Social media have changed how the war in Ukraine has been reported on and seen by the rest of the world. While the average civilians on the ground can post images, the Ukrainian government and military have also used the various social media platforms as a means to highlight its successes – and more importantly Russia’s setbacks.
Even though we admit that Kyiv’s Russian troop losses as well as the total number of tanks destroyed/captured are exaggerated, these posts helped to rally the Ukrainian people.
Professor and Director of Diplomacy and International Relations graduate programs at Norwich University, Dr. Lasha Tachantouridze stated that social media was used extensively since the beginning of the conflict in Ukraine.
Social networks have been a valuable tool for the Ukrainian government. But private groups, individuals, and organizations that support Ukraine’s cause are even better. The social networks allow for cross-pollination between Western and Russian sources of information.
Tchantouridze stated that private entities had helped Ukraine generate and distribute content, and have amplified Kyiv’s messages.
It isn’t just Kyiv’s propaganda machine that has been tweeting, posting, and sharing images and videos from the front lines – much of the effort is being made by those that could be described as anti-Russian rather than strictly as pro-Ukrainian.
Tchantouridze said that support for Ukraine comes from “unexpected circles.” Russian activists and opposition groups have contributed a very important contribution, both from Russia as well as those operating in the West. This synthesis has contributed to the strengthening of pro-Ukrainian public opinion within the West.
Russia, despite its failures in the field and on social media, has mostly failed to make use of it. Here is the problem: Moscow has been at serious disadvantage since its invasion unprovoked in February.
According to Dr. William Pelfrey Jr. of Virginia Commonwealth University, “The invasion of Ukraine inspired many government actions in America and Europe. However, these tend on a large scale and amorphous levels.”
Although Russia was immediately banned from most of these services, experts believe that it has not made much difference. Social media was not likely to be used by the Kremlin in the same manner as Ukraine.
What is the difference? How Ukraine uses social media differently to Russia? It is what makes a society open or closed. Russia can spread disinformation very effectively, but they don’t encourage or discourage social media sharing,” said Rebecca Weintraub (emerita founder director of the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, University of Southern California).
Russia instead shut out all independent media. As the Kremlin was unable to control all information, it also restricted social media usage.
It’s the party line every time. Weintraub said that Russia must stick to the narrative it uses to justify starting or continuing the war.
The strictest controls have applied to even pro-Kremlin group members. This has meant that they are restricted to only a few tired messages. Their creativity is also limited. Also, Twitter comments which are pro-Russian or similar to them on other platforms get quickly criticized as being fake.
However, this is not to say Russia has been totally excluded from social media.
Tchantouridze noted that while Russia has banned or restricted certain social networks’ operations in Russia, it has allowed other groups to continue their activities in Russia.
Telegram and YouTube are closely related. Tchantouridze explained that the former was controlled by “Z channels” in the initial days of the conflict, but recently the Russian opposition made significant progress on Telegram.
Russia is losing more and more people every day.
Tchantouridze explained that after the Ukrainian military losses, pro-Putin Telegram organizations have been criticizing the Russian government’s handling of war.
Views from the Front
Social media has allowed average Ukrainians to easily share photos of the terrible events of war. This clearly has helped counter Russian propaganda for justifying its special military operations.
These posts, which are filled with human emotion and graphic detail, provide both micro-and macro effects of war. Weintraub said that their narrative is focused on civilian and infrastructure effects as well as the military consequences of Russian actions. It is even more striking to see the success of the Ukrainian army juxtaposed against the devastation inflicted on the cities and communities and daily lives of those who reside and live there.
It has been especially useful to share images from the Russian invaders’ atrocities on social media. This kind of real-time reporting was previously impossible. The global view of these images is a positive sign.
Pelfrey said, “Telling stories of displaced persons and families experiencing deprivation, homelessness, fear over lost loved ones, anxiety about family members who took on the invaders. These are the narratives Ukrainian social media has been telling.”
A video showing a child from Ukraine singing Disney songs inside a bomb shelter was mentioned by him. He said that it had resonance because all people could relate to the lyrics.
Pelfrey said that Russia had done an awful job of securing support from their population, as evidenced by thousands fleeing to escape conscription. The narrative Russia is promoting seems so unlikely and unarticulated that only the staunchest Putin supporters will believe it. Russia’s woeful failure in this area is clearly visible in the Ukrainian social media success. Ukraine seems to have won the war on several fronts, not just the digital front.