Finding the truth: Europe’s first major war of social media era

Understanding international current events can be difficult, and as options for online news consumption have multiplied throughout the last decade, discerning the truth has become more challenging.

Additionally, the prevalence of news in social media feeds has increased news consumption, exacerbating the effects of “news fatigue.” Pew Research Center reported that about two-thirds of Americans feel worn out by the amount of news they encounter.

Worsening matters in the wake of this information influx, people often share material that feeds their confirmation bias or that they find most jarring, incentivizing opinion journalism and sensationalistic, questionable reporting. With few people taking the time to check facts or the veracity of what they read, we are seeing an epidemic of online sharing of false information, urban legends, and conspiracy theories.

Social media makes learning about world events convenient and widely accessible, but the proliferation of unchecked information has led to widespread misinformation and apathy. Another study conducted by researchers at SUNY Albany in 2019 concluded that “exposure to too much information makes people unmotivated to process the information.” Identifying relevant news among the masses of information accessible on social media platforms takes substantial time, energy, and effort that most users do not expend.

People’s increased dependence on social media for breaking news was highlighted by Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine last week. Several social media platforms have functioned as communication lifelines for those in Ukraine, allowing them to remain in contact with the rest of the world.

A 2020 report by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University identified a shift away from traditional news media sources that’s being led by the younger generation, in this case, people under 25 years old. Two-thirds of that cohort reported using Instagram for gathering news information. The same age cohort reported being two times more likely than older respondents to look at news on social media apps. This increasing dependence on social media for news corresponds with a decreasing trust in news media. As concluded by a Pew Research Center study from 2021, media trust across both political parties dropped 18% in just the past five years.

As Europe endures its first major war in the age of the modern internet, news consumption through social media has the potential to warp consumers’ perception of the conflict by spreading misinformation and insensitive content.

The influx of news on social media feeds can also desensitize consumers to the gravity of the situation. It’s easier to click past scenes from Kyiv without blinking twice when they’re mixed in with pictures from friends’ weekends and television show recaps, giving these devastating events an air of normalcy and leading consumers to underestimate their gravity.

The desensitizing effects of the abundance of information on social media shows in young Americans’ responses to learning of the conflict in Ukraine. Joking about being drafted into the military or World War III can only be funny to someone far enough from the threat of violence, both geographically and mentally, to not be impacted by the consequences of these events.

Many individuals on these platforms have the potential to reach and influence wide audiences, but very few of the big names in social media content creation are trained journalists.

Celebrities and influencers often feel obliged to comment on political events they have little knowledge of, detracting from the seriousness of the crisis. A stark example is American soap opera actress AnnaLynne McCord’s poem about how the Ukraine invasion wouldn’t have occurred if she were Putin’s mother.

“It’s just interesting the way that TikTok kind of connects younger audiences to politics and world events,” Nina Jankowicz, a researcher who works with the UK-based Centre for Information Resilience, said to Reuters, but she believes the online engagement is unlikely to lead to offline action.

Celebrity content creators who are manipulating media to make a name for themselves aren’t alone in their disregard for spreading relevant information. Some social media content creators are even capitalizing on the prevalence of fake and dramatized content regarding the conflict.

Scam pages, such as @livefromukraine and @POVwarfare on Instagram, prioritize going viral over delivering factual information on the conflict, while purporting to be run by journalists reporting from inside Ukraine. The accounts’ administrator, who refers to himself as Hayden and says he’s from Kentucky, told Input Magazine that what he is “trying to do is get as many followers as possible” and that he does not “really know what’s going on with all this political tension,” but is “trying to document what’s going on.”

He combs through the comment sections of videos to see if people have claimed they are fake to verify information. “I can’t really verify them myself,” he says of the videos he shares.

“They (his audience) believe anything that’s put in front of them. I’m putting up what I believe is accurate, and they can draw an opinion based on that.”

While social media connects people across the world in unprecedented ways, it has pitfalls. In the face of international affairs and wartime, the sharing of content through social media often lacks fact-checking and has the potential to dilute the severity of the situation in the eyes of unaffected consumers. Social media users should remain wary as information pertaining to important world events pops up on their timelines.