A friend approached Eslam Mmadouh, desperate to help him. Would Mamdouh drive him 340 miles west to Lviv, a city near Ukraine’s border with Poland? Mamdouh agreed, though the young nursing student has been reluctant to leave the relative safety of the county’s capital during the ongoing Russian invasion. The troop movements of the troops have not been easy to follow. Most of the fighting—the largest in Europe since World War II—seems further east, nearer Russia.) They loaded into Mamdouh’s tiny white Ford and headed out of town around 5 as Mamdouh continued to do what he’s done for the past several days: chronicle the whole thing on Snapchat, including public posts to the app’s Map function, which allows anyone in the world to zoom over to a place and watch videos uploaded from there.
Mamdouh was able to reach him via Snap Call while stuck in traffic. He quickly switched the camera’s view from one that pointed directly at him to the highway. “You see, you see?” he asks. Up ahead, in the distance—soldiers. “The army is everywhere now,” he says. “Everywhere.” For now, Mamdouh believes, the uniformed figures in Kyiv are Ukranian forces. The prospect of them soon confronting their Russian counterparts on Kyiv’s streets leaves Mamdouh undeterred from his plan. “I’m going to take my friend, and then I’m going back,” he says, prepared for more evenings huddled beneath ground in the subway, as Londoners did a century earlier during the Blitz. As someone who grew up in Egypt, he says that the sight of armed conflict is quite familiar to him.
Really, ever since the Arab Spring swept through Mamdouh’s homeland more than a decade ago, social media has continued to offer a complex window to world events, presenting access we once could expect only through cable news. Television’s perspective was limited and carefully researched. Apps like Snap, Telegram and TikTok offer a much wider view of what is happening through the on-the ground posts of average citizens, such as Mamdouh.
However, it isn’t a journalism broadcast. It produces personal missives such as the Snap ones Mamdouh offered and mixed with misinformation. Snap Maps, however, is a rare exception. It is geotagged so you have greater assurance that they are there and not just a few hundred miles away. There are two types of misinformation: some intentionally spread and others that happen unintentionally. The same result is still achieved. We get an enlarged picture of situations like the one unfolding in Ukraine, grander than what we could’ve gotten before, but it’s one in which it can be difficult to limn the difference between the real and the fake.
Probably the greatest difference between social media use in Ukraine and previous conflicts is the country’s reliance on Telegram, an app with 400 million users worldwide but one still little known in America. Telegram, which is a mix of WhatsApp, Facebook and Twitter, is the most used social network in Ukraine. It was launched nearly nine years ago by Pavel Durov, a Russian billionaire. (A spokesperson for Durov didn’t return a request to comment.) Telegram provided an easy way for Ukranians in Ukraine to communicate with one another, but it was also used to accomplish a darker purpose.
“Telegram is the breeding ground for anti-democratic disinformation and conspiracy theories,” says Ksenia Iliuk, a data analyst at Detector Media, which tracks malicious content online. Over two dozen Telegram channels have been identified by Detector Media and others as spreading false information to help Russia. Ahead of the invasion, Iliuk says, those Telegram groups focused on sowing an anti-Western sentiment in the country, using terms like “Western reptiloids,” and even sought to propagate a false narrative that the U.S. billionaire George Soros has financed efforts by “proteges of Soros,” “servants of Soros” and “sorosobots” to shove Ukraine toward America. It seems that conspiracy theorists have used the Soros stories to transform the billionaire in America into a liberal bogeyman.
TikTok has been featuring a lot of Ukraine videos lately. Clips purporting that they show Russian soldiers mobilizing for war against Ukraine have been viewed millions of times over the past month. (Rob Lee, a doctorate candidate at London’s King’s College, condensed many of them into threads on Twitter.) The #UkraineWar video has received 163 million views from TikTok. #Ukraine is home to 10.9 billion. For comparison, only 2.6 billion people have seen #Britain’s TikTok posts. Some of the content may not be authentic. One TikTok clip purporting to show an armed standoff between Ukrainian and Russian solidres—footage quickly known as the “Face to Face” video—received almost 20 million views before TikTok appeared to pull it down amid a campaign by researchers to mark it as inauthentic. Another TikTok recording was made from an actual battle between Russia and Ukraine over Snake Island. This is a small piece of land at the Black Sea. This video was verified authentic by the Ukranian Government and shows 13 Ukrainian troops standing on the island against a Russian warship.
When asked to surrender, the Ukrainian troops give this response: “Russian warship, go f—k yourself.” All 13 Ukrainians were killed. The Ukrainian President Velensky stated earlier that Ukraine would posthumously confer the highest honor on these troops.
The Ukraine crisis for Facebook is an important test. However, critics are putting the company under pressure over its handling of disinformation. On Thursday, Facebook’s parent company Meta said it has established a “Special Operations Center” to handle information being posted to its platforms about Ukraine. “It is staffed by experts (including native speakers) so we can closely monitor the situation and act as fast as possible,” Meta’s head of security policy, Nathaniel Gleicher, said on Twitter. Facebook was criticized for its operations in certain countries and the lack of deep language knowledge by its content moderators. Russia claimed that Facebook has unfairly restricted access, and demanded Facebook be shut down. Nick Clegg, Meta’s president of global affairs, said Russia had asked the company to stop fact-check work on some outlets’ work.
None of these platforms has provided information on how many content pieces they have taken down from their websites.
Oleh Novikov is an anti-corruption journalist from Ukraine, for the news site SlovoidiloHe switched to Twitter instead of posting on Telegram, in the hope that his work will attract more people, even those who are not from the West. His updates have been compiled from his experience in Ukraine. He also made the decision to reshare video clips of journalists. He posted one dramatic video of a tank rolling across what looks like a car carrying people inside. It was shot in south Ukraine by a journalist. He checked it with the government and it seemed to be authentic.
“I’m trying to post information about the situation in my country only from official sources or from people I really know,” he says. “Because who knows who can I really trust?”