Red Banner with words "Tip Sheet" and PEN America logo

The Putin regime’s well-documented use of disinformation campaigns, underway for years, has come into full force with Russia’s military invasion of Ukraine. And in the confusing, fearful tumult of war, disinformation can emanate from many sources as the thirst for real-time updates creates an entry point for false and manipulative content. PEN America offers the following tips to help each of us contribute to stopping the spread of disinformation, keeping truthful information flowing, and defending free expression in Ukraine and worldwide.

Get to know the lay of the land.

1. Keep historical context top of mind. The Russian government has weaponized false information for decades as part of a long, premeditated game. Information warfare is nothing new for President Vladimir Putin’s regime, but it is playing a newly central role in the context of the invasion. Putin has also effectively demolished independent media and political opposition in Russia in his quest to more fully control the historic and current narrative and silence those who dissent.

2. Learn what disinformation can look like. The Russian government’s propaganda machine has included false flag operations as an excuse to invade Ukraine, calculated employment of “what-aboutism” as a means of deflecting from the egregiousness and horror of its invasion, and even false “fact-checking” content designed to sow doubt among Russian audiences about war coverage.

3. Recognize that Russian government disinformation is targeting groups in the U.S., and may also influence what you’re hearing from U.S. sources. Putin’s propaganda machine targets specific groups, for example U.S. anti-vaccination groups, and may get picked up–often unwittingly–by other sources in the U.S.

Know your sources and verify the information you consume.

You can be on guard for disinformation and proactively support trustworthy reporting.

4. Amplify credible sources on the ground and international experts. For example: Kyiv Independent and Jane Lytvynenko, a Ukrainian-Canadian journalist and disinformation expert, are both reputable sources with locally-informed reporting and analysis. You can also proactively share reliable reporting from major news sources with reporters on the ground, like The New York Times, the BBC, or The Associated Press. (It is important to note that even trustworthy news outlets can err, especially during wartime, but they are not doing so purposefully and have policies to issue and disseminate corrections.)

5. Think twice before you share. Be extremely judicious about the sources you engage with and pay close attention to the provenance of the information they’re sharing. If you’re not sure if a source is legitimate, don’t share until you can confirm. Employ easily accessible forms of fact-checking at your fingertips; it only takes seconds to double-check what you’re reading on social media. Reliable fact-checking sites, especially for information on the invasion, include #UkraineFacts, Reuters, AFP Fact-check, and Bellingcat. With images and videos, check captions and timestamps and run reverse image searches to confirm important contextual information. Modern technology paired with accessible open-source intelligence allows for quick verification or debunking of false information as it starts to circulate, and reliable news outlets, advocacy groups, and civil society organizations are undertaking this in real-time.

Carefully counter disinformation when you see it.

6. Be an empathetic and strategic digital citizen. We all have a responsibility to defend against disinformation, but it can be tricky to speak out if you see a friend or family member sharing false content. PEN America has developed guidance on how to do this carefully.

7. Be right. Before you attempt to correct someone who has shared what you believe to be misinformation, make sure you’re correct. Among other tactics, you can search keywords from the headline and confirm if the story is being reported by more than one credible outlet.

8. Consider the side effects. Once you’ve confirmed that the content is actually misleading or false, your first reaction might be to comment publicly on the post. This can be helpful, especially if you can link to a widely credible source; research suggests that seeing a public correction can reduce the likelihood others are swayed by the misinformation. However, a private message may sometimes be an option to consider, allowing you to make the point while avoiding casting shame on the poster or amplifying something false that is newly posted. Use your judgment based on the level of engagement and your relationship with the poster.

Remember: disinformation is about feelings too, not just falsehoods.

9. War is emotional and disinformation thrives on emotion. Be sure to pause and question your reactions to things you see online—disinformation campaigns play on anger and fear, so take a beat to confirm the facts before you share.

10. Channel empathy. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine means different things for different people, and emotions are running high. Keep in mind that confirmation bias may be more at play now than usual.

11. Don’t succumb to defeatism in the face of disinformation. We can defang disinformation together.

Be a resource for others.

It’s important to correct misleading or false information, whether publicly or privately. But what can you do to help proactively? Give your friends and family resources on misinformation and easy tools to conduct their own fact-checks going forward. In addition to this tip sheet, you can share PEN America’s other resources, such as our guide to verifying images and sources, or our guide on COVID-19 misinformation, and our media literacy toolkit, in addition to this one.