In the information war in Ukraine, a mixture of reality and fiction

In exercising their discretion over how unverified or fake content is moderated, social media companies have decided to “choose a side,” said Alex Stamos, director of the Stanford Internet Observatory and former chief of the security at Facebook.

“I think it demonstrates the limits of ‘fact-checking’ in a fast-paced battle with real lives at stake,” Stamos said. He added that tech platforms have never created rules against disinformation as a whole, instead targeting specific behaviors, actors and content.

This leaves the truth behind some war stories, such as an apparent assassination plot against Mr. Zelensky or simply the number of soldiers killed in action, quite elusive, even though official accounts and the media share the information.

These narratives continued as the war progressed, revealing the contours of an information war aimed not only at Western audiences but also at Russian citizens. At the United Nations on Monday, Ukraine’s Ambassador Sergiy Kyslytsya shared a series of text messages he said were recovered from the phone of a dead Russian soldier.

“Mom, I am in Ukraine. A real war is raging here. I’m scared,” the Russian soldier reportedly wrote, according to Mr. Kyslytsya’s account, which he read in Russian. The story seemed to conjure up a narrative advanced by officials and widely shared on social media that Russian soldiers are poorly trained and too young, and unwilling to fight their Ukrainian neighbors. “We bomb all cities together, even targeting civilians.”

The story, whether true or not, seems tailor-made for Russian civilians – especially parents worried about the fate of their conscripted children, experts said.

“This is an age-old tactic the Ukrainians are trying to use, which is to divert the attention of mothers and families in Russia from the grander goals of war to, instead, the human costs of the war,” said Ian Garner, a Russian historian who followed Russian-language propaganda during the conflict. “We know it’s really effective.”

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