UNLV student from Ukraine researching wartime online misinformation

A Ukrainian woman at UNLV is working to fight online misinformation about the war.
Published: Mar. 4, 2022 at 9:52 AM PST
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LAS VEGAS, Nev. (FOX5) - Almost every waking hour over the last week for Mary Blankenship is spent pouring into her work researching misinformation and disinformation online, while at the same time pursuing her masters in chemistry at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

She first started digging into online misinformation and disinformation following 1 October, and that led to years of Twitter research of major current events.

The current invasion of Ukraine is personal for her. Blankenship was born in Ukraine, has spent much of her life there and has several close family members in the central part of the country. She hopes combatting misinformation is her role in the tragic war.

“We have a sense of guilt and uselessness about this situation, because so many our close loved ones and fellow Ukrainians are over there suffering,” Blankenship said.

Blankenship calls it information pollution. It can be easy to confuse misinformation and disinformation, she said. Disinformation is spreading false claims and narratives with the intent to harm. She sites Russian propaganda as an example of that. Misinformation on the other hand is the spreading of false information without the intent to harm others. That can be as simple as sharing a video online that’s not accurate. Blankenship sited several examples over the last week where videos that were alleged attacks on Ukraine that were not real or from completely different incident.

“One of the biggest forefronts of this war is the information war that’s going on,” the UNLV graduate student said.

Blankenship said in the invasion of Ukraine, much of the information pollution is led by the Russian government. However, the disinformation is seen by users around the world. She said they are largely political and military disinformation aimed at intimidating Ukrainians. For example, posts that signal the military is surrendering and that civilians welcome the invasion.

“Misinformation and disinformation has the greatest chance of spreading when it creates emotions like fear or anger, especially towards another group,” Blankenship said.

Wednesday night, the phrase “I stand with Putin” became a trending hashtag on Twitter. Blankenship said it was largely bots tweeting the hashtag.

Her recommendation for social media users following the war is to find local sources of news and report misinformation, but don’t interact with it. She said even commenting or sharing that it isn’t true only increases its reach.

She suggests the websites Botometer and Hoaxy, which can help inform you of the likelihood a Twitter user is a bot.

“Why it’s so dangerous is it shifts the attention from the actual policy topic to discuss relevant facts,” Blankenship said. “That to me is really relevant to why I’m continuing to focus on it.”