AP-NORC poll: Most in US fear Ukraine war misinformation

  • FILE - Ukrainian soldiers collect multiple Russian ‘Uragan’ missiles after recent fights in the village of Berezivka, Ukraine, April 21, 2022. A majority of U.S. adults say misinformation around Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a major problem, and they largely fault the Russian government for spreading those falsehoods. A new poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research shows 61% of Americans say the spread of misinformation about the war is a major problem, with only 7% saying it’s not a problem. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky, File)

WASHINGTON — A majority of U.S. adults say misinformation around Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a major problem, and they largely fault the Russian government for spreading those falsehoods.

A new poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research shows 61% of Americans say the spread of misinformation about the war is a major problem, with only 7% saying it’s not a problem. Older adults were more likely to identify the wartime misinformation as an issue, with 44% of those under 30 calling it a problem, compared with 65% of those 30 and older.

Misleading social media posts, fake pictures or videos and propagandized headlines have proliferated on websites, from TikTok to Facebook, since Russia’s assault on Ukraine began in February. In recent weeks, Russian state media and social media accounts have operated in lockstep to push tweets, TV reports and posts that claim photos of bombed buildings and bodies across Ukraine have been staged or faked. Even well-meaning, everyday social media users have fallen victim to the falsehoods, accidentally sharing or liking posts and images that turned out to be inaccurate.

About three-quarters of the American public fault the Russian government for advancing misinformation around the war, while many also blame social media users, tech companies and the news media. Far fewer place a great deal of blame on the Ukrainian or U.S. governments.

Russia’s falsehoods about the war are finding millions of eyeballs across social media and in state-media reports. Earlier this month, for example, a chorus of Kremlin media reports, Facebook pages, Twitter accounts and Telegram channels tried to refute photographs and satellite images of bodies left by Russian soldiers in the streets of Bucha, Ukraine by calling the images a “hoax.”

“Russia’s reach is broad,” said Darren Linvill, a Clemson University professor who studies disinformation. “They have a lot of different outlets that they use — everything from state media, in Russian, English and especially Spanish.”

The poll shows a majority of Americans — about 57% — say they think Putin has directed Russian troops to commit war crimes, while 6% say they think he has not done so. An additional 36% say they don’t know enough to say.

Since Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, the AP and the PBS series “Frontline” have verified evidence of 178 potential war crimes.

The poll shows about 6 in 10 Americans say social media users have significant responsibility for the spread of misinformation about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Roughly half also fault social media companies and the news media.

Retiree Kellie Carroll, 58, who lives outside of Fresno, California, said she is sometimes frustrated by social media users who share posts about the Ukraine war but don’t cite the source of their information.

“You’ll see things that people are stating as fact, like they are there,” Carroll said of posts she’s seen on social media around the war.

Carroll, who watches local news and listens to conservative talk radio, added that she, too, finds fault with news reporting on the war. She described it as difficult to find news reports around the war that are not injected with opinion.

“I don’t want the opinions, I just want the facts,” she said.

Half of Americans also blame the Chinese government, which has refused to condemn Russia’s actions in Ukraine, for spreading misinformation around the war.

Indeed, China’s state-run media outlets have made at least 74 English-language Facebook posts referencing a conspiracy theory that the U.S. is running secret biological warfare labs in Ukraine that have intentionally released deadly viruses, according to a new report from NewsGuard, a technology firm that monitors misinformation. (The U.S. runs biolabs in Ukraine; it’s not a secret and they’re not crafting bioweapons there.)

“A lot of this is definitely geared toward the United States,” said Jack Brewster, an analyst for the firm. “They’re echoing the same talking points that Russia is.”

Somewhat fewer blame the spread of war misinformation on U.S. politicians, with 44% saying they bear significant responsibility, and 32% saying the same about the U.S. government.

Roger Beaulieu, a 66-year-old New Yorker, said the Russian government is responsible for much of the misinformation around the war. But he’s been surprised when he reads The New York Times or watches MSNBC or CNN to see what he describes as misinformation coming from some Republican lawmakers about the war. Beaulieu specifically mentioned Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., who last month said that Ukraine invited Russia’s invasion by “poking the bear.”

“It just seems that there’s more support for Russia than I can possibly understand,” Beaulieu said.

Large majorities of Democrats and Republicans say Russia has a large share of responsibility for spreading misinformation, and 70% of Democrats along with 55% of Republicans say Putin has directed Russian troops to commit war crimes. About a quarter of Democrats and roughly a third of Republicans say they don’t know.

But Republicans are more likely than Democrats to say social media companies (63% vs. 50%), the news media (61% vs. 38%) and politicians in the U.S. (52% vs. 38%) also bear a significant amount of blame for misinformation about the war.

About a quarter of Americans overall said the Ukrainian government is significantly responsible for the spread of misinformation. Republicans were more likely to say the Ukrainian government had significant blame for spreading misinformation than Democrats, 32% to 15%. About 4 in 10 Americans say the Ukrainian government has little responsibility for the spread of misinformation.

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The AP-NORC poll of 1,085 adults was conducted April 14-18 using a sample drawn from NORC’s probability-based AmeriSpeak Panel, which is designed to be representative of the U.S. population. The margin of sampling error for all respondents is plus or minus 3.9 percentage points.

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