Social Media's Fact-Checking of the Russian Invasion of Ukraine Called Into Question by Conservatives

One day after Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, the official Twitter account of the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense tweeted video of an enemy plane being shot out of the sky with a caption that read, "MiG-29 of the Air Force of the Armed Forces destroys the 'unparalleled' Su-35 of the Russian occupiers."

Within hours, online sleuths pointed out that the footage was actually from a video game called Digital Combat Simulator World. But six days later, the Tweet was still there, and it was being retweeted with abandon.

Conservative critics say Twitter, which boasts frequently about cracking down on misinformation, is more diligent when the false assertions benefit Russia than when they benefit Ukraine, as are other social-media firms.

Facebook, for example, has said that it is "prohibiting ads from Russian state media and demonetizing their accounts," while Twitter has said it would label links from state-backed Russian outlets, but neither of them has mentioned repercussions for Ukrainian misinformation.

Twitter and Facebook did not respond to Newsweek emails for comment.

Some experts say pro-Ukrainian comments might be getting fewer complaints. Plus, those in support of Ukraine get a pass because it's presumed they're making honest mistakes while Russia has a history of propaganda, said John Pitney, the Roy P. Crocker professor of American politics at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, California.

"There is a difference between misinformation and deliberate disinformation," said Pitney. "For years, Russia's Internet Research Agency has been putting out fake social media posts in an effort to create divisions in the U.S. and other Western countries."

Only a handful of outlets, primarily conservative ones, are taking on fake news that is pro-Ukrainian, among the earliest coming from the magazine The Federalist.

"Corporate media have conveniently glossed over the large swaths of disinformation, war propaganda and fake news plaguing sites like Twitter because it supports their warmongering agenda," Jordan Boyd wrote on February 28 in The Federalist.

Boyd said Twitter allowed users to claim a Russian airstrike "caused a chain reaction at the Luhansk power plant," though video proved the images were actually from an incident seven years ago in China. She, among others, also noted that Ukrainian soldiers on Snake Island who told off Russians weren't killed by their captors, as reported by users of Facebook and Twitter.

Those who point out pro-Ukraine information are vilified, she said. She got an ally Monday when Tucker Carlson on Fox News also slammed those who allow for anti-Russian, pro-Ukrainian disinformation.

"Everything feels like propaganda, and that's because much of it is," said Carlson, who acknowledged that his show was one of the many outlets to be duped.

"On Thursday, we told you that Russian forces had bombed a nuclear reactor in Ukraine," Carlson said Monday. "That seemed to be true. President (Volodymyr) Zelensky of Ukraine said it repeatedly. But it was not true. No reactors were hit. An unnamed Ukrainian official claimed that radiation levels in the area had risen. That turned out to be untrue, as well."

Carlson said he was fooled into reporting misinformation that was "designed to make you support the war against Russia ... Maybe you support a war against Russia anyway, but you should at least know you're being lied to and manipulated."

He also noted the Twitter hashtags "#standwithukraine" and "#handsoffukraine" accompanied photos of Anastasiia Lenna, who was crowned Miss Grand Ukraine in 2015 and is appearing on the Internet posing in fatigues with a rifle, ready to fight invading Russians.

"It would be more inspiring if it were real. It wasn't. It was fake," Carlson said Monday. "Miss Ukraine wasn't defending her homeland. That wasn't a rifle; it was an air-soft gun ... it was a propaganda shoot. It was meant to deceive you. It was meant to make you want war with Russia."

"It works," he added. "That's why they do it. That's why the tech companies have censored so many news sites ...Twitter and Facebook are proudly censoring any information that might, quote, undermine trust in the Ukrainian government. Really? Since when are we required to trust the Ukrainian government?"

Social-media fact checks have been a sore spot for conservatives for years now, thus Carlson and The Federalist may be singing an old tune but applying it to a new topic, that being Russia's invasion of Ukraine. In December, Facebook acknowledged while defending itself against a lawsuit brought by journalist John Stossel that its fact-checks "constitute protected opinion," prompting conservatives to say they are useless in determining fact from fiction.

Other misleading pro-Ukrainian images that have been circulated online include that of a woman holding a rifle on a bus while checking her phone, meant to show a new normal for Ukrainians as citizens take up arms in defense of their country, though the weapon was fake. Also, a photo of Ukrainians praying in the snow has been online since 2019, though recently it has been falsely tied to the Russian invasion that began last month, according to multiple sources.

Another video posted on Facebook and Twitter shows Ukrainian soldiers destroying Russian equipment stored in Ukraine, but the footage is actually two years old and from Syria, also according to multiple sources.

"We're supposed to think this is a victory over (Russian President Vladimir) Putin or something. But a victory over what?" Carlson asked on Monday, with Facebook and Twitter logos on the screen behind him. "Less information? Fewer perspectives? If getting to the truth was the point of the exercise, we as American citizens would be able to read whatever we wanted to read."

Volodymyr Zelensky
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky (left) has emerged as a new hero during Vladimir Putin's war against the country. While both sides spread false narratives, some conservatives complain that social-media giants only censor misinformation when it benefits Russia. EMMANUEL DUNAND-AFP/Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images