For the past two years, “fake news” has been both a really lame joke and a deeply serious problem. Sure it’s funny when a person blurts out “fake news” when someone shares an embarrassing fact about them, but it’s a little terrifying when the president of the United States tweets that real things are fake (“A TOTAL WITCH HUNT”) or when Russia yet again tries to circulate a completely false story. A recent attempt at spreading false information about Canada is the perfect case study in how fake news spreads and how dangerous it can be.
Last Thursday, a Russian website reported on a false story created by a pro-Russia group called Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR), which was labeled a terrorist organization by Ukraine in 2015. The fake news story claimed that three Canadian NATO servicemen were killed and two Americans servicemen were injured in a landmine blast in Ukraine last week. It alleged that the “accident” was solely the fault of the Ukrainian government which was trying to blame the incident on DPR.
The story was quickly picked up by Russian anti-NATO accounts on Twitter which circulated the narrative until it reached English accounts and spread further, eventually garnering the attention of news outlets in Canada. Since news outlets have a much higher level of accountability than Twitter users, CTV and the Associated Press contacted the Canadian Armed Forces and the Department of National Defence for a confirmation of the report. The officials told journalists that the story was completely false and no Canadians were killed or injured in Ukraine.
The prevailing theory on this particular incident is that the DPR group is trying to sow distrust in NATO forces. The group, as well as many of the Twitter accounts responsible for circulating the story, are known to be anti-American and distrustful of NATO. An exercise like this shows just how destructive a fake news story can be in undermining faith in institutions.
Circulating fake news like this is exactly how Russia was able to “hijack” the 2016 American election by polarizing Americans, sowing doubt in institutions and encouraging extremist behaviour. Russia doesn’t look to be keeping the scope narrow either. The American election was the first real target, but it was likely just the beginning of Russia’s attempts to undermine democracy and push fake narratives.
Stay vigilant out there, people. And don’t believe everything you read on Twitter.