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Experts worry about the accuracy of online posts depicting the war in Ukraine

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Social media is awash with satellite photos and cellphone videos of the war in Ukraine. The speed and scale at which this information is spreading is unprecedented. But as NPR's Geoff Brumfiel reports, some experts worry the picture painted by online posts may not always be accurate.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: Jeffrey Lewis saw the invasion before it began on Google Maps. Here's how it happened. His team was using commercial satellites to watch a Russian military unit.

JEFFREY LEWIS: Tanks, armored personnel carriers, the whole nine yards.

BRUMFIEL: The unit was outside the Russian city of Belgorod. Vehicles were lined up on the road like they were about to go somewhere.

LEWIS: We were like, that unit is prepared to go plunging into Ukraine.

BRUMFIEL: Lewis is a professor of arms control at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. He and his team wanted to know how long it would take for the unit to actually reach the border. So they did what anyone would do. They plugged it into Google. And guess what.

LEWIS: There was a traffic jam that began exactly where that armored unit was located. And it stretched toward the Ukrainian border. And it was 3:00 in the morning.

BRUMFIEL: In Russia. In other words, the armored column was on the move, clogging the roads. The invasion had begun. Lewis tweeted out what his team had found. About an hour later, Putin declared the start of Russia's military offensive.

This is the speed at which information travels in the Ukraine war. Cellphones and commercial satellites are providing a flood of data about troop movements, attacks, fleeing civilians. It's all out there for everyone to see.

LEWIS: All of this data is being collected and shoved on to social media, where we can look at it.

BRUMFIEL: And there is a small army of semi-professional investigators who are looking hard. Ross Burley is the executive director of the Center for Information Resilience, a U.K. group that's helping to gather and collate all the on-the-ground videos.

ROSS BURLEY: The investigators and volunteers are trawling Telegram and Twitter and Twitch and all the different social media platforms that you can imagine, collecting anything that they see, and everything goes into the database.

BRUMFIEL: The group is collecting around a hundred posts a day. The ones that are verified go on to a real-time map to show where the fighting is happening. Burley says that these videos could also become valuable evidence.

BURLEY: Personally, I hope that our work can inform future prosecutions and that there is a degree of accountability for individuals who are involved in war crimes and other things like that.

BRUMFIEL: While some groups are trying to gather everything to get a clearer sense of the big picture, most people are just seeing a handful of posts that get the most likes and shares. And that can sometimes be misleading. Take, for example, a video on TikTok of an attractive woman showing how to start a Russian armored vehicle.

(SOUNDBITE OF TIKTOK)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Russian).

BRUMFIEL: The video has over 7 million views. One person who saw it was Rita Konaev at the Center for Security and Emerging Technology at Georgetown University. She says when this video first aired...

RITA KONAEV: It was depicted as this has been, you know, taken by Ukrainian forces or resistance. And that's not what it was.

BRUMFIEL: According to a fact-check by Reuters, the woman is a Russian auto mechanic and vlogger. She filmed herself weeks before the invasion in Russia, driving the armored vehicle for fun.

(SOUNDBITE OF TIKTOK)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Russian).

KONAEV: Even though that is not something significant, I think it tells part of a broader story about the type of things that get amplified.

BRUMFIEL: It turns out social media during a war is like social media the rest of the time. The fun how-to-drive-a-tank video gets lots of likes and shares as will the videos that show people what they want to see. Konaev says the problem is that these videos, even the real ones, show just a tiny sliver of what's actually happening. And when a video of a few Russian soldiers surrendering goes viral...

KONAEV: Then it starts leading to these narratives about, you know, massive desertion, mutiny - Russian troops are about to turn around.

BRUMFIEL: That story, frankly, just doesn't seem to be true. Konaev gets why so many people are being drawn to social media and why they feel the need to share what they're seeing.

KONAEV: You want to feel like you understand the situation. You want to feel like you're contributing, that you're involved, that you're aware because this is a cataclysmic event.

BRUMFIEL: Remember, she says, social media like simple, bite-sized stories. This war is something bigger, darker and harder to comprehend.

Geoff Brumfiel, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.