The invasion of Ukraine is not the first conflict documented and followed on social media, but it has become the most viral. A year after the start of the “world’s first TikTok war”, it is crucial for Ukrainians to keep it in the public consciousness. To attract attention, everything is also played with video shots, memes and tweets.
Less than a day after the Russian invasion on February 24, 2022, the war in Ukraine had already produced one of its most viral moments online. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who was thought to be the target of imminent Russian assassination attempts, then posted a “selfie” video taken at night in the streets of Kiev, proving that he had no fled the city.
But the president, a former successful actor, is not the only Ukrainian figure to become social media legend at the start of the war. The recording of a Black Sea soldier refusing to evacuate, giving the rallying cry “Russian warship, fuck you…” has gone viral. So did the video of a Ukrainian woman confronting an armed Russian soldier by giving him sunflower seeds which she says could grow on his body after he perished on Ukrainian soil. Messages have also multiplied, claiming to have seen the “ghost of kyiv”, a legendary Ukrainian fighter pilot who allegedly shot down Russian planes over the capital.
From videos of Ukrainian soldiers dancing at the scene of clashes to ordinary citizens giving tours of bomb shelters, ‘the world’s first TikTok war’ has produced a steady stream of up-to-date reports, straight from front lines.
“Much of what we see happens through the eyes and cameras of people who are in Ukraine and who are talking about what they see,” says Olga Boichak, lecturer in digital cultures at the University of Sidney. It is an almost unmediated access to the events of the war in real time”.
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“person of the people”
Among the most prolific, the official accounts of Volodymyr Zelensky post daily updates on several social networks. The Ukrainian president’s unique and well-formatted communication style for the media has helped him amass tens of millions of followers – a stark contrast to his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, who hasn’t posted on Instagram or Twitter. since early 2022, and has less than two million followers on both networks combined.
“President Zelensky has built a personal brand by being this ‘person of the people’ who subverts some of these traditions of what a president should look like, and how a president should speak,” analyzes Olga Boichak. “He’s always very direct, very informal, he shoots these videos in the ‘selfie’ format, and now we see this different mode of communication being used by many Ukrainian institutions.”
In July 2022, the Ukrainian government launched United24 Media, which serves as an official spokesperson on social media including Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, and YouTube to promote Ukrainian culture and debunk Russian propaganda.
Before taking the helm of the organization, Valentyn Paniuta was a marketing executive in Kyiv and knew the importance of engaging your audience, despite the central subject being war. “We use humor, we can use memes. We use a lot of user-generated content with music and jokes. We understand that people want to be entertained,” he explains.
The resulting content – which Valentyn Paniuta calls “infotainment” – is small snapshots of war that stir up emotions and rack up millions of views.
One of the group’s most popular videos on YouTube is a clip of Ukrainian soldiers firing a Howitzer cannon, which they dismantled before potentially being detected by Russian radars and being shot at. The stakes of life or death are settled on a stopwatch and rhythmic music.
Few could have predicted that Ukraine would mount such a strong defense against Russian narratives. Prior to 2022, one of Russia’s most powerful threats, in Western perception, was armies of social media ‘trolls’, individuals whose behavior is intended to generate controversy, ready to wage war information against Western democracies. Vladimir Putin also has state media that broadcast worldwide, in multiple languages.
When Russian tanks crossed the border in February last year, “Ukraine was faced with a situation where powerful Russian propaganda was being broadcast in different countries, but we had no international media,” says Valentyn Paniuta. “We needed to create some immediately, and our only weapon was viral content on social media.”
United24 Media was quickly assembled from around forty freelancers who worked in tech and advertising. The majority of the content has from the beginning been written in English to reach the most international audience.
“It’s a matter of survival for us,” defends the marketing specialist. “Our support comes from Europe, Britain and the United States. We want to appeal to ordinary people, entertain them and make them feel some form of empathy for the Ukrainian people.”
The timing of their message also offers unique potential to reach a global audience. The 1991 Iraq War introduced televised conflict to mass audiences, and the war Syria finds itself in is often described as the first “social media war”. Yet when it started in 2011, Twitter and Instagram had only a fraction of the users they have today and TikTok didn’t exist. Just over a decade later, global internet usage is at an all-time high, and some 4.5 billion people – more than half of the world’s population – are thought to use social media today.
In Ukraine specifically, the mobile technology market has grown exponentially. When Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, barely 4% of Ukraine’s population had access to 3G. By 2022, that figure had risen to 89%, with three-quarters of Ukrainians being active internet users.
This makes Ukraine one of the best-connected conflict zones ever. Alongside the efforts of official government accounts, millions of Ukrainians are also sharing, directly with a global audience, everyday experiences, calls for help and action.
“It’s the ultimate realization of ‘participatory warfare,’ where digital apps and platforms blur the distinctions between soldier, civilian and information warrior,” says Andrew Hoskins, professor of global security at the University of Glasgow, founder of the Journal of Digital War and co-author of “Radical War: Data, Attention and Control in the 21st Century”. “Everyone, through the content feeds on social networks, is participating in the war”.
The thread of war
For Andrew Hoskins, the grim reality of war and the levity of social media form a complicated mix. Usage of the Telegram messaging app increased by 66% in the months following the invasion of Ukraine. Unlike Facebook or Instagram, the app does not have a news feed, but one-way messaging channels allow individuals to broadcast encrypted messages to large audiences, making it a key source for updates and security information for civilians.
Yet some channels are also home to a proliferation of unfiltered war images, which can be easily retrieved and shared. “It seems to me that almost every image or video on certain channels constitutes a violation of the Geneva Convention on the treatment of civilians, prisoners of war and soldiers,” says the global security expert.
“The ‘thread of war’ is not just the stream of violent and gruesome images that fill digital feeds, but the fact that these are celebrated – ‘liked’, matched with emojis, applauded, copied and shared.”
The nature of social media is to encourage this type of fleeting interaction, even if the topic is macabre. It is also a community way of discussing the war.
“In many communities, humor and creativity are ways of coping with trauma and channeling emotions,” says Olga Boichak. “We clearly see this phenomenon on Ukrainian Twitter. Since the start of the large-scale invasion, it has really become a space of intense cultural production.”
However, only the most engaging content – the funniest, the most heartbreaking, the most shocking – can hope to reach a wider audience. During the first week of the war, tens of millions of tweets containing the word “Ukraine” were sent. But the novelty effect quickly wore off, the number of tweets peaked on the first day of the invasion, and had halved seven days later.
After months of conflict, “people are getting used to war, and they are bored,” said Valentyn Paniuta, from Kharkiv, a city that was largely destroyed by Russian attacks in the first few weeks.
“When I see my city in ruins, of course it’s hard to joke and make memes about Putin,” he says. But memes, tweets and videos are the best weapons he has. “We are doing our best to win this war, because we have no other option. Without the support [de l’Occident]I don’t even know if my house where I’m sitting right now would still exist.”
This article was translated from English by Pauline Rouquette.
Source: France 24