Social media has changed the way the war in Ukraine is being reported and even seen around 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 if we accept that Kyiv’s figures of Russian troop losses, as well as the number of tanks destroyed/captured, are inflated, the posts have helped rally the Ukrainian people.
“Since the very first days of the war in Ukraine, social media has been used in many interesting ways,” explained Dr. Lasha Tchantouridze, professor and director of the graduate programs in Diplomacy and International Relations at Norwich University.
The government of Ukraine has made good use of social networks, but even more effective have been private groups, organizations, and individuals that have supported Ukraine’s cause. Social networks have allowed for a productive cross-pollination of content between the Russian opposition and Western sources.
“Private entities have helped Ukraine by generating and disseminating content and by amplifying Kyiv’s messages,” added Tchantouridze.
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.
“Support for Ukraine has come from rather unexpected circles,” said Tchantouridze. “A very significant contribution has been made by the Russian opposition groups and activists, some of them active in Russia, others operating from outside the country. Such a synthesis of information has helped to generate and strengthen pro-Ukrainian public opinion in the West.”
In addition to its setbacks on the battlefield, Russia has largely failed to use social media as well. However, here is where Moscow was at a serious disadvantage from the moment it began its unprovoked invasion in late February.
“The invasion of Ukraine inspired a host of government actions in the United States and Europe but these tend to exist on a large scale, amorphous level,” said Dr. William Pelfrey Jr., professor in the Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs at Virginia Commonwealth University.
Russia was quickly banned from many of the services, but some experts suggest that has actually made little difference. The Kremlin wasn’t likely ever to use social media in the same way as Ukraine.
“The difference between how Ukraine has used social media and Russia is the difference between an open society and a closed one. While Russia is unfortunately efficient and effective in spreading disinformation, they do not encourage, in fact quite viciously discourage public social media sharing,” suggested Rebecca Weintraub, emerita founding director of the online master of communication management program at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California.
Russia instead silenced all independent media. The use of social media also was heavily restricted, as the Kremlin couldn’t control what was being said.
“It is quite literally the party line all the time. In the case of the war, Russia wants and needs to stick to its narrative of justification for beginning and continuing it,” added Weintraub.
Even pro-Kremlin groups have been subject to strict controls, and they have been made to stick to a handful of tired messages, and as a result, their creativity has been restricted. Moreover, comments that tend to be pro-Russian on Twitter and other platforms are quickly called out as not being authentic.
This isn’t to say that Russia has been completely shut out of social media.
“The Russian government has selectively banned and restricted social networks from operating in Russia but has permitted others to operate in the country,” noted Tchantouridze.
“YouTube is the most popular social media in Russia, closely followed by Telegram. From the early days of the war, the latter was dominated by the so-called ‘Z channels,’ but more recently, the Russian opposition has made headway in Telegram as well,” Tchantouridze added.
As Russia’s losses have continued, even some of its supporters are now becoming critics.
“After the military losses sustained by the Russian forces in Ukraine, some of the pro-Putin Telegram groups have started to criticize the Russian government’s handling of the war,” Tchantouridze explained.
Views From The Front
Thanks to social media, average Ukrainians have been able to share images of the horrors of the war as well. This certainly has served to counter the Russian narrative for the justification of its special military operation.
“These posts are graphic and filled with human pathos, providing both the micro impacts of the war as well as the macro. Their narrative focuses on the civilian, infrastructure, and military impact of Russian actions,” Weintraub continued. “This is especially jarring when the Ukrainian military’s successes are juxtaposed with the war’s devastation on cities and towns and the everyday people who live and lived there.”
Social media has also been particularly useful in sharing images of the atrocities committed by the Russian invaders. Previously such real-time reporting from the frontlines was impossible. The fact that the world can see those images has certainly impacted world opinion.
“Telling the stories of displaced persons, families suffering deprivation and homelessness, fear over missing loved ones, anxiety over family members who took up arms against the invaders, these are the narratives that Ukrainian social media has been telling,” said Pelfrey.
He noted a particular video of a Ukrainian child singing Disney songs in a bomb shelter and said it resonated because everyone could empathize.
“Conversely, Russia has done a miserable job securing the support of their populace, as evinced by the thousands of persons fleeing the country to avoid conscription,” Pelfrey added. “The narrative that Russia has espoused is so improbable, and poorly articulated, that it appears only the most devout Putin loyalists give it any credence. The Ukrainian success in social media is in direct contrast with Russia’s dismal failure. Ukraine seems to be winning the war on multiple fronts, including the digital front.”