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Misinformation and Trauma: How to Watch a War Online

Staying informed while avoiding fake news and unhelpful doomscrolling.

Key points

  • Watching a war unfold online exposes us to two significant risks—misinformation and trauma.
  • We can safeguard ourselves against misinformation by cross-checking what we see against reliable sources of information.
  • We can strive to stay informed enough so that we want to help while protecting ourselves so that we don't feel hopeless.
Ministry of Defense of Ukraine/flikr
Source: Ministry of Defense of Ukraine/flikr

In the internet era, we can watch a war unfold in real time on the other side of the world. But when we monitor events like Russia's invasion of Ukraine on social media unfiltered by TV news, we expose ourselves to two risks: 1) viewing propaganda and "fake news" that's designed to manipulate our emotions and 2) traumatizing ourselves by witnessing the real-life horror of war including civilians and children dying before our eyes. In this blog post, I'll discuss how we can steer clear of both while still keeping informed about an important world event.

Misinformation and Fake News

Ever since the start of Russia's attack on Ukraine, videos have been appearing on the internet alleging to show scenes from the war. But while some are authentic, many videos aren't what they claim to be, with footage unrelated to the current Ukraine invasion.

How can we tell the difference? I like to talk about the “holy trinity of truth detection” that’s made up of three pillars: intellectual humility, cognitive flexibility, and analytical thinking.

  • Intellectual humility is about acknowledging that we can always be wrong and that all of our beliefs should be thought of as probability judgments, not absolutes.
  • Cognitive flexibility means being able to take on other points of view and if not necessarily believing different perspectives, then at least being able to understand where they’re coming from.
  • Analytical thinking is the most relevant to the detection of misinformation—it’s mostly about slowing down and thinking skeptically before accepting at face value information that represents what we want to believe.

Thanks to confirmation bias and motivated reasoning, we’re very good at disbelieving what we don’t want to believe—analytical thinking means keeping in mind that we need to be just as skeptical of what we do want to believe and that confirms our preexisting beliefs and intuitions. On the internet, we can practice analytical thinking by slowing down, being wary of everything that we see, and verifying before we click, share, or retweet.

While there are some specific techniques we can all use to become better detectors of misinformation, we don't have access to the kinds of "visual forensics" that reputable news sources use to distinguish real video footage from mislabeled or doctored footage. We should therefore cross-check what we come across against reliable sources that properly vet information before assuming that what we're seeing is real and "think before we share."

Across the larger media landscape, the most evidence-based intervention to combat "fake news" is “inoculation” or “pre-bunking” that beats misinformation to the punch. In other words, in contrast to the futility of trying to cut misinformation off at its source, we benefit the most when media sources warn us about the misinformation that’s out there in advance, before we encounter it in the form of "fake news." For example, here's a good example of an inoculation against fake videos of the Ukraine invasion posted on Twitter by Bill McCarthy of Politifact.

Trauma and Doomscrolling

Now let's talk about how to stay informed about what's going on in a war while keeping in mind that doing so might take a toll on our mental health.

Everyone has a different set-point in terms of what we can tolerate, determined in large part by past experiences including previous exposure to trauma, so there’s no one-size-fits-all model in terms of what or how much we should take in. For most of us though, there’s a palpable difference between reading about people being killed or hearing a news anchor talk about it like we did before the internet and now being able to watch a video or live stream on social media that shows it happening right before our eyes without the protection of "trigger warnings" or editing that shields us from disturbing footage. So, we have to exercise some self-care and understand that searching for misinformation online can be a bit like walking through a minefield.

The tricky thing is that when we’re talking about things like war—or for that matter things terrorists beheading hostages or police killing Black people—not exposing ourselves to horrors may be self-protective, but can amount to a kind of denial or avoidance that can increase anxiety in the long-run while doing nothing to help the victims of violence. An argument could therefore be made that we should expose ourselves to such things because if we don’t allow ourselves to feel horrified or outraged, we won’t do anything to fight injustice in the world.

So, just like putting on your oxygen mask in an airplane emergency before we try to help other people, we have to make sure we’re not overdoing it with doomscrolling for doomscrolling’s sake while still keeping informed enough that we don’t just turn a blind eye. While there’s no denying that avoidance can be protective in the short-term, activism is often a better way to help us feel in control than just exposing ourselves to trauma over and over again. Each of us can therefore strive to find the right balance that lets us take in enough information so that we want to do something to help the people of Ukraine without overdoing it to the point of feeling nihilistic or hopeless.


This blogpost was adapted from a media interview for this article: Grinevičius J, Balčiauskas M. Some of the genius ways ordinary people are helping Ukraine right now.; March 3, 2022.