As Russia continues to make claims about the number of German-made Leopard 2 main battle tanks (MBTs) destroyed in the fighting in Ukraine, videos have been increasingly posted on social media to offer “proof.”
Though it has been confirmed that several Leopard 2 MBTs have been destroyed, along with as many as 16 U.S.-supplied Bradley Fighting Vehicles, we certainly can’t believe everything we see posted online.
Are The Videos Real?
One video that was apparently first shared by Russian state media outlet RT purported to show a Lancet loitering munition taking out a Leopard 2. The short clip has spread across social media and has been seen some 40,000 times since it was posted last week. However, viewers on social media were also quick to suggest the clip was actually from a video game or that it was a scale model of the tank.
Even as these clips are debunked—such as last week’s video that claimed to be a Leopard 2 but was in fact a farm harvester—others crop up at an alarming rate.
It is true that both sides have shared highly edited footage that often lack context and presented them as evidence of their accomplishments, but Moscow has long been engaged in disinformation campaigns.
It was on Tuesday that the French government announced it had uncovered efforts by Moscow to use disinformation to influence public opinion across the world over its invasion of Ukraine.
“The French authorities are working closely with their partners to defeat the hybrid warfare led by Russia,” Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna said via a statement. “This campaign is based in particular on the creation of fake web pages impersonating national media and government sites as well as the creation of false accounts on social networks.”
Technology Makes The Impossible Seem Real
It is now easier than ever to create—or at least edit—such convincing videos, and artificial intelligence (AI) powered tools will make it even easier and more convincing. Yet, seeing isn’t actually believing; especially as this technology is so widely accessible. What was once the domain of Hollywood is now available to almost anyone.
The disinformation campaigns are effective because people increasingly believe what is spread on social media, even as they know what they see in a movie theater is fake.
“The phenomenon is well-known in science. In psychology, they talk about two types of cognitive processing—one where we think through the evidence carefully and make rational decisions and one where we use biases, habits, and heuristics to make quick decisions. The former takes a lot of processing and can be expensive in terms of time. The latter is fast but often incorrect,” explained Dr. Cliff Lampe, professor of information and associate dean for academic affairs at the University of Michigan’s School of Information.
Playing Us Against Each Other
The problem is even worse with heated topics, such as the continued support for Ukraine. Those who are against sending additional aid will quickly turn to the videos of destroyed vehicles and suggest that Ukraine’s counteroffensive has already faltered.
“My sense here is that many types of cognitive biases could be at play when we see something like this,” Lampe added. “One is that use of heuristic thinking to make a quick decision—which matches the quick pace of social media.”
At issue is the persistence of belief, where people hold on to previously held beliefs even in the face of evidence, suggested Lampe.
“One of the things people don’t talk about is why people spend time angry on the Internet,” he added. “There’s an increasing body of literature showing that flare-ups like this can reduce anxiety and provide people with moral certainty. One can ignore a lot of evidence if the narrative is ‘I’m the good person here.'”
The danger is that this is exactly what those foreign actors want to hear, and why we’ll keep seeing fake videos as part of Russia’s misinformation campaign.