Social media has become a primary source of information for a news-hungry audience 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 wider media coverage.
Official Russian government accounts have been found to amplify pro-Russian disinformation on Twitter. Meanwhile, the Ukrainian government has used the platform to ask for support from its two million followers.
Information warfare is no longer an additional branch of strategy, but a parallel component of military campaigns. The rise of social media has made it easier than ever to see how states weaponize mass communication.
Bringing Social Media Into The Game Mass communication began as political communication aimed at building and controlling empires.
Whether it was Darius the Great who stamped his image on buildings and coins to control the Persian Empire; From the inspired use of portraiture by Henry VIII to the well-documented use of radio and film during World War II, media technologies have long been used to disseminate political ideas.
Social media has added another element to the mix, bringing immediacy to strategic political communication.
In asymmetric conflicts (like the current one in Ukraine), a successful social media account can be a useful weapon against an opponent with many guns and tanks.
The local uprisings of the 2010 Arab Spring, particularly in Egypt and Tunisia, were among the first campaigns in which social media played a central role.
Pro-democracy advocates used Twitter, Facebook and YouTube to maintain communications networks and openly criticized their governments for the world to see.
It didn’t take long for governments to realize the power of social media. And they responded by both restricting social media access and using it themselves.
Social media alone may not be able to bring about widespread change, but it can undoubtedly play a role.
Information warfare Tensions between Russia and Ukraine have a long history and ran high on social media well before the last invasion.
Pro-Russian reports have spread disinformation about Russia’s role in the Donetsk region since before 2014, fueling confusion and destabilization and supporting Russia’s takeover of power. Indeed, this was a crucial element of the Russian “hybrid warfare” approach.
Russia’s strategic actions and Ukraine’s counteractions have been widely studied by researchers. Not surprisingly, research has overwhelmingly found that each side shapes the conflict in very different and different ways.
Research has also found that social media can perpetuate and even increase hostility between Ukrainians and Russians online.
For example, after Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 was shot down by Russia over Ukraine, an analysis of 950,000 Twitter posts uncovered a plethora of competing claims online, sparking a battle for the truth that continues to this day.
Back in 2014, NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander Europe, General Philip Breedlove, described Russia’s communications strategy in Ukraine as “the most amazing information warfare blitzkrieg we have seen in the history of information warfare.”
These efforts have escalated since Russia’s recent invasion of 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) hard-to-verify information.
It gets even harder when the tone of the posts changes rapidly.
The Ukrainian government’s Twitter account is a contrasting study in content and tone. Set up in more peaceful times, the profile cheerfully reads, “Yes, this is Ukraine’s official Twitter account. Beautiful pictures: #BeautifulUkraine Our music: #UkieBeats“.
But the account is now releasing a range of war-related content, images and videos as part of its strategic communications campaign.
This included serious news updates, patriotic references to historical events and people, anti-Russian material and – prior to recent reports of mass deaths – quite a bit of humour.
Why use humor? Humor has a long history as an element of communication and public diplomacy – even during wars.
For example, humor was successfully used by the Serbian resistance movement Otpor in their turn-of-the-century campaign to overthrow dictator Slobodan Milošević.
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 famously thrust into the political limelight thanks to a satirical television production. In it, he played the role of a teacher whose secretly filmed tirade about corruption goes viral, propelling the character to become president.
Zelenskyi’s Twitter account is now the most direct and reliable way for many Ukrainians to get important information about the invasion and the negotiations between Zelenskyi and other leaders.
The thousands of “shares” received by the posts help Ukraine’s communication campaign.
Zelenskyj’s recent speech at the Grammy Awards reiterates that he understands the need to remain visible to the world at this critical juncture. His speech drew a lot of support on social media (as well as shouts of “propaganda” from Russia’s supporters).
Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s Twitter account has been dormant since March 16.