Sharing is caring… unless it’s propaganda: The Russia-Ukraine Crisis

Expert journalists weigh in on media literacy in light of the Russian invasion of Ukraine

by Kris Nagel

Everyone has an impact on someone’s perspective of the world. Almost anything we do or say affects someone in some way. The same holds true for the things we post on social media. We are all influenced by the people around us. When the subject of our virtual discourse is something as poignant as international conflict, our sympathies can be weaponized without us even knowing it.

Roughly half of Americans regularly get their news from social media, according to a 2021 study from the Pew Research Center. The information we share online can challenge our belief system but oftentimes reinforces it. Al Tompkins, a journalist with the Poynter Institute, says that truth gets little consideration when the content we share aligns with our worldview.

“We tend to support those things that agree with your position on anything,” Tompkins said. “Whether it’s the designated hitter in baseball or invading Ukraine, we tend to repeat and share things that we agree with.”

The internet has changed the way information is spread through society. It’s easier than ever to produce fake information.

“The other piece of it is this,” Tompkins said. “Disinformation is a very powerful weapon. The Russians know it but, let’s face it, the Americans know it too. The American government, particularly through the CIA, has done lots of disinformation over the years. You would expect that they do, it’s kind of part of what they do.”

Understanding that misleading content is built into our news feed requires us to take a critical look at what we share before we share it. Tompkins’ approach asks four questions:

What do I know?

What do I need to know?

How does that source know what that source claims to know?

And is there any other way to look at this other than the way that source is telling me?

Vicky Sama saw the real-time effects of media coverage and propaganda in the several wars she covered during her career at CNN. Sama is now the department chair for Cal Poly Humboldt’s journalism and mass communications program.

“So there’s two parts of war, usually,” Sama said. “You have the war, the actual war with fighting and then you have the information war, the propaganda war, and that is an essential part of what happens in war as well.”

When we see things happening live, there isn’t an editing process that we can rely on to verify what we see. Live television, live broadcasting, and live streaming allow for that to happen. Now that consumers are a part of the distribution process, Sama argues they also need to be part of the editing process.

“If everybody’s going to start considering themselves a journalist just because they have a cell phone, then they need to start doing the work of a journalist and start verifying the information before they put it out there as well,” Sama said.

However, verifying everything we see is seldom an intuitive process. Kirby Moss, a Cal Poly Humboldt professor in the journalism department, teaches a range of media analysis classes. Moss said that the fundamental way to verify information is to look for other sources reporting on the subject.

“I tell students, if you find some information that you’re researching on, try to cross-check it with at least three sources if you can,” Moss said. “And then they find out sometimes like, ‘Well I went to one source but the other source says something else, the other says something else,’ and so then they begin to question that message.”

It takes familiarity to be confident that the information you get is credible. That is not to say that there aren’t tools we can use to check the things we share. Vicky Sama is working on adding a media literacy course for freshmen to the department catalog. In the meantime, JMC 309: Analyzing Mass Media Messages will be open for registration near the end of the semester. Online courses on media literacy are also available to everyone through the Poynter Institute.

[DISCLAIMER: The Lumberjack rarely uses journalism department faculty as sources for stories. However, an exception was made for this story due to the expertise our professors have on this particular subject. Vicky Sama and Kirby Moss do not exercise editorial oversight on the content The Lumberjack publishes.]

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