How to spot viral hoaxes, according to a Snopes fact-checker

  • There is a plethora of misinformation and disinformation online, about everything from COVID-19 to the invasion of Ukraine.
  • Every day fact checkers like me are tasked with determining what is real and what is not.
  • Here’s a basic toolkit for doing some of that yourself. Remember: if in doubt, don’t share it.

As millions of Ukrainian refugees have crossed their country’s borders, false claims and rumors have also flooded the internet. The lies continue to spread like digital wildfire online, and it has become the responsibility of people like me, a fact checker at Snopes, to put out the flames with precision.

In the aftermath of Russia’s initial attack on Ukraine, Snopes’ editorial team has seen a steady increase in false or misleading information being shared online, especially when it comes to mislabeled or outdated images. posing as new or relevant. From the “Ghost of Kyiv” video (which was created using a digital simulation game) to a clip that claimed to show Russian and Ukrainian soldiers dancing together (even though the footage predated the 2022 conflict) , our newsroom has stepped up its efforts to identify online lies.

Many social media platforms have launched campaigns against misinformation. Following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, YouTube announcement this would remove videos “denying, minimizing or trivializing” the conflict. Facebook has run controversial campaigns to tackle online lies, while Instagram has begun flagging posts containing misinformation.

Despite these policies, fact checkers are overwhelmed by a digital onslaught of false information available to millions of users at the click of a mouse or the touch of a finger. This is especially true of video-sharing app TikTok, which itself has acknowledged that the platform “is not the go-to app for following the news or politics”. Even so, a wide range of misleading or outright fake videos we see come from TikTok.

Here’s how my press team determines what’s genuine and what’s fake using our Snopes-ing 101: The Fact Checker Toolkit.

The difference between misinformation and disinformation

Two terms fact checkers see thrown around on social media are misinformation and disinformation. Although the two are closely related, there are minor differences. Misinformation is incorrect or misleading information, such as when a Facebook friend shares a fake post without knowing it’s fake.

Disinformation, on the other hand, is defined as “false information deliberately and often covertly disseminated (for example by sowing rumours) in order to influence public opinion or obscure the truth”. It occurs when social media accounts knowingly spread lies or misleading information to influence public discourse or policy.

Basically, misinformation is shared by mistake, and misinformation comes with a specific agenda. Both always contribute to the spread of false information online.

At the center of many Ukrainian claims the Snopes team has seen are misleading videos and images, a type of content that promulgates disinformation and misinformation. These examples include genuine images shared without context or with misleading information, as well as fake or fabricated images presented as genuine.

One example was a video that claimed to show a Ukrainian tank crashing through a Russian barrier after Ukraine was invaded in 2022. After being shared online, the video racked up millions of views on TikTok.

However, our analysis revealed that while the video reflects current events, it was actually taken in May 2014 during the Battle of Mariupol shortly after Russia annexed Crimea. In short, the video was genuine but was shared without proper context.

Another example was a climate protest erroneously captioned as war footage. In February, protesters in Austria held a “die-in” in which participants wrapped themselves in body bags to “signify the catastrophic impact that current climate policy could have on the world”. Although the video was taken two weeks before Russia invaded Ukraine, it was widely shared on social media by bad actors trying to show the conflict was staged.

Recognizing the six “degrees of manipulation” described by the American Psychological Association — impersonation, conspiracy, emotion, bias, discredit, and trolling — can help social media users identify lies in nature. Our team also analyzed clips from video games presented as authentic images, directly photoshopped images, and movie scenes misrepresented as representing actors in crisis or war – all examples of content intended to evoke emotions, to pass themselves off as genuine people or to further polarize different ideological groups. .

Determine if a photo or video is genuine

Among the most common falsehoods that fact-checkers see online are manipulated videos and photos. To determine if an image is genuine, we use a tool we call “reverse image search”. There are several such search engines online, some of the most popular being Google Images, TinEye, Yandex and Bing Images.

My colleague Dan Evon compiled a how-to guide specifically dedicated to performing reverse image searches and highlights that knowing when a photograph warrants further examination is the first step. Does the content trigger a strong emotional reaction, push political agendas or biases, present a strong text or seem slightly offbeat? If you answered yes to any of these questions, chances are you want to do a reverse image search.

Each of the search engines listed above require a similar process to perform a reverse image search.

  1. First, download the image in question to your device.
  2. Then upload this image to the search engine.
  3. Then, hit the search button to get a list of results showing where online this image was posted.
  4. Alternatively, most search engines can use the image URL.

Now, interpreting the results returned by reverse image search can be a daunting task. As Evon wrote in his post, it’s important to be wary of changes to captions, image source, and evolving versions of the image that differ from the original posted on the search engine. For more behind-the-scenes tips, Snopes Tips: A Guide to Performing Reverse Image Searches.

How to identify a deepfake

Deepfakes, a portmanteau of deep learning and fakery, is the 2022 release of Photoshop. These fake videos use artificial intelligence to replace the likeness of one person with another in a video or other digital media, often showing that person doing or saying something that never happened.

In the weeks following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a number of deepfakes fell on our press office, some of which were aimed at spreading false – and sometimes dangerous – information to those directly involved in the conflict. .

Snopes covered a poorly done deepfake of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy asking civilians to lay down their arms in front of the Russian military, which also aired on a Ukrainian news station after the outlet was allegedly hacked.

In this case, the fake images were obvious: Zelenskyy’s head in the deepfake was disproportionately small compared to his neck.

As Evon notes, the best strategy for identifying a deepfake is to research its source. For example, several authentic videos of Zelenskyy show the president in the same context on his social media profiles and on the official social media pages of the Ukrainian government. This deepfake was never published on these pages.

Another example we saw in our newsroom was a video that purported to show Russian President Vladimir Putin announcing the end of the war between Russia and Ukraine. Authentic video released by the Kremlin in late February was manipulated to make it look like fabricated sound came from the Russian president.

While Putin’s movements in the two videos generally matched, the edited version manipulated his mouth, a change that is most noticeable during the parts of the video where the real Putin is silent and the fake Putin speaks. (The Twitter user who originally shared the video admitted in a follow-up tweet that it was fake.)

A side-by-side comparison of the genuine and edited videos showed these subtle differences:

Can you spot a deepfake? Watch these videos that Snopes also debunked and learn more tools of the trade from our reporting team.

Fact-checking at home

The past few years have brought with them a contentious presidential election, the COVID-19 pandemic and now the Russian-Ukrainian war – all earth-shattering events that have kept fact-checkers around the world on their metaphorical toes. In addition to access to information granted by social media platforms, users are responsible for consuming, reposting and sharing information online. With the right training and a watchful eye, social media users can help stop the spread of misinformation and disinformation in the digital space.

As we always say: when in doubt, don’t share it.

Virginia C. Taylor