How to consume information in times of conflict

Unverified information can exacerbate conflicts. Recognizing and scrutinizing it should become reflexive for all of us

How to consume information in times of conflict

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Banner: Doctors and community leaders speaking at an “End the War” press conference outside the US Capitol on March 7. (Source: Reuters/ Andrew Thomas/NurPhoto)

Social media platforms have long served as virtual public squares for people around the world to communicate across cultures and consume up-to-date news and information. During times of crisis, particularly conflicts, these virtual public squares can and have served in several contexts as a communications lifeline for eyewitnesses on the ground broadcasting important developments around them and as a vital source of information for individuals and communities seeking accurate information. 

Yet as people attempt to understand developments around a conflict, some internet users rush to social media to share speculation and unverified information regarding what’s transpired, why, and what might come next. Whether shared innocently or with malicious intent, the pollution of the online information landscape with unverified information, misinformation, and disinformation can contribute to further deterioration of the situation, whether through fueling hate speech and triggering further violence, or sharing information that puts civilians in harm’s way.

As a crisis unfolds, the flow of information via independent media, citizen journalists, and civil society is invaluable in providing real-time updates. Those efforts are also instrumental in preserving footage documenting potential war crimes and collecting evidence to hold alleged perpetrators accountable, whether through international humanitarian law or the longer-term judgment of history. However, such content can also have significant drawbacks to the integrity of information when shared and consumed without proper verification and accurate context. False and misleading information can easily go viral, while factual and nuanced contextual details often become diluted when shared through a virtual game of telephone.

Verification can be a lengthy, complex, and difficult process, particularly when relying on incomplete information or content from sources with a known or perceived bias. Media outlets, open-source researchers, and fact-checking organizations sift through large volumes of conflict-related content in real time, including graphic content, in the hopes of making a sober assessment and presenting it to the public. However, the sheer volume of content and the difficulty of verification in a polluted, toxic, or highly charged information environment makes it extraordinarily challenging to disseminate accurate information that keeps up with the real-time nature of an ever-evolving conflict. 

Through the DFRLab’s monitoring of conflicts around the world, we work to understand and analyze the narratives promoted by the various stakeholders involved, the context and means by which those narratives travel, and the documentary evidence that can shed light on how combatants are engaging on the ground. There are no easy shortcuts to maintaining resilience and sorting out fact from fiction. Nonetheless, we would like to share some suggestions on how to navigate the information landscape during times of conflict, in hopes they will serve as a starting point regarding how we consume conflict-related content, how we interpret it through our own perspectives, and how to identify facts in an environment awash with false and misleading information. 

First thing’s first: consider your own biases 

All people have their own biases. Our lived experience naturally informs our perspective, which may not align with others, even when both parties are sincere and well-meaning in their attempts to understand and communicate with each other. Biases can also fall on a spectrum, from simple misunderstanding, unfamiliarity, or skepticism on one end, to outright hostility or hate on the other end. Toxic information environments polluted by false or misleading narratives, hostile rhetoric, or attempts to delineate between “us” and “them” can push even reasonably minded people further into their own biases, and further down the hostility spectrum.  This becomes especially dangerous in times of conflict. 

Here are some questions you can ask yourself before you next visit your social media platform or news source of choice. There aren’t any right or wrong answers; it’s all about reflecting on your beliefs, how you consume information, and how you engage with others.  

  • What are the issues, beliefs, or topics you feel strongly about? Is this something you’ve felt for a long time, or is it recent? Have they evolved at all? Do these positions serve as personal litmus tests when you interact with others? 
  • Who are the people you trust the most? Are there particular groups or institutions you trust or distrust? Do you find yourself becoming more distrustful over time? Do you think that impacts your perception of news and information? If so, why do you think that’s the case? 
  • Do you think of yourself as having all the answers, or are you more open to ideas expressed by others? Do you have ample opportunity to be exposed to different points of view? 
  • Do you tend to respond emotionally or analytically when something bad happens or when someone disagrees with you? Do you have any triggers, beliefs, or personal red lines that might cause you to switch from engaging analytically to emotionally? 
  • How do you react when you see someone expressing something you disagree with? Do you find yourself with the urge to go on the offensive or defensive and engage with them?  
  • Do you respect other viewpoints? Do you ever “agree to disagree,” or do you feel the urge to change the other person’s mind or shame them for their differing viewpoint? Do you feel the strong need to have the last word? 
  • Do you stick to news and information sources that support your beliefs or make you feel a part of a particular group or community? How do you feel when you get out of your comfort zone and consume information from sources you normally disagree with? 
  • Do you ever put yourself in someone else’s head to reflect on why they feel differently? If not, would you be willing to try? 
  • Do you often generalize about “the other side?” If so, why? How would you respond if someone pointed out how you generalize this way? 

Consider the source – and the context 

Conflicts, especially long-term ones, always have a more complex historical context beyond the viral social media posts and news headlines we might see regarding a particular incident, claim, or narrative. Unlike conflicts prior to the current era, today’s conflicts are now informed and sometimes exacerbated by developments that trigger online debate and information-sharing in real time, making accuracy and contextual understanding even more critical. Online reactions take on a life of their own, potentially steering the course of a conflict. Long-term conflicts that existed before the age of social media are unique spaces where the negative consequences of online narratives and how they influence a conflict can be witnessed.  

Online discourse contributes to the framing and solidifying of narratives, whether accurate or not. Sharing unverified and out-of-context information can have dangerous consequences during times of elevated tension, given the potential to fuel hate speech, which can incite further cycles of violence. Additionally, online actors engaging in information warfare often play on audiences’ fears and emotions by distributing disturbing content or unproven allegations, with the goal of drawing strong reactions that fuel support for their side and generate antagonism for opponents.  

Conflicts produce an increase in narratives and footage that requires fact-checking and verification. Professionals at media outlets and research institutions sift through large volumes of content to determine veracity and report credible information to audiences. Those institutions place significant importance on their reputation as trustworthy sources of information. Unverified claims by unknown social media accounts should typically be viewed with skepticism unless confirmed by official or reliable sources or through further investigation. 

False and misleading information has always been a part of warfare, making it vital for internet users to ask themselves tough questions about a source, including its motivations, interests, and biases. In our conflict monitoring efforts, we have observed countless cases of social media accounts impersonating journalists and reputable media institutions to earn audiences’ trust in order to appear credible when sharing disinformation. Such fake accounts are sometimes exposed after the false or misleading content has already spread to online audiences, including to those directly impacted by a conflict., interests, and biases.  

Here are some things you can ask yourself when considering a source: 

  • What type of rhetoric do they use? Is it black-and-white, one-sided, partisan, or from a particular geopolitical perspective? Do they present information forcefully, insisting what they share is “the truth” or “the facts?”  
  • Does the source express information with nuance? Do they provide context? When appropriate, do they cite sources – particularly other than themselves? Do they engage in self-reflection, or acknowledge what they know and don’t know?  
  • Do they show hostility towards particular groups? Do they denigrate people with differing viewpoints? Do they engage in hate speech or incite violence against others?  
  • Do they acknowledge their own mistakes? Do they take responsibility for them? If so, how? 
  • Do they engage in whataboutism when questioned or criticized? 
  • Do they acknowledge a particular bias or perspective transparently, or do they try to obfuscate it? 
  • Do you find their posts a source of comfort or reinforcement of your beliefs, or do they sometimes challenge your thinking? 

While “considering the source” may seem elementary, understanding their perspective and the context they provide is vital when attempting to differentiate between facts and opinions, or even facts and lies, especially when it might perpetuate online or offline harms. Misleading claims or de-contextualized footage contribute to the spread of online misinformation and disinformation.

Consider the platform as well 

Social media has equalized information sharing, allowing anyone to become an independent source of trusted information or a source of disinformation. Our dependence on social media platforms to consume news should be balanced with a dose of skepticism, particularly in highly volatile contexts like conflicts.  

If you rely on certain platforms as part of your information diet, it’s useful to think about how they function and why. 

  • What kind of platform is it? Is it profit-driven? Educational? Political? Who runs it? 
  • What’s the primary goal of the platform? Is it for sharing personal updates with family, or posting photos or videos? Is it a messaging platform? If so, are messages kept within a group of your own, or do they draw in public audiences?  
  • Is posting quickly encouraged? If so, can you edit posts if they need to be corrected?  
  • Does the platform reward users who gain influence, such as profit-sharing or higher public exposure? If so, are these rewards based on volume, engagement, quality, or something else?  
  • What’s the overall community like? Does it tend to be welcoming, toxic, or something in between? If there’s a toxic presence, is it avoidable, or does it permeate the entire platform? 
  • How do you go about using the platform? Does it encourage content exploration on other platforms, or is it designed to keep you contained within their ecosystem? 

The goal of asking these questions is not to become so cynical or mistrustful as to believe absolutely no one, but to engender a healthy skepticism that can analyze whether a given source may have certain motivations or biases. This applies to all sources, including ones you might already trust or mistrust, as reliability can evolve over time. You can even apply it to this very article as a practice exercise.  Scrutinizing a source, its messages, and its motivations should become reflexive for all of us. It’s no easy task, of course, but it’s nonetheless necessary for maintaining resilience and critical thinking – especially in times of conflict, when the weaponization of information becomes so commonplace that it is easy to become desensitized to it. 

Cite this case study:

Dina Sadek and Andy Carvin, “How to consume information in times of conflict,” Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab), March 18, 2024,