The story of a Russian military unit killing Ukrainian border guards who refused to surrender on Snake Island struck a note of pride and defiance in supporters of the embattled nation across the globe.
Audio recordings of the guards responding to the Russians with an expletive instead of surrendering went viral on social media. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy later announced that he would bestow the country’s highest honor upon the dead defenders.
The problem is, that’s not exactly what happened.
With the conflict in Ukraine unfolding in real time and both nations trying to control the overarching narrative, facts often fall victim to the rapid spread of misinformation, said Drew Chapman, director of the Russian Program at the University of Texas at San Antonio.
That is among the observations students have made in Chapman’s “Russia in the Fake News” class while analyzing reports from mostly state-run Russian news outlets since Russia invaded Ukraine less than two weeks ago. The class is seeking to identify the narratives the government wants to convey.
“It’s really important to try to ask the question: what is the story that Russia is trying to tell?” he said. “How are they trying to control the narrative?”
Chapman and his co-professor, Elise Thorsen, designed the class to focus on a number of issues before the conflict started, including Russia’s response to COVID-19, economics and Ukraine. They decided to redirect the course to examine the rapid development of news on the invasion.
The 18 students in the class analyze at least three articles a week, some in Russian and some in English. Chapman said the class looks at news stories Russian media outlets publish in English because “those are the ones that point to the rest of the world.”
But the class doesn’t just focus on Russian news stories. Students also analyze media reports from Ukrainian and American news outlets, as well as other avenues people have taken to disseminate information online.
“When we study the media aspect of it, I think we’re seeing how Ukraine’s response has been portrayed very heroically. And through their public call to the rest of the world, we see personally a call to defend humanity,” Chapman said. “Ukrainian media has helped shape this. They’ve been very good at it. And if we’re looking at the media war, Ukraine has definitely won support from the rest of the world to have greater involvement in this conflict.”
The reported killing of the Ukrainian guards on Snake Island is one example. Days after Zelenskyy announced the deaths, Ukrainian officials stated in a Facebook post that the guards were still alive but taken prisoner by Russian troops. By then, the story had already circulated globally.
Brett Steib, a student in the class, said these “false stories of heroism” and the justifications the Russian media cited for invading Ukraine — President Vladimir Putin claimed the goal was “de-Nazification” of the neighboring country — have made vetting news sources more important than ever before.
“There’s the old saying that the first casualty of war is the truth,” he said.
With most large Russian media outlets owned or controlled by the government, the truth can be difficult to come by, Chapman said. “Keyboard warriors” have taken to using open platforms like Google to share information with Russians, such as posting reviews for Russian restaurants to send messages about the devastation in Ukraine.
“They’re hijacking these platforms either to disseminate information or to also show Russia in a poor light to contrast the nice images of Moscow that typically show up when you type in ‘Moscow’ on Google Maps,” he said.
Some people have posted images of captured Russian soldiers on Google Maps. Chapman said that could violate the Geneva Conventions, which establishes rules about the treatment of prisoners of war.
Meanwhile, Russia state media continues to paint the conflict as a “special military operation” and threatened to shut down independent news outlets that depict the invasion as war, Steib said. He empathized with people in Russia who lack access to verifiable news.
Chapman said his class also examined how Zelenskyy has used his acting and social media skills to garner support for Ukraine. Images of the president eating meals with troops and giving emotional speeches where he’s not standing behind a podium have enhanced his ability to reach people.
“It is definitely a media war going on, and I would say the Ukrainian side is winning,” he said.
Steib is no stranger to the government-controlled media in Russia. He spent four years in the U.S. Army as a Russian linguist and signed up for Chapman’s class to learn more about the language and culture. But the country’s attack on Ukraine has led him to question his interest in Russia.
“The class went from being this fun exploration of Russian culture to now a serious examination of what’s going on in the modern world,” he said. “it almost feels now more like I’m studying an enemy, instead of what I always felt were friends.”
Chapman said the goal of the course is not only to expose students to the Russian language and culture but to teach students how to critically evaluate various news sources, whether they’re based in the U.S. or Russia. Early on in the semester, students discussed where they get their news, and most said from social media platforms like TikTok and Instagram.
“We’ve really been trying to institute good practices of how students can proactively source their media responsibly, and then also how they can share media responsibly with attribution,” he said.