Of the many lessons available in the trajectory of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, one of the most obvious is that social media is now an instrument of war. We have seen how it has increased transparency, combated official disinformation, influenced international public response, and amplified propaganda. It plays the important role of primary information source for millions, and the proliferation of sources available has been a sort of democratization of the news market, for better and worse. Everyone from national leaders to journalists to regular citizens has had to embrace this reality, and they now struggle to identify ways to sort and verify the near-infinite data social media disseminates into the world.
This free flow of information is revolutionary but poses a viral threat of misinformation. The adage is truer than ever: “Truth is the first casualty of war.” The need to control the narrative seen by their publics has been a top concern for governments, and social media has become the medium through which this new information war is waged.
For years, Russia has effectively utilized social media to spread propaganda in Western countries, circulating disinformation to influence US presidential elections and seeding propaganda in Swedish media to turn public sentiments against NATO. The Russian government has justified its invasion by characterizing the Ukrainian government as pro-Nazi, a claim that has been laughed off in the West but has taken on credibility in other parts of the world. Access to people’s attention has made it easier for a government to broadcast a narrative while also exposing people to countless opposing narratives. For most, the truth is harder to distinguish.
The fog of war is thicker.
TRUE LIES IN MODERN WAR
During the Cold War, the Soviet Union banned Western radio, and those types of restrictions have carried over to today. Then, the US government created stations like RadioFreeEurope and Voice of America to broadcast in Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland, and Romania, and eventually in Russia. Soviet stations painted life in the West as destitute and horrible, but stations like RadioFreeEurope effectively countered this narrative. At its peak, RadioFreeEurope reached nearly 35 million people living behind the Iron Curtain in 15 languages. These efforts to deliver messages directly to Soviet citizens played an important role in countering the Soviet narrative.
A similar propaganda war has taken place in social media today on platforms that can reach millions more people. Consider too the American public’s experience in the Vietnam War. President Lyndon Johnson said in a 1968 speech that Vietnam was lost after Americans watched day after day footage of the war in their living rooms. Scholar Michael Mandelbaum thus dubbed Vietnam the “Television War.” American journalists and media became a gatekeeper and conduits of information for the public, as Americans increasingly relied on televised news to learn about its activities in Vietnam.
Propaganda and disinformation has come from both sides in the war. Many people are not questioning Ukraine’s use of propaganda, and it is important that this perspective is equally examined and questioned.
We have seen a similar shift in the role of social media in Russia’s war on Ukraine, to very different effect. Rather than a filtered stream of verified news, the global audience has infinite data points about “the world’s first TikTok war.” The gatekeepers are gone. The gates themselves are thrown open, with every mobile phone a potential window to war. People do not have to be in their living rooms to see the “thickening fog of war” online. This shift means radical transparency, enabling the global audience to witness the brutality wrought upon Ukraine.
It was journalism that brought information to the American people about their government’s actions in Vietnam, striking a stark swing in public opinion. Today, it is the broad and swift nature of social media that has garnered international support for Ukraine. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has indispensably amassed great support for Ukraine using social media, which has helped him connect with his audience and communicate the immediacy of his message. While social media’s mushrooming effect can call attention to world issues, it can work in sinister ways to threaten democracy and hide the truth.
Deepfakes — false, doctored videos — have impacted support for both sides in the war. Deepfakes falsely depicted President Vladimir Putin declaring peace in the war and Zelenskyy surrendering to Russia. Such disinformation spoils the marketplace of ideas while impacting the nature of war itself — propagating false narratives that require correction and response. The fact that Zelenskyy responded to his deepfake, reinforces how disinformation has merited the response of actors in global conflicts. Deepfakes also lower morale for all sides in the conflict — that even communications from powerful leaders involved cannot be trusted.
The Kremlin has again severely restricted independent media, such as suspending operations of Russia’s oldest independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta. As in bygone eras, state censorship can only plug so many holes in the dam. Even if the most prolific social platforms are censored, information flows through other channels. One interesting example is a Twitch streamer, Vlad Lomakin, who converted his gaming channel in late February 2022 to broadcast images of the bombardment of Kharkiv to his Russian audience of 92,000 subscribers.
Zelenskyy himself has repeatedly countered Russian claims by posting directly to social media, most famously with his “We are here” video at the beginning of the invasion. On a weekly basis, thousands of videos have revealed the extent of the damage, destruction, and brutality of the Russian invasion to viewers and governments all over the world. For example, following the massacre at Bucha, the sheer quantity of images on social media of dead and mutilated civilians quickly undermined the Russian government’s narrative that the attack and retreat of Russian forces was a false flag attack orchestrated by the Ukrainian government.
THE SIGNALS IN THE NOISE
The ubiquity and ease of social media has allowed the Ukrainian message to spread around the world through videos of Ukrainians feeding a Russian soldier on the phone with his mother; or of a violinist playing music to help her forget the war; or of graphic images of a six-year old girl wounded by Russian shelling in her neighborhood.
These media allow Ukrainians to communicate directly to the global audience, as Zelenskyy himself has, constituting a powerful form of emotional appeal. Even the “Television War” in Vietnam saw nowhere near this level of access and transparency available to anyone interested. Illustrating this new landscape, NPR correspondent Johanna Kakissis reported on the evacuation plan of Ukrainians trapped in a steel factory in Mariupol. She referred to a video of a “toddler wearing a taped-up plastic bag as a diaper,” detailing a story with a strong emotional appeal and lasting effect on the audience’s perception of the conflict.
As The New York Times reported, this access to transparency has made it difficult for the Russian government to justify its actions to the international community and has played an important role in the united response from the US and its allies. Many actors in the international community continue to diplomatically isolate Russia by voting to condemn Russia’s actions and removing Russia from the UN Human Rights Council. Moreover, these scenes on social media have been a clarion call for foreign fighters from across the world to drop everything and travel to Ukraine to fight Russia. Many of these fighters even lack military backgrounds. That social media has proven capable of inspiring so many to leave their homes to fight for another country shows how powerful a tool social media is in a narrative-driven war.
It is also important to note that propaganda and disinformation have come from both sides in the war. Many people are not questioning Ukraine’s use of propaganda, and it is important that this perspective is equally examined and questioned. According to NBC News, a verified Ukrainian military Facebook page misappropriated several videos depicting actions of war, which turned out to be taken from the Syrian conflict several years ago. The Russian and Ukrainian governments have both underreported and inflated casualties.
The way in which the world has accepted Ukrainian propaganda, whether it be from the state or citizens, has shown that they are fighting this information war. In the early days of the war, a video went viral of a supposed Ukrainian pilot shooting down six Russian planes. This hero, dubbed the “Ghost of Kyiv,” turned out to be from a videogame. This did not stop prominent Ukrainians like former President Petro Poroshenko from promoting the Ghost of Kyiv as well, who became an early folk hero for the Ukrainian resistance, despite being a complete fabrication. In another instance, the official NATO Twitter account posted a picture of a group of Ukrainian women in arms, only to later delete it because some of those women were wearing Nazi symbols. The story of the Snake Island soldiers who were supposedly killed by Russian forces after refusing to surrender went viral, only for it to come out later that they had surrendered and been taken prisoner.
Verification has failed to be a priority when it comes to amplifying Ukrainian propaganda. While this propaganda may improve morale for Ukrainian soldiers on the ground, it also opens up pro-Ukrainian voices to attacks like “fake news,” a typical response from the Russian government. Perhaps, from a Russian perspective, if Ukrainians are willing to lie about the deaths of soldiers to boost morale, what is stopping them from lying about the massacre of civilians? Russian propaganda seems more focused on keeping the Russian population behind the war and by extension Putin. Ukrainian propaganda, in contrast to Russia, has had a far greater reach, appealing to millions of people worldwide.
Western coverage has been predominantly pro-Ukraine, serving to reinforce a Russian perspective that Ukraine and international media is biased and lacks verification. This wider reach should come with the responsibility to share as authentic information as possible for Ukrainian officials, as the truth about Russia’s brutality may be their most powerful weapon.
The question before governments today is not whether and how much to intervene in this space to thwart Russia’s messaging, but how to conduct new social media strategies combating Russian misinformation. These could prove paramount, as the messaging war is fought in a media reaching billions.
Jasmine DeLeon is a Research Assistant in the DiploLab at Seton Hall University.
Hamzah Khan is a Research Assistant in the DiploLab at Seton Hall University.
Joseph Huddleston is an Assistant Professor in the School of Diplomacy and the founder and director of the DiploLab at Seton Hall University.