The Ukrainian conflict is far from the first social media war: the Arab Spring, more than a decade ago in 2011, was arguably a turning point for the power of the internet. But as Russian forces encroach further into Ukraine, the power of social media is starting to be shown in how it shapes perceptions of the war.
Whether it’s videos from TikTok that bleed over onto Twitter and Facebook, images from chat app Telegram that are reshared on Instagram, or the lionising of Ukrainian fighters into characters from the Marvel Comic Universe, it’s hard to escape information about Ukraine online.
“It’s an evolution,” says Ed Arnold, research fellow in European security at London-based defence think tank RUSI. “At some point, the digital information side came in and social media was allowed to be weaponised in a certain way.” Feeds have been flooded with videos, photographs and memes capturing the warp and weft of war – some created by impartial observers, but others by each side involved in the battle for Ukraine’s future.
“The war for hearts and minds in any conflict certainly now takes place across digital platforms,” says Steven Buckley, who researches political communication and social media at the University of West of England. “The ability for individuals to shape narratives and manipulate emotions, for both good and for ill is something that we all must come to terms with.”
Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, announced earlier this week it had removed a small network of 40 pages created by Russia that were designed to sow false narratives about the way the war is evolving for an international audience. Twitter has been tagging accounts connected to the Russian state with warnings designed to make users think twice. And all the while Russian influencers are bravely speaking out against the horrors inflicted on Ukraine by Vladimir Putin – while their Ukrainian counterparts are sharing Instagram Stories on how to make Molotov cocktails.
But fighting the information war isn’t solely in Russia’s purview. It has become a vital component of each army’s plans. The Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs has set up chats on chat app Telegram in Ukrainian and English, broadcast to a combined audience of 385,000 people, through which they disseminate the latest casualty numbers they’ve inflicted on Russian forces – alongside videos and images of atrocities they claim the invaders have carried out.
The goal is to create an endless stream of content and updates that the government hopes those 385,000 people will pick up and reshare elsewhere – all of which piles on the pressure on Putin as his losses add up.
But it’s not just on Telegram that Ukraine is fighting back on social media. They’ve taken to other platforms, including Twitter, to collapse the distance usually expected between politicians and the public, and to remind users that in this war, there’s one side more human – and humane – than the other. From the Ukrainian government’s provocative but jokey tweet telling users to “Tag @Russia and tell them what you think about them”, which nearly 70,000 people did, to Mykhailo Fedorov, Ukraine’s minister for digital transformation, regularly tweeting at everyone from Elon Musk to Apple chief Tim Cook to compel big tech to act, they have been bringing the fight on social media in a punchy, conversational way. (Both have worked; Musk shipped his Starlink satellite internet system to Ukraine within 10 hours of being asked, while Apple has stepped up actions to remove itself from Russia.) President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s regular selfies and videos from the streets of Ukraine have the same effect: they galvanise the world towards his cause, and remind us all that Ukraine is still fighting.
Of course, the battle for cyberspace is far less relevant when Russian missiles are pounding Ukraine into oblivion. But the country and its leaders have managed to harness the power of social media to tell the world of Russia’s crimes – and to make sure that in the febrile, fast-forgetting world of social media, we don’t skip over the scenes happening so close to home.