how Russia and Ukraine are using social media as the war drags on

Social media has become the main source of information for information-hungry audiences around the world trying to make sense of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

At the same time, it is used by the governments of Russia and Ukraine to set the agenda for broader media reporting.

Official Russian government accounts have been found to amplify pro-Russian misinformation on Twitter. Meanwhile, the Ukrainian government has taken to the platform to appeal to its two million followers for support.

Information warfare is no longer an additional arm of strategy, but a parallel component of military campaigns. The rise of social media has made it possible more than ever to see how states use mass communication as a weapon.



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Put social media in the mix

Mass communication began as political communication intended to establish and control empires.

Whether it’s Darius the Great imposing his image on buildings and coins to help control the Persian Empire; The inspired use of the portrait by Henry VIII or the well-documented use of radio and cinema during World War II – media technologies have long been used to spread political ideas.

Social media added another element to the mix and brought immediacy to strategic political communication.

In asymmetric conflicts (like the one we are currently seeing in Ukraine), a successful social media account can be a useful weapon against an adversary with many guns and tanks.

The local Arab Spring uprisings of 2010, particularly in Egypt and Tunisia, were among the first campaigns where social media played a central role.

Democracy supporters used Twitter, Facebook and YouTube to maintain communication networks and openly criticized their governments in the eyes of the world.

It didn’t take long for governments to realize the power of social media. And they responded by both limiting access to social media and using it themselves.

Social networks alone may not be able to spur widespread change, but it can definitely play a role.

information warfare

The tension between Russia and Ukraine has a long history and was highly charged on social media long before the latest invasion.

Pro-Russian accounts have circulated misinformation about Russia’s role in the Donetsk region since before 2014, fueling confusion and destabilization, and aiding Russia’s takeover. This was, in fact, an essential part of Russia’s “hybrid warfare” approach.

Russia’s strategic actions and Ukraine’s counter-actions have been widely studied by scholars. Unsurprisingly, the research overwhelmingly revealed that each side frames the conflict in very different and divergent ways.

Research has also found that social media can fuel or even aggravate hostility between Ukrainians and Russians online.

For example, after Malaysian Airline flight MH17 was shot down by Russia over Ukraine, an analysis of 950,000 Twitter posts revealed a plethora of competing claims online, creating a struggle for truth. which continues today.

As early as 2014, NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, General Philip Breedlove, described Russia’s communications strategy in Ukraine as “the most amazing information blitzkrieg we have ever seen in the history of the information warfare”.

These efforts have intensified since the recent expansion of the Russian invasion into Ukrainian territory. And with so much noise, it’s becoming increasingly difficult for users to make sense of the deluge of conflicting, emotional and (often) difficult to verify information.

It is even more difficult when the tone of the messages changes quickly.

The Ukrainian government’s Twitter account is a study in content and tone contrasts. Created in more peaceful times, the profile happily states, “Yes, this is Ukraine’s official Twitter account. Beautiful photos: #BeautifulUkraine Our music: #UkieBeats”.

But the account now posts a range of war-related content, images and videos as part of its strategic communications campaign.

This has included serious current affairs updates, patriotic allusions to historical events and people, anti-Russian material and – before recent reports of mass deaths – plenty of humor.



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Why use humor?

Humor has long been used as an element of communication and public diplomacy, even during wars.

For example, humor was used effectively by the Serbian resistance movement Otpor in its campaign to overthrow dictator Slobodan Milošević at the turn of this century.

Humor is particularly effective on social platforms because it generates virality.

And in the case of the defense of Ukraine, it shows defiance. After all, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy (a former comedian) was thrust into the political spotlight thanks to a satirical television production. In it, he starred as a teacher whose secretly filmed rant about corruption goes viral, leading to the character becoming president.

by Zelensky Twitter account is now the most immediate and reliable way for many Ukrainians to obtain crucial information about the invasion and the negotiations between Zelenskyy and other leaders.

The thousands of “shares” received by the publications contribute to Ukraine’s communication campaign.

Zelenskyy’s recent speech at the Grammy Awards confirms that he understands the need to remain visible to the world at this critical time. His speech garnered a lot of support on social media (as well as cries of “propaganda” from Russia supporters).

Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s Twitter Account has been dormant since March 16.

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