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Media Malpractice and Information War in Ukraine

As much of the world rallies behind Ukrainians defending their country against a Russian invasion, mainstream news outlets and social media in the United States and elsewhere have been awash in tales of Ukrainian heroism. The Ukrainian defense against a much larger force has indeed been inspiring, but all conflicts include informational warfare—from all sides. Some of the most widely shared images and stories of Ukrainian resistance have fallen apart under scrutiny or in the face of subsequent reporting, yet many who are rightly skeptical of Russian claims are displaying very little caution about pronouncements from the other side, leading to a wave of credulous media coverage that serves to propagandize more than illuminate.

In the opening days of the invasion, no story was more prominent than that of the Ukrainian soldiers giving their lives to defend a small island in the Black Sea from a Russian warship. When asked over the radio to disarm and surrender, the soldiers responded with “Russian warship, go fuck yourself”—their supposedly final act of defiance before the ship opened fire and killed all the soldiers on Snake Island. Audio of the confrontation, shared by Ukrainian officials, received almost universal and laudatory coverage in Western media and became a viral sensation online. If the made-for-TV moment seemed almost too good to be true, that’s because it partly was. Just days after the soldiers were “posthumously” honored, Ukrainian officials revealed that the group was still alive and in Russian custody—just as the Russian defense ministry had said all along.

The heroic last stand on Snake Island is far from the only misinformation or propaganda to be passed around uncritically. A widely shared video of the so-called “Ghost of Kyiv” shooting down Russian fighter jets turned out to be from a combat simulator video game, and fact-checkers have not been able to confirm whether the “Ghost of Kyiv” even exists. A member of the European Parliament, citing dubious “intel from a Ukrainian officer,” claimed Russian President Vladimir Putin has been fuming about the war in a mountain “lair” like that of a James Bond villain, a fantastical tale that has nevertheless been shared tens of thousands of times on Twitter and repeated in outlets like the New York Post. And many viral images and videos showing the horrors of Russia’s attack are in fact repurposed from other conflicts.

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