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ISU experts explain how to boost your immunity to misinformation on Ukraine invasion

A congressional staff member displays images of social media posts during a House Intelligence Committee hearing in November about Russian use of social media.
Alex Wong
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Getty Images
A congressional staff member displays images of social media posts during a House Intelligence Committee hearing in November about Russian use of social media.

Following news of Russia's invasion of Ukraine can be difficult — but not because there's a lack of information. Social media, be it TikTok, Twitter or Facebook, is awash in updates, whether they're in word, pictures, or video format. But for those who aren't familiar with the geopolitical background of the situation, or even that area of the globe itself, it can be difficult to contextualize information, or to know whether a source of information is trustworthy, doing its best to be accurate.

WGLT spoke to two experts within Illinois State University's School of Communication to get their takes on how to navigate news, social media and mis- or disinformation campaigns aiming to target passive consumers.

Nathan Carpenter is director of convergent media for the School of Communication and runs its Social Media Analytics Command Center. In late 2019, Carpenter traveled to the country of Georgia to deliver presentations on various social media topics as part of a Media Education Program put on by the U.S. Embassy. Georgia was the first republic to break away from the Soviet Union in the early 1990s; its history of conflict has meant democracy and free speech have been under threat.

Nate Carpenter teaching
Illinois State University
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Nathan Carpenter is director of convergent media for the School of Communication and runs its Social Media Analytics Command Center.

Joseph Zompetti is a communications professor who was recently awarded a fellowship from ISU's Center for Civic Engagement. Zompetti has a background in both political science and communications and has studied the phenomena of fake news and the tactics of Russian disinformation. He's conducted research into these matters alongside colleagues in the Republic of Georgia and Kyrgyzstan.

Here's what they had to say:

More than a pocketbook issue

Zompetti: I think people should pay attention to what's going on. Even if we feel disconnected — we're on the other side of the planet and maybe don't have any friends or family who are Ukrainian or from there — that doesn't mean this doesn't directly impact us. There's going to be economic repercussions; the gas prices are going to go up and we're going to see an increase in other prices of goods and services because of the sanctions being imposed on Russia.

But it also impacts us on a more principled level: I'm not sure that the Biden administration has made this explicitly clear, or as clear as they should, but this is really a battle between democracy and authoritarianism. This, really, I think is a fight for the soul of democracy and what that means. I hope people put that into perspective when they feel the pinch in their pocketbooks.

Carpenter: I think one thing we all have to recognize and understand is it is almost beyond our ability to comprehend how much information is being produced on social media sites right now. We have an innate desire to really be on top of that and to consume as much of that as possible; we want to keep consuming that until we find an answer as to what's going on, or find some sort of resolution.

I think one of the biggest (pieces of advice I have) is to really take it slow and don't necessarily follow the trends. The trends are going to tell you what everybody's looking at right there in the moment and they can be misleading. Pay less attention to what those trends say and instead think more about what they mean. Be cautious and slow down — you don't have to know first. Being able to come to terms with that can help — and it can help you even rely on experts that can be much more nuanced. It's OK if takes a few more minutes for you to get information and process it and examine it.

Find sources that challenge you

Zompetti: We've already seen (disinformation) happening — there's already a conspiracy theory that's germinating in which people are speculating that perhaps Russia and China have some sort of military alliance and that, as a result of this, China might take over Taiwan, or something of that nature. There's no evidence to suggest that Russia and China have any kind of alliance; in fact, it's likely more the opposite.

Here's the problem with a lot of disinformation campaigns, or conspiracy theories: They are often based upon a single fact, or a couple of facts, that might be true. Then people interpret them in odd ways without verifying any additional facts of evidence and the speculations go wild. I think people need to be critical consumers of information to the extent that they should try to receive their information from the most reputable sources they can find and then diversify those sources. In other words, don't just take the word of one source. Listen to a variety of different sources, or read a variety of different sources, so that you can come up with the best perspective possible.

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Illinois State University
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Illinois State University
Joseph Zompetti is a communications professor who was recently awarded a fellowship from ISU's Center for Civic Engagement.

Carpenter: I think you need to find trustworthy sources. When I say trustworthy, this doesn't mean people that you like, or people that are popular by virtue of just being popular and you go with their first "hot take." You need to find professionals, people who are skilled at evaluating — and that can take time. It's really important that you also be willing to accept things that are going to be uncomfortable, that you are willing to listen to things that may not affirm your worldview or the trajectory that you think the situation should take. Events don't really care about how you feel, so it's important that you are ready to find sources that challenge you.

Zompetti: A lot of people are going to hear, particularly as they are scrolling through their social media feeds, a lot about the role of propaganda and misinformation and cyber warfare attacks. I want people to understand that this is no trivial thing, that in the 21st century, the use of information and knowledge as a tool, as a weapon of for political and military gain, is now a reality. Of course, propaganda has been around for centuries, but it's never been used to the extent that it is now, or that we could see. So when people entertain things like conspiracy theories or disinformation and misinformation and don't critically question what's going on, they're really doing themselves a disservice. It's really part of this much larger problem that we we all have a role to play in: That is to make sure that that information is as accurate and verifiable as possible — and to protect and preserve that. Because that's ultimately, one of the ways that we can fight the bully.

The STOP method

Carpenter: There is a researcher and civic engagement and disinformation scholar by the name of Mike Caulfield and he actually came up with a great evaluation method called SIFT.

The first thing he says is Stop — slow down, don't share right away.

The next thing in the acronym is Investigate the source. This is one of the hardest things we can possibly do in this process because we know there are a lot of biases. By investigating the source, we can say, 'Where is this information coming from?' Especially right now, because we have a lot of actors out there in the larger social web that are intentionally trying to sow the seeds of distrust.

The third one is Find better coverage. This one is interesting because it doesn't assume you have wrong or bad information, but what it says is there might be corrections. Especially when he hear first reports, or breaking news, there may be information that is not quite yet fully understood, or inaccurate but accurate at-the-moment based on the given information. We need to be able to slow down and ask whether there are other people on the ground saying the same thing.

Finally, the last part of this SIFT evaluation method is what's called Trace, which stands for trace claims and quotes and media to their original context. And this goes to the classic idea of, say, pictures potentially misrepresenting things. We see a lot on social media where somebody will share, let's say, in the case of a war, pictures of blown up buildings or vehicles. What we've seen in many cases is people are sharing things, wanting attention, and just sharing a picture that they find on Google and saying, 'This is something I'm seeing right now.' It's really important that when you see an image like that, that you look for the caption, you look at the date that it was posted and created, and that you use tools like the Google reverse image search to find the original source in many cases that you can.

We see this method used very successfully in a lot of spaces — not just college classrooms. I think it's something that everybody can do a really good job with.

Zompetti: There's so much going on and everything is changing so rapidly, but I just want to stress the fact that this idea of misinformation is no longer something we can brush off. It's a completely different world and while on one hand that's great, I also fear that so much information makes us lose sight of some of the more important things.

Carpenter: Another thing I can recommend is to take breaks. This is very, very depressing stuff. It's very weighty. What's going on right now is beyond many of our abilities' to understand. It feels like there's not a lot of action we can take and that can be difficult, it can lead us into very dark places. Take that knowledge, at this point, and find ways to help others, especially as you consume a lot of dark and bad news.

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