As the invasion of Ukraine goes into the second week, the World continues to react to the aggressive actions of Russia and its president Vladimir Putin. Given that we live in the social media age, many of us have been glued to our favorite networks getting every bit of new news we can. It’s been doom scrolling taken to the next level. But given the stakes of what is happening in Ukraine, it’s been more and more important to check the sources of what is coming out.
As long as human beings have fought wars, we’ve seen disinformation and misinformation being put out in an attempt to bolster a side in a war. During the last World War, we saw the likes of “Tokyo Rose” and “Axis Sally” use the radio waves to try to undermine the Allied powers and sow division within those fighting against the Axis. So it shouldn’t come off as shocking to see that Russia is doing the same thing this time around. I mean, look at this example put out on social media by Russia’s embassy in Ottawa yesterday:
Add that tweet to the same embassy complaining about lawful protests against their war were “hostile” and “threatening” to them, and you can see that this group doesn’t mind gaslighting and throwing out a lot of disinformation. While that kind of stuff is reprehensible, you could argue that is par for the course when compared to pasted armed conflicts. But something is different this time around on this topic, and it’s something that we shouldn’t be surprised by. Journalist Justin Ling has printed an example of why this is different, and the problem we have before us right now:
Through out the past many years we’ve had to deal with more than our fair share of disinformation and conspiracy theories eating away at our society and the health of our democracy. We’ve seen unscrupulous politicians, like Donald Trump, jump on these dangerous words as a potential vehicle to bring themselves to power. To Hell with the consequences for the rest of us, as long as it helps them achieve their short-term goal of getting and keeping power. We’ve seen that spread from politics, into the COVID pandemic and further. They have been spread and amplified by Russian and Chinese government funded activities, trying to undermine our democracy to advance their ends, and social media companies have been loathed to stop it. It seems that conspiracy theories are taking a bigger toll on our society as a whole.
That is why this piece from Justin Ling was so worrying to me. We’ve been seeing how far down so many conspiratorial rabbit holes too many of our friends, family and neighbours have fallen, and the effect it’s had on our community. Just over a week ago in the House of Commons, we saw a Conservative MP quoting conspiracy theories about the World Economic Forum and using that to question the government. We’ve seen this mindset take root and create real world harm.
But while we’ve seen all of that in times of relative peace, we haven’t seen this playing out in a time of war. Yes, we’ve seen disinformation used before on the battlefield, trying to demoralize and affect soldiers, but on the home front we never saw such things during the last World War. Now that we are in a world of social media, with users who are hardwired into networks already adept at spreading conspiracy theories. That is a danger on a level we haven’t faced at home before.
In the case in Ling’s story, it’s crazy false stories about alleged bioweapons facilities in Ukraine and that Putin supposedly invaded not for the reasons that he himself states publicly. No, it’s to get rid of those bioweapons and in the minds of those buying into those theories, Putin is the good guy. It doesn’t matter how many times that crap story has been debunked, it’s a story that keeps living on and morphing into the moment, as it did with this invasion. Yet within those networks, like ones we’ve seen created around far-right, anti-vaccine and COVID-denier groups, we’re seeing similar conspiracy theories sprouting up in the first week of this invasion. Just look at this example from Peterborough, which came into my Twitter feed just last night:
That is from a group of Canadians, here at home, being radicalized to the point where they’ve gone from COVID to saying that “Trudeau is our problem, not Russia”. These are some of the people who occupied Ottawa for weeks on end demanding “freedom” to infect others, yet when faced with an aspiring democratic nation facing actual invasion and suppression of their freedoms by an autocratic nation, they’re siding with the invaders. They’re siding with the autocrat in Putin against the democratically elected President Zelensky. That’s a problem folks, a big problem.
It’s not like I’m shocked at this turn of events, but this is a dangerous consequence of this malignant influence that’s been growing in our society over the past years. We may roll our eyes with we get conspiracy theory crap thrown at us or even feel sympathy for those who have been led so far down that crazy path, and I get that. But in this moment these people aren’t harmless in their rants and such. They are spreading this crap further and further, undermining our countries efforts to support the people of Ukraine and their actual fight to protect democracy.
It’s perverse in a sense that we find ourselves in this place, yet here we are. We, as a nation, need to have a serious discussion about the impact of social media and disinformation on our society. Nations who are not friendly to us, like Russia, has used these tools to weaken our society to their benefit, not ours. And now that the lives of innocent Ukrainians are on the line, we can’t ignore the effect that years of that malignant influence is having on us now. It’s time for us to have this difficult conversation and take this problem of misinformation on social media seriously. We can’t undo what’s already been done, but we can work to stop it from getting worse. And that is completely within our hands to do.