Since the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, social networks have been filled with videos from both sides. Cell phones are close at hand, and soldiers and civilians document the war as it happens. Social media has become part of the battlefield. So far, Kyiv is winning.
Ukrainian photographer Valeria Shashinok usually posts videos of her travels, fashion shoots, or nights out with friends on her TikTok account. But since the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the twenty tell us something about her daily life under bombardment in the city of Chernihiv, about 100 kilometers north of Kyiv. Set to music with a dash of black humor, she describes “a normal day in an air raid shelter” or gives advice on “what to buy at the supermarket during a war” to her 300,000 followers.
With Ukraine still facing multiple assaults and the number of people fleeing the country over two million, Shashinok videos can seem strange, even deaf. But in the age of social media, when cell phones allow us to watch war live, it generates millions of views.
Even Ukrainian soldiers are using Instagram, TikTok and Twitter to tell their stories from the battlefield. With 4.3 million followers, Alex Hook is the most famous of them all. Residing in the eastern Donbass region, he regularly posts videos of him and his fellow soldiers dancing to Nirvana songs or preparing for battle.
The Ukrainian military also has its own Twitter account that provides Hourly updates On the war for over 350,000 followers. The country’s armed forces display pictures of fighting, but also of captured Russian soldiers, something prohibited by the Geneva Conventions.
Influencers turned into fighters
The use of social networks in war is nothing new. During the Arab Spring and the ongoing Syrian Civil War, it was used by various parties to organize demonstrations and influence public opinion to their advantage.
The difference today is a new kind of storytelling. With more and more people carrying cell phones and regularly documenting their days on different social platforms, war has become a topic like any other. Young people use their own emojis and slang to share their experiences in real time. Amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine, some Ukrainian influencers – formerly better known for their beauty lessons than their political stances – have turned to resistance fighters, version 2.0.
Anastasia Lina, Miss Ukraine 2015, has ditched her glamorous dresses and now shows herself in combat gear and carrying a machine gun on her Instagram, urging her compatriots to defend their country.
Actress Nadia Dorofeeva, who has 5 million followers, has stopped publishing photos of private beaches and exclusive parties. She appeared on her account crying to demand an end to the fight. “I will stay in Ukraine, in Kyiv! I ask everyone to be calm, not panic, hold together and only read official sources! And support each other like never before!” I wrote next to this photo.
Andrei Khlevniuk, lead singer of Boombox, one of Ukraine’s most popular bands, grabbed attention by singing a traditional hymn with a gun on his shoulder. The star abandoned his American tour to fight the Russian army.
Win the digital battle
Ukraine’s leaders have also realized that the war is being waged on social networks. Until recently, Russia was adept at the art of disinformation with the help of armies of pro-Kremlin trolls, but it was outclassed by Moscow during its conquest. Since the beginning of the Moscow attack, videos and posts by and about Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky have been circulating on the Internet, creating worldwide sympathy for Ukraine. His Twitter account grew from 300,000 to 5 million followers in just a few days.
The former comedian-turned-head of state has shown himself outdoors among residents in Kyiv – in stark contrast to images of Russian President Vladimir Putin turning away from even his most trusted advisers and hating Russian allegations that he fled the Ukrainian capital.
Almost daily, Zelensky addresses his fellow Ukrainians and the world at large, urging them to continue the resistance. In contrast, Putin appears elusive and militaristic, seated at a comically stretched table or accompanied by a few officers standing alert. To control public opinion in Russia, Putin blocked access to Facebook and restricted access to Twitter. He also signed a law banning the use of the word “war” in reference to Russian actions in Ukraine and punishing anyone who spreads “false information” with up to 15 years in prison.
Russian celebrities are talking
The Russian government also attempted to organize a campaign of support for the invasion. According to Reddit, dozens of Russian influencers have posted similar videos repeating the Kremlin’s baseless claims of a “Donbass genocide” against pro-Russian separatists.
Russian ‘influencers’ on TikTok defend the invasion of Ukraine by giving the same exact propaganda rhetoric as each other pic.twitter.com/dJo3lIdhT5
– Fifty Shades of Whey (@davenewworld_2) March 4, 2022
Some Russian celebrities have chosen to express their disapproval of the government’s actions despite the risks. Actor Danila Kozlovsky, known for his role in the series “Vikings”, did not hesitate to oppose the war in a message he shared with his more than 1 million followers on Instagram.
Oxxxymiron, one of the country’s most popular rappers, announced on Instagram that he had decided to cancel six concerts in Moscow and St. Petersburg. “I can’t entertain you while Russian missiles are falling on Ukraine and some people in Kyiv are being forced to hide in basements or in the metro while others are dying,” he said in a video clip.
American philosopher Susan Sontag explained in her 2003 article “Concerning the Pain of Others” that the Spanish Civil War led to photojournalism – taking pioneers such as Robert Capa and Gerda Taro Lica to the front lines – and that a few decades later, the Vietnam War was the first to be done. Broadcast on TV daily. Today, wars are fought not only on the battlefield, but also on social networks.
History will record the war in Ukraine as the first to be documented in real time. But what will remain of the images of these refugees on the road, children under bombardment or exhausted fighters?
“Several images may stir up our confused consciousness, a feeling of sympathy that only lasts long enough to keep us scrolling,” writer Kyle Chica wrote in a New Yorker article, Watching the World’s First TikTok War. But as Russian forces approach Kyiv, major media organizations are “dragging their journalists to safety.”
“Social media is an imperfect wartime advocacy,” Chaika said. However, “in some cases, it may also be our most reliable source.”
This article has been translated from the original into French.