Blog | Disinformation, Propaganda, and the War in Ukraine

Headshot of Sarah E. Morris

Sarah Morris is the head of instruction and engagement at the Emory University Libraries and has focused on media literacy education and misinformation for the past decade. She is currently partnering with The Carter Center to develop media literacy education resources.

The war in Ukraine is a terrible situation that is keeping many of us glued to our devices, looking for updates and ways to help Ukraine. Unfortunately, large amounts of misinformation, disinformation, and propaganda are swirling around, creating confusion and disruption.

How can you spot and prevent the spread of dangerous mis/disinformation and propaganda and support high-quality, factual coverage and reporting on the war? The five tips below can help.

Be extra thorough with fact-checking

Fact-checking online information is a good habit to develop to ensure that you consume and share credible information. During periods of turmoil, it is crucial to take some extra time to verify information and whether the people producing and sharing it are trustworthy. There are two major reasons for this:

  • First, mis/disinformation and propaganda can run rampant during turmoil and war. Russia has launched extensive disinformation and propaganda campaigns to try to justify its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. Taking a few extra moments to make sure that you aren’t inadvertently falling for, or sharing, false information can make a difference.
  • Second, conflicts can be fast-moving and confusing. Reputable media outlets take pains to report accurately, but even they can make mistakes during a fast-paced, chaotic situation.

Be alert for these tactics in your feeds

  • False flags: A false flag is when a group responsible for a military or political operation blames their opponent for it. Russia has been running a range of false-flag operations, saying that Ukraine is attacking its own nuclear power facilities (false) or that it is attacking civilians trying to evacuate cities (also false). If someone is flinging accusations, pay attention to who is being accused and if there is external confirmation of the attack or action.
  • Old news is new again: Reports, images, or video from other conflicts might crop up as alleged footage or evidence from the war in Ukraine. Be wary of video and images if you aren’t sure where they came from. Check for a date or source for the image or video.
  • Bots, Trolls, and Manipulation: With so much propaganda and mis/disinformation swirling around, it isn’t surprising that bots and trolls are popping up on various social media sites promoting Russian propaganda, engaging in “whataboutism” (a logical fallacy in which you derail a conversation by bringing up another topic, like arguing about Syria in a thread about Ukraine), or despair trolling (i.e. “World War III is upon us and we should all just give up hope”). These techniques are designed to stoke fear, confusion, despair, and inaction, and are a form of psychological warfare. Be wary of suspicious accounts or content that seems emotionally manipulative or designed to derail a conversation.

Employ these fact-checking techniques to identity and stop the spread of mis/disinformation and propaganda

  • Check the source — including the author, publisher, or sharer of the information — to make sure they have expertise and a good reputation.
  • Check claims being made. A quick Google search to see if others are saying the same thing (or if they have debunked the information) can make a huge difference.
  • Wait before sharing. While it might be tempting to share information the second you see it, pause to check your information and make sure it is correct before sharing.

Be wary of propaganda

Propaganda is commonly used during times of war to demonize an opponent or drum up support. The Russian government is promoting a range of dangerous and harmful narratives to justify its illegal invasion of Ukraine and to vilify its targets. But the government of Ukraine also is using propaganda techniques to share stories of heroism, bolster morale, request aid, etc. This is understandable — even admirable — but it is worth being aware that a Ukrainian government source might have different motives than a news outlet like the BBC.

In addition to propaganda coming directly from Russia’s state-run media, you should be aware of Russian narratives coming from other sources, some of which are spread because of lack of fact-checking, or sincere belief in the lie, or other motives (for example, in the U.S., some far-right media or politicians might use propaganda narratives to attack or discredit their opponents).

Here are some propaganda narratives to look out from on in your feeds:

  • Nazis and NATO: Much Russian government propaganda is centered around external “threats” to Russia and grievances Russia has with NATO. You’ll hear that Ukraine is filled with Nazis (calling back to a traumatic historical threat to Russia) and that NATO is a sinister entity threatening the sovereignty and security of Russia.
  • Neighbors and Protection: Russia is also attempting to downplay the war. It’s a “special operation”; they are just trying to support and protect Russians in eastern Ukraine; they want to reunite with their neighbor, etc.
  • Z imagery: The “Z” symbol has become a sign of pro-Kremlin sentiment and is cropping up as an expression of support for Putin/the Kremlin/Russia/the war. The exact meaning or origin of the “Z” symbol is being debated, but it has become associated with support for Putin and his illegal invasion.

Promote credible, independent media

Putin’s government has shuttered free media and is severely restricting access to social media. Independent media is a cornerstone of a free and democratic society, and these developments are alarming not just for the citizens of Russia but for all who value democracy and free and open societies. You can help by sharing information from media outlets and accounts doing the difficult and often dangerous work to report accurately on the war in Ukraine.

Remember, taking time to verify your sources and pay attention to what you see can help prevent the spread of harmful mis/disinformation and propaganda at a time when facts and clarity are crucial.

Related Resources

Blog | Russia-Ukraine Conflict a Reminder of Need for Digital Geneva Convention »
Story | Center Fights Digital Threats to Democracy, Human Rights »
Carter Center Conflict Resolution Program »
Carter Center Democracy Program »