Social media acts as both threat and aid in the Russia-Ukraine war

The+ongoing+conflict+between+Russia+and+Ukraine+has+created+a+surge+of+social+media+posts+at+a+level+arguably+never+seen+before.+However%2C+its+crucial+to+note+the+benefits+as+well+as+the+detriments+of+mass+exposure+during+the+era+of+technology.

Nick Landler

The ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine has created a surge of social media posts at a level arguably never seen before. However, it’s crucial to note the benefits as well as the detriments of mass exposure during the era of technology.

By Nick Landler, The American School in London

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in late February has driven the Western world into chaos nearly a month after its outset. While the topic naturally dominated most media sites, social media platforms were equally flooded with footage from the conflict and, thus, became an important force in giving the crisis exposure.

For the five consecutive days after the invasion began, my TikTok “For You” page, which generates billions of views daily, was almost entirely made up of videos live from the Russian invasion. As of April 5th, #Ukraine on the TikTok app has reached 35.4 billion views, with videos uploaded by Ukrainian civilians and soldiers alike accumulating millions of views and likes.

For the first time in the history of large-scale geopolitical conflict, the global populace has access to video coverage of the scenes mere hours after its outset, ultimately begging the question: How will the coverage of this conflict and future conflicts on social media alter the nature of how countries wage war altogether? Analyzing social media’s coverage of the Russia-Ukraine war right now may lead to some answers.

“Watching a war on TikTok”

Armored columns advancing through city streets, military aircraft burning in fields, small arms combat in fields and cities, and most recently a Ukrainian armored fighting vehicle destroying two Russian tanks are all commonplace when searching up Ukraine on social media.

Unlike previous conflicts, video clips of combat posted by the soldiers themselves have become widespread on social media and, hence, play an important role in informing foreign audiences about the nature of modern warfare.

Along with recording the war, social media posts by soldiers transparently display the intensity of emotions and the immense heartbreak that follow. Perhaps the most gut-wrenching of these posts are those of Ukrainian families being separated due to martial law mandating that every able-bodied man stay in the country, per USA Today

Social media posts by soldiers transparently display the intensity of emotions and the immense heartbreak that follow.”

One of these Ukrainian soldiers, by the TikTok username “Alexhook2303,” uploads videos of his regiment that have gained him tens of millions of views. However, when scrolling down his page, there are videos of him playing with his daughter uploaded days before the outbreak of the war, highlighting how the everyday lives of millions of Ukrainians were shattered in hours. 

Similar posts of Ukrainian fathers saying goodbye to their children and wives when leaving the country have tugged on the heartstrings of many social media users.

Civilians have also used social media to document the development of the conflict. A video uploaded by Ukrainian TikTok user “vlados_hk” shows Ukrainian city-dwellers constructing roadblocks out of steel bars and filling egg crates with Molotov cocktails. Another video of an elderly woman giving a Russian soldier flowers so that “they’ll bloom when he dies on Ukrainian soil” has also gone viral.

Cross-front dialogue

Perhaps the most significant long-term consequence of social media’s role in the Russia-Ukraine War may be how it has allowed for the people of both countries to communicate with one another despite being separated on either side of the front. 

Multiple of Russia’s most popular influencers have spoken out against Russia’s actions in the conflict. An interview series by VICE News posted to all social media platforms has also gained traction from its Russian interviewees, who largely condemned the invasion. From the thousands of social media posts from Russian social media users and influencers the message is clear: the invasion of Ukraine is not the will of most Russian people but of the government alone.

A video posted to Facebook with over 80 million views of a Ukrainian girl singing “Let it Go” while in a bomb shelter has become a testament to the Ukrainian people’s endurance. However, the girl sang the last stanzas in both Ukrainian and Russian, raising hopes among viewers that the two countries may be able to reconcile once the conflict is over.

Social media in this conflict has only increased in importance as the Russian government begins to crack down on social media platforms and increase censorship.”

Social media in this conflict has only increased in importance as the Russian government begins to crack down on social media platforms and increase censorship. The Russian government has already banned Facebook and Instagram and has demanded that TikTok filter footage of Ukraine from Russian viewers. Therefore, it is no surprise that four out of the top five most purchased apps on the Russian app store from February to March have all been VPN services, per The Economist.

From the Russian government’s response, it’s clear that social media is a powerful tool that can reveal the true human cost of war by allowing us to witness history unfold in real time. But at the same time, social media users must be vigilant to the ways social media can be used as a tool for disinformation, clouding the truth.

The spread of rumors and fake stories

Although a serious topic, the Russia-Ukraine War’s intensely viral nature means it is prone to many of the downfalls of internet trends, especially users capitalizing on its tragedy to boost their views. 

For example, users have repurposed videos of other conflicts and even videogames as “recent” footage from Ukraine.

A popular example is a TikTok of a Russian paratrooper landing in a rural area which many viewers assumed was Ukraine. Though the footage was in Ukraine, it was actually first uploaded during the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014. Despite its clear misuse, the video has accumulated 3.2 million likes.  

The Russia-Ukraine War’s intensely viral nature means it is prone to many of the downfalls of internet trends.”

Social media users’ ability to quickly spread stories has also led to the rise of war heroes. Perhaps the most well-known example being the “Ghost of Kyiv,” a Ukrainian Air Force pilot who supposedly shot down six Russian aircraft on the first day of the conflict. Fact-checking organizations have yet to verify this story, but millions of social media users have already posted alleged video evidence of the pilot along with their support and admiration.

While it can be argued that the creation of a war hero only has positive benefits regardless if it’s real or fake, it does raise concerns over other equally popular rumors that carry more negative consequences.

Misinformation about the conflict has occasionally undermined Ukraine’s foreign support. Last week, a picture of a Ukrainian man having fake blood being applied to his face was labeled as concrete evidence that the entire conflict was fabricated. Or, at least it was greatly exaggerated by the Ukrainian government. However, it was eventually revealed that the photo was originally taken from the set of a Ukrainian TV show in 2020, per the BBC.

Social media in this conflict has only increased in its importance as the Russian government begins to crack down on social media platforms and increase censorship. The Russian government has already banned Facebook and Instagram and has demanded that TikTok filter footage of Ukraine from Russian viewers. Therefore, it is no surprise that four out of the top five most purchased apps on the Russian app store from February to March have all been VPN services, per The Economist.

From the Russian government’s response, it’s clear that social media is a powerful tool that can reveal the true human cost of war by allowing us to witness history unfold in real time. But at the same time, social media users must be vigilant to the ways social media can be used as a tool for disinformation, clouding the truth.

This story was originally published on The Standard on April 7, 2022.