Russian invasion takes over social media, experts warn of mental health impacts and propaganda

DELMARVA – The Russian invasion of Ukraine is taking over social media platforms like TikTok, Twitter, and Snapchat.

Violent and Viral

Scrolling through, you’re almost guaranteed to see up-close, and possibly graphic images of the invasion. “Usually, when the press is covering war, they don’t show people getting killed on TV,” said Assistant Professor of Communication at Salisbury University Dr. Joshua Bolton. “If that happens in Ukraine, somebody with a cell phone with a camera is going to video that, and they’re going to post it online and people are going to see that. I think that’s something that people might have to prepare themselves to see.”

Even though the conflict is almost 5,000 miles away from Delmarva, the raw images of the invasion are making an impact right in our own back yard. “People can develop what we can vicarious trauma or secondary trauma,” said Dr. Heather Brown with Eastern Shore Psychological Services. “They’re not directly impacted because they’re not right there at the scene. But, going through and watching these videos or whatever they’re pulling up specifically on social media – because they’re mostly unedited – can cause somebody to experience very similar symptoms to Post Traumatic Stress.”

A Window Into War

Dr. Bolton says social media serving as a window into conflict isn’t anything new. He cites the viral videos that poured out of the Occupy Movement and Arab Spring in the early 2010’s. “You’re seeing everything. You’re seeing the good, the bad, the sometimes less than exciting, even,” said Dr. Bolton. “You are going to see what people are posting in terms of articles, videos, anything that’s going on more broadly in the world that people are sharing and commenting on.”

And with social media increasingly becoming the preferred source of news for young people, the danger of overexposure to violence is even more pressing for children, teens, and young adults. “Brains still haven’t fully developed at this time, and so seeing these traumatic images can really affect the way that they maybe perceive threats, or maybe they don’t quite understand,” said Dr. Brown.

Navigating Graphic Images

If you’re a parent, there are some steps you can take to help your children work through any emotions that come up with seeing violent content. “Really just listen to what your kids have to say. Help them identify their emotions and then answer the questions the best you can,” said Dr. Brown.

Dr. Brown says checking in with loved ones suffering from PTSD is also crucial. “I’ve even had to have conversations recently with individuals to say, ‘You really need to limit your media content,’ because for those who have PTSD, it’s re-triggering some things,” she said. “The other thing you kind of want to take into consideration, especially with our veterans, [is asking] ‘Is this a trigger for you? And how can we better support you through it?'”

There are some other tips you can use to help the vulnerable navigate content. That includes limiting time on social media, and providing positive, offline distractions. You can also monitor things like mood swings, energy levels, and isolation.

Propaganda Lurking

Another threat currently lurking on social media is the spread of Russian propaganda. “It’s a huge issue because social media is so easily accessible. It doesn’t take a whole lot to create an account, and start creating content. If you create content that people are gravitating towards, it can go viral and start spreading quickly,” said Dr. Bolton. “We’re kind of in this stage now where the freedom and democratization of social media is also running head-first into the possibility of authoritarianism, using social media to do the same thing.”

Dr. Bolton says that propaganda can be as innocuous as a TikTok trend. Or, it can come in the form of more obvious, misleading information. “I think what we’re seeing is some of those actors that are trying to sway public opinion, are starting to create accounts that are maybe showing videos of things that aren’t actually happening in the conflict, but are going to sway public sentiment one way or the other,” he said. “In the early stages of the invasion, we saw a couple of videos that were filmed five, ten years ago, and they were being passed off as being part of it.”

Turn To Trusted Sources

There are a few ways that you can identify which posts are legitimate, and which ones might be propaganda. “A lot of these accounts that are providing misinformation have been created in the last month or less. So, finding out it originated from an account that hasn’t been around that long, can raise some flags,” said Dr. Bolton. “Is it just a bunch of random individual citizens [sharing the post]? Or is it reputable news sources? Is it the Ukrainian government going ‘Hey, this is what’s actually going on on the ground’?”

Even with those tips, Dr. Bolton says misinformation can still run rampant. That’s because viral posts can move even faster than the 24-hour news cycle. “Once it comes out as inaccurate, it doesn’t necessarily change peoples’ perception of it because they’ve already seen it, and they’ve already made a conclusion, and they might have moved on to something else and not even remember that they saw that one thing that’s been proven to be wrong,” said Dr. Bolton.

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