Battlefield wedding ceremonies; a Ukrainian farmer stealing a Russian tank with his tractor; Ukrainian mothers and children fleeing to find a line of donated strollers from Polish mothers. These images have bombarded our newsfeeds ever since Feb. 24, when Russian troops invaded neighboring Ukraine.
Outgunned, the Ukrainian government and the people of Ukraine turned to social media to get their stories out, moving dramatic images around the world and right into our hands.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is trying to avoid assassinations while somewhat directing the campaign through outlets like Instagram and TikTok, and calling on anyone with a smartphone to join the resistance.
Their personal stories have moved individuals, nations, and companies to act with an immediacy not seen in modern warfare. From around the world, people are helping arrange escape routes to Poland or tracking Russian army units moving through the Ukrainian countryside. It’s a powerful tactical strategy that Russian President Vladimir Putin may have underestimated.
“The democratization of narrative building has had an impact on our lives in so many ways, and we are seeing it play out on the global stage right now,” said Harris Vaughan, a strategic communications expert, and partner at Eckel & Vaughan in Raleigh. Vaughan says that he, like many others, has closely watched the Ukrainians’ story unfold on social media.
Ukrainians have been creative to use social media for coordinating messaging, resistance, and survival. Even when China, which owns TikTok, started throttling back coverage on Russia’s behalf, Ukrainians used review websites for Moscow eateries to get their message out. China’s foreign minister Wang Yi said in a press conference Monday that his country’s relationship with Russia was “rock solid.” TikTok has also been criticized for being a vehicle for video pulled from video games or other unclear sources.
“It allows for there to be a direct counter to any misperception being fed by the Kremlin and Putin himself,” said Vaughan.
However, in Russia the story is different. On Friday, Putin blocked the pro-Ukraine social media movement by shutting down Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube in Russia. Those platforms say they are doing everything they can to get back up and running inside Russia. Meantime, Russia’s state-owned media, like Russia Today and Sputnik, are sharing stories of Russian heroes “liberating” Ukrainian towns, and reporting that Ukrainian nationals are responsible for the deadly shelling in small communities, something that Ukraine has flatly denied, providing images from the attacks.
“It is true that they (the Ukrainians) are winning, but at the end of the day the audience Putin cares most about is what his own people think about him,” Darren Linvill, lead researcher at the Media forensic lab of Clemson University told The Guardian.
For the rest of the world, social media has brought public pressure to nations and companies to reject Russia’s business. Mastercard and Visa have cut off transactions inside Russia and with Russian entities. The U.S. has banned transactions with the Russian national bank, and counties including Britain have blocked any Russian-owned ships from their ports.
“It is level setting everyone’s perception of what is actually going on here,” said Vaughan. “The audacity of Vladimir Putin to decide to do this, in a world with social media is stunning to me. These platforms are actually galvanizing support.”
Communication technology in warfare
Communication technology has shifted the power dynamic in wartime for decades. This time, however, the power of information is in the hands of the people, not the political leaders or military strategists.
“We are using new technology like social media to organize in a time of war; Paul Revere, when he hung two lanterns up in the belfry as a way to signal that we were under attack, General (Dwight D.) Eisenhower had the world’s finest weathermen working with him to decide when the weather was going to be just right for all the ships, planes, and men to go to Normandy,” said Vaughan. “Now you are seeing civilians fighting back along with women, children, civilian casualties on your social media newsfeed. So, the fact that the Kremlin says one thing and social media accounts are showing another, is really powerful.”
The wildfire of social media against Russia and Vladimir Putin may have knocked the Russian leader on his heels a bit, but he’s punching back. On March 4, Putin shut down one of the last independent news outlet in Russia, Meduza, giving reporters a choice between the Russian government’s narrative or 15 years in jail. Russian’s Parliament passed a “fake news” law directing “those who lied and made statements discrediting our Armed Forces to be punished, and very severely.” The law targets media outlets who use words like “invasion” rather than “special military operation” to describe the conflict in Ukraine.
Parsing misinformation from Ukraine is proving to be challenging as well. The image of a Russian tank on Ebay was flagged as “misinformation” by the Poynter Institute.
The chilling effect is particularly relevant as the United States recognizes the annual Sunshine Week, March 13-19, a non-partisan, non-profit national initiative begun in 2005 by the American Society of News Editors. It’s designed to honor independent journalism and call for the end to government secrecy.
A digital iron curtain
Two weeks into the invasion, the world’s first armed conflict on social media could still shift what we see. Documents circulating among the EU suggest Russia is preparing to disconnect from the global internet, advising Russian companies to move their domain names and hosting services to domestic providers. Russian officials deny that the country is going to go dark behind a digital iron curtain, rather that they beefing up protection from foreign cyberattack. Still, after spending years investing in cyberattack capabilities and misinformation campaigns, it has global cyber security experts concerned over where the next front will be.
“If all of a sudden there’s a counter to what the world is seeing, it’s probably a nefarious situation where someone is coming in to put fake news in the feed,” said Vaughan.
An orchestrated counter narrative is likely to pop up, but how big tech manages it is in debate. Apple has already said it is halting sales of smartphone and other products inside Russia. Twitter has banned more than 100 accounts that used the hashtag #IStandWithPutin while Meta, parent company of Facebook, and Twitter, have demonetized Russia’s state-linked accounts. The platforms have not blocked official Russian messaging, something big tech was roundly criticized in 2020 for doing to former President Trump. Trump’s accounts are still banned from Facebook and Twitter, even as a private citizen.
“We have a responsibility to tell the truth and something that has really troubled over the last, say decade, is this idea that there are versions of truth; His truth, my truth – there is THE Truth,” said Vaughan. “The truth will come out about all of this, and it will be in the hands of the regular Ukrainian people who are watching this unfold in front of them. We should respect that and allow that to happen. The truth will set us all free, from dictators, from lies, and from all else that is out there trying to change how we want to live.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been updated to include that one image has been labeled as “misinformation.”