Editorials, Opinion

The war’s second front

As the wars between Russia and Ukraine and Israel and Hamas rage on, there is a secondary war being waged — on information and truth.

As Kyle Chayka, a staff reporter for The New Yorker, recently noted, this is the second so-called “TikTok war” in recent years. The first was when the war in Ukraine started and everyday people became citizen journalists, reporting on the bloody conflict in real time.

But as Chayka points out, social media and technology have changed drastically in the last year and a part. First, the major social media companies now intentionally deprioritize posts from legacy news sources, making it harder for articles and news reports to break through into users’ news feeds. Second, X (formerly Twitter) now has essentially no content moderation, so false posts proliferate and gain traction more easily. Third, social media algorithms optimize for engagement, so sensationalized or controversial content gets prioritized.

For example, multiple viral social media posts claim to contain photos or videos of the war in Gaza, including clips of Hamas forces downing an Israeli helicopter and an airstrike hitting an Israeli tank. Both of those widely viewed images are actually from video games — the first from the 2013 game Arma 3 and the second from a trailer for the game Squad. But it’s also shockingly common for old but otherwise real footage to be recycled and presented as current or “new.”

The other thing that has changed: artificial intelligence and its ability to create realistic pictures and videos, as well as authentic-looking “news” sites. It’s easier than ever to produce doctored images — and even audio — and to fill websites with AI-generated text about any topic under the sun.

How do we fight this onslaught of misinformation?

The first is both the simplest and the hardest: Don’t automatically believe everything you see on social media.

You can check information against reliable news sources, such as the Associated Press, Reuters and NPR News — all of which are widely acknowledged for highly factual reporting — and fact-checking websites such as Snopes, PolitiFact and FactCheck.org. For images and videos, you (or a tech-savvy friend or relative) can do a reverse image search to find the image’s origin. Sometimes, you can ask “is video of [blank] real?” and get reports from fact-checkers about its authenticity.

Second, since social media deprioritizes legacy news sources, sign up for emailed newsletters and breaking news alerts from trusted news organizations — or subscribe to an online or physical newspaper. “Slow news” may not have the instant gratification of social media, but the information is more likely to be accurate. (And, it can get the information to you faster than waiting for a post to appear in your social media feeds.)

Finally, understand that news can and sometimes does change. When outlets put out breaking news, they do so based on information and context available at the time. As more details become available, the report may change. That’s why it’s also important to look for updates and corrections, especially for news related to something as ever-evolving as war.

The war on truth is one we must fight both individually and collectively.