Stop me if you’ve heard the one about the Ukrainian beauty queen who volunteered to fight the invading Russian forces. If you’ve been on social media these past few weeks, you’ve probably seen the striking photo of the woman clad in tactical gear and holding a rifle. “We are living in a materiel world, and I’m a materiel girl,” the stunner says to the viewer through her steely glare.
Or the one about the Japanese ambassador to Ukraine kitted out in his ancestor’s samurai gear and ready to defend his adopted homeland?
You’ve surely heard about the “Ghost of Kyiv,” a Ukrainian fighter pilot who has been terrorizing his Russian counterparts, accomplishing the feat — uncommon in contemporary air combat — of becoming an ace.
Or maybe you’ve heard that hidden among the banking and economic sanctions against Russia lies a dirtier punishment — the restriction of Russian viewers from Pornhub.
What do these rumors have in common? They are bunk.
The former Miss Ukraine is holding an Airsoft rifle in the picture and, and while she hasn’t enlisted, she intended to inspire her people. The man wearing samurai armor is actually the Ukrainian ambassador to Japan, photographed more than a week before the Russian invasion began. The Ghost of Kyiv may or may not actually exist, but the footage you saw was probably from a video game. And Russia’s pervs are still free to visit one of the internet’s most frequented sites — though as the old commercials used to say, they don’t take American Express.
These are just a few of the falsehoods and exaggerations designed to inflame our passions. USA Today’s fact-checking operation has a useful roundup. TikTok has been a particularly fertile source for dramatic but dubious content about Russia and Ukraine. Visitors to the app that usually features teen dance challenges can enjoy such gems as a video of a dramatic (and fake) standoff between Russian and Ukrainian soldiers, chilling (and fake) footage taken by Russian paratroopers landing in Ukraine and even, as a YouTuber who chronicles online scammers uncovered, unscrupulous users outside of Ukraine who solicit money by looping footage of generic Eastern apartment blocs to falsely imply that they are in danger.
It is unlikely that John Quincy Adams could have predicted this sort of technology. But he likely had such emotional manipulation in mind when he famously declared that the United States “goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy.” Added Adams, “she well knows that by once enlisting under other banners than her own, were they even the banners of foreign independence, she would involve herself beyond the power of extrication, in all the wars of interest and intrigue, of individual avarice, envy, and ambition, which assume the colors and usurp the standard of freedom.”
In other words, we might have legitimate foreign policy reasons to get involved in foreign conflict, but we must be careful. Americans are a passionate people, especially when it comes to freedom. It’s easy to get played, suckered into acting in someone else’s interests when we don’t fully understand the situation.
But today we have members of the United States Congress posing with an altered version of the American flag in Ukrainian colors — a literal enlistment under other banners than our own. Or worse, irresponsibly suggesting that the leaders of combatant nations be assassinated.
None of this is meant to suggest that the United States should not act in this or other cases of injustice. While much of what has been shared on social media has proven false, there are real and unspeakable atrocities occurring at the hands of an expansionist Russia. But even when we act out of a passion for justice, we must remain clear-headed.
The foreign policy of any nation should be primarily motivated by a view toward the domestic good of that nation. Russia is a nuclear power, and that means that they are a serious threat. A piece in the Atlantic aptly noted that there is a “grim stagecraft” behind Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s selfie videos meant to rally his countrymen. But we are in the audience of the same play.
A bunch of Americans have recently abandoned their firm and ancient stance — held since the start of the Trump administration — that misinformation and foreign influence are bad. Two weeks ago, many of these same people put Ukrainian flag emojis in their Twitter bios. Two years ago, it was face-mask emojis. Ten years ago, they chuckled along with President Obama when he mocked Mitt Romney for calling Russia a threat. Justice may well demand that we act in the name of Ukraine, but let us at least be smarter about it than those people.