just take it with a huge grain of salt, or just don’t pay attention to it at all and wait and see.”

As the war has progressed, some have even suggested checking the metadata of photos and videos shared to try to ensure their authenticity.

Lawson said he doesn’t fully trust something he sees until he’s seen it posted multiple times from outlets he trusts, and he urged others to tread cautiously as they try to become informed on the conflict.

“Try not to contribute to the broader problem of disinformation and sort of pollution of the information space,” Lawson said.

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Researcher: Video, info from Russian invasion could be used as propaganda, psychological operations