In an earlier update by Mark Sumner, a commenter noted, “I do hope you are successful in sussing out the accurate stuff from the propaganda and bot work.” Mark responded:
In spite of attempts to limit the numbers, about half of all the information on Ukraine out there still comes from pro-Russian bots, fake accounts, and propaganda units. There is never a shortage of “Russia is winning!” and “Ukrainian forces have been destroyed!” tweets out there. There seem to be no shortage of Western accounts ready to repeat these statements.
At the other end, there are no end of click-bait accounts trying to draw eyeballs by claiming to have knowledge of troop movements, or breaking news on the next Big Ukrainian Victory! These, of course, can generate hopeful attention from people who definitely want to just see Ukraine roll to Moscow.
To avoid both, we rarely post anything on the basis of a single source, and usually track back along the path to make sure that what appears to be multiple sources are not just quoting the same questionable origin story. We’re rarely first up with Breaking News, but also have to write a lot fewer retractions.
I added my own thoughts in that comment thread, but I’m going to use this opportunity to expand on them, because it can hopefully provide lessons to others as they work to navigate the confusing world of war coverage.
As Mark notes, there are several kinds of misinformation:
- Hostile mis- and disinformation (Russian trolls, bots, etc, Scott Ritter and the tankies)
- Friendly mis- and disinformation (Ukrainian “information warfare” efforts to shape the world community’s perception of the war)
- Click-bait confirmation bias material (Example below)
- Honest mistakes (e.g. calling artillery gun a “tank”)
- War-splainin’ bloviating (You know, the pundits who have all the answers)
The truth is out there, but in the fog of war, it drips out in bits and pieces, all the while all the crap above muddies the water. Our job is to piece together all confirmed facts to try and paint a picture of what is actually happening on the ground, all the while acknowledging holes in our knowledge. For example, we can take what we know to be a credible on-the-ground source, this Canadian volunteer fighting in the Ukrainian foreign legion, and understand what even he admits—that his own operational security (OpSec) means he can’t be too detailed in his information:
Yet he notes that he’s near Kherson, and occasionally mentions town names, so we can get an idea of how far Ukrainians have advanced. That gives us something to work on, that Ukraine is on the attack, but that the exposed, desert-like open terrain prevents them from holding some of that territory, and thus they are being strategic and fluid in where they move. (Note, careful of clicking on his Twitter timeline. He posts graphic war dead photos that are literally some of the worst shit I’ve seen and I wish I never had.)
Still, we would never use one random guy who seems to be in Ukraine, but could be a big scam, as our source. It’s always cross checked with other information from the area, culled from Twitter, Telegram, and Ukraine’s Facebook pages (where its military general staff release regular war updates). We’ve sat on a lot of really exciting information because we couldn’t get multiple credible confirmation, and we didn’t want to fall into the “confirmation bias” trap—believing something simply because it’s something we want to believe.
The opposite is true, we don’t reject information because we don’t want to believe it. It was okay to be skeptical of Russian reports that several hundred Ukrainian marines had surrendered in Mariupol. There was a big effort to “debunk” the video evidence, some of it which was genuinely intriguing. Ukraine general staff contributed to the confusion by denying it was true. But real confirmation soon came from other Ukrainian soldiers on the ground, saying “yup, that’s some of ours.” We didn’t want to believe it was true, but unfortunately, it was.
Here’s another example of confirmation bias:
We all want to see the Russian Black Sea Fleet on the ocean floor, so exciting! Nearly 11,000 people liked that tweet! But digging in, it was clear that there was zero evidence to support it. For one, no credible Twitter accounts reported it. This one is a British photographer with like 700 followers. And not to say the number of followers is everything, but “photographer” isn’t the kind of person that would have insight into, well, the covert shipment of a major offensive weapon, already deployed to Odesa.
So we dug deeper, looking for credible media reports, and nothing. This tweet and photo made the rounds, reposted by many over-eager excited Ukraine boosters, but there was no credible source at the end of the line. Now, that doesn’t mean the tweet is wrong! It just means there is no evidence, and so we couldn’t report on it, or build entire narratives around its presence. Quite the opposite, in fact: The Harpoon has a 75-mile range. If Ukrainians had it, they could deploy the missile at Zaporizhia, and hit Russian ships at Berdiansk (where that landing ship was sunk, either by missile attack or accident). If Ukrainians had those missiles, they could deploy at Odesa and have sunk the Russian ships that were shelling the city just two days ago.
Today, the UK announced that they were, indeed, delivering anti-ship missiles to Ukraine. However, they haven’t said which ones. Everyone assumes Harpoons, but the only country with shore-fired Harpoons are Taiwan, and they’re the other country in the world that most needs them. They ain’t giving those launchers up. The UK has a helicopter version, the Sea Venom, but that’s also a no-go, as Ukraine doesn’t have the right kind of helicopters specially outfitted to carry the missile.
After more digging, we found that the UK actually has three “land-based reference systems” of Harpoons, so is that it? While we haven’t confirmed, those appear to be launchers used to develop and test the Harpoons, and are around 30-40 years old. Do they even work, as they’re not fielded? Maybe! But again, we don’t know. A Politico writer “confirmed” that Britain was sending Harpoons, but we still don’t consider it confirmed, because reporters make mistakes and misunderstand things. What would make most sense would be short-range anti-ship missiles that Odesa could use against an amphibious assault that will never come (as I’ve been saying since the first week). That would be defensive, which is a thing that NATO is still seemingly hung up on. Harpoon’s range and punch makes it a potent offensive weapon.
At some point, a British Ministry of Defence official will confirm Harpoon, or we will see pictures of one in Ukraine, but until then, we consider that bit of information “rumor,” and will treat it as such if and when we write about it. The amount of time we’ve spent on this Harpoon issue the last several days is … more than I’d like to admit. But it’s important that the information you guys get is as reality-based as possible. No one is served by simply regurgitating information that makes us feel better.
The best information is objective information, like the NASA FIRMS satellite imagery. Next up is commercial satellite imagery, like the stuff that confirmed that the dead civilians lying in the street had been there before the Russians retreated from Bucha. Next up is geolocated video from Twitter and Telegram. That is, Ukrainian and Russians post video of their attacks, and an army of volunteers in the Open Source Intelligence (OSINT) community use satellite and Google maps imagery to find the precise location.
Then there’s on-the-ground sources, but only when multiple individual accounts corroborate the information. Ukrainian Ministry of Defence is actually shockingly reliable when it comes to who holds what territory (oftentimes a day late, presumably for confirmation or OPSEC), but terrible when it comes to the number of tanks, aircraft, etc destroyed. (And I know there have been efforts to demonstrate how their numbers might not be so far off, but the counter evidence is stronger.) The Russian Ministry of Defense lies, but at least it gives us an idea of where Russia intends to go. If they claim they’ve captured Mariupol’s port areas in the southwest, then that’s where they’re currently focused in the fight.
The Pentagon, UK, and French ministries of defense are sparse in details, and oftentimes a day or two late, but they’re nice to confirm some details. But when the Pentagon says things like “29 Russian BTGs are combat ineffective,” we understand that those are general estimates, and no one knows the real truth, not even Russia. (You think commanders are sending accurate reports up their chain of command? That’d be one way to get shot. Better to say all is great!)
Finally, we rely on or experiences and expertise. Remember when everyone was screaming that Belarus was going to directly enter the war? It was obvious from the beginning, given my knowledge of military logistics, that it was literally impossible for Belarus to open up a new front all the way out in Western Ukraine. There was no way it was ever going to happen. So while Ukraine, the Pentagon, and everyone with satellite pictures of Belarusian forces gathered in Western Belarus were convinced it would happen, I was confident it never would. Same thing with an amphibious assault of Odesa. How was a couple of thousand Russian naval infantry going to make a contested amphibious assault against a well-defended city of 1 million? Yes, Russia has been stupid. Suicidal at times. But amphibious landings are some of the most difficult military maneuvers to pull off
, and Russia has never pulled one off in its history. [Edit: As pointed out in the comments, the Soviet Union managed two amphibious assaults against the Japanese. Ironic I got that wrong in a story about trying not to get facts wrong...] The loss of men? Russia doesn’t care. The loss of a big chunk of its navy, which would’ve inevitably happened? Russia cares about that.
That doesn’t mean we can’t be wrong, but understanding the logistical (always first!), strategic and tactical pictures is key to properly covering the war. Understanding how weapons systems work (a Mark Sumner specialty), how they are supplied and maintained and operated, and their operational details, further inform the situation on the ground.
Anyway, I write this not out of defensiveness. The community has been incredibly appreciative of our war coverage, and we truly appreciate all the sincere and warm thanks. My favorite part is how so many great, smart commenters add rich details, historical context, and other great information to the topics at hand. I write this to confirm that yes, we take our jobs seriously, and work really hard to ensure no one is misled, and that we are always 100% reality based. And just as importantly, I write this to remind all of you to consume war information (and all information, really) responsibly. Always check sourcing and your own propensity for confirmation bias. If something is too good to be true, spend extra time trying to confirm it. And never be afraid to wait for more official confirmation (if it is, indeed, true).
And lastly, I’ll just say that I love you guys. All of you. I’m tired, emotionally drained, and often triggered given my own personal story (as a war refugee from El Salvador). But your warm embrace of our work gives me energy and motivation when it otherwise might flag. So I appreciate you all.
While it’s clear that there have been actions near Kherson, continued fighting in Mariupol, and at numerous points along the eastern front, there seem to be no major changes in control over the last 24 hours.
Geolocated to just northeast of Kherson. The noose is tightening. Also, at around 0:38 you see a puff of smoke on the tank—that’s an automatic smoke grenade launcher, triggered when the tank senses it’s being “painted” by enemy laser targeting system. It’s supposed to confuse such lasers or other thermal targeting. Given how many destroyed T-72s we’ve seen, I’m suspecting that it doesn’t work very well.