Throughout much of early 2022, the eyes of the world were fixed on Ukraine’s border with Russia as President Putin ramped up the presence of Russian troops on the border. Since Russian troops invaded, the world has seen a new kind of public outcry, a digital one. For weeks social media platforms have been filled with content from the conflict. It ranges from a Ukrainian flag in a profile bio to live streams from on the ground in Ukraine where the fighting still rages. It’s up close. It’s personal. It’s new.
This isn’t the first time that social media and the internet as a whole played a part in an international movement. Social media platforms were instrumental in the Arab Spring of the early 2010s. “Its role has had differing levels of success in Arab Spring countries,” political science professor Dr. Lauren Ferry said. But over a decade later, the influence of social media in day-to-day life looks drastically different. This time, the whole world is watching.
“People love a good story. They love an underdog story and we have a face for it. Zelensky is the perfect face for this,” Professor Brad Conaway said. He specializes in social media for the School of Journalism and New Media. “He’s a hero for the social media age.”
Zelensky’s charisma plays a role in global support for the Ukrainian cause, but he isn’t the only motivating factor. In addition to his face, the attacks in his country have been plastered across social media platforms since the invasion began.
“The humanitarian crisis has been captured on social media in a way that is hard for civilians to avoid,” Ferry said. On top of it all is an unexpected resilience of the Ukrainian people.
“They’re showing the kind of national pride and strength that we didn’t think they were going to be able to,” Conaway added. “They show this kind of spirit that we would hope our country could show.”
Social media’s role in this war is not one-sided, it goes out from Ukraine as much as it goes in. It has become the global market for the wartime currency of propaganda. Part of that is out of necessity. “In the absence of reliable information channels,” Ferry said, “individuals with cellphones have filled the void.” But this approach to information on any subject, but especially war, is problematic.
“How can people tell what’s true and not true on social media? And can we make people care what’s true and not true on social media?” Conaway asked. Since the day of the invasion, Ukraine’s greatest export has been stories of national heroism. The pinnacle of these is the Ghost of Kyiv.
The story of the Ghost of Kyiv began in the first days of the invasion. A fighter pilot who supposedly shot down up to six Russian aircraft in a single night. This particular story gained backing from Ukrainian officials who promoted it on their social media platforms. Including former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, who posted a picture of a pilot in a cockpit saying that he was the ace. More recent reports show that some of the videos were fabricated and indicate that the stories of the Ukrainian hero were at best exaggerated.
“But the message and the sentiment nevertheless were able to spread.” Said political science professor Dr. Benjamin Jones. This particular story is just one of many that have come out of Ukraine in recent weeks. “Ukraine has been incredibly active on social media disseminating information about the war, about Russia’s conduct in the war, and about the Ukrainian people themselves,” Jones said.
Jones warned that the spread of propaganda to the international community does not come without risks. “If their efforts are revealed to be insincere, or inconsistent with the government’s own actions, public diplomacy campaigns can potentially backfire, generating considerable negative sentiment abroad.” The Ukrainian government appears to be safe on that front, at least up to this point.
“Misinformation is never the right strategy to winning a war for the hearts and minds of people,” Conaway said. “Because you’re always going to disappoint them if you’re using things that are not true.”
So how much can we really know for certain? “Honestly, we don’t even know if Ukraine is doing well in this war,” Dr. Joshua First said. “All we know is that Ukraine is still fighting.” First specializes in Russian-Ukrainian relations.
“In speaking with my friends and colleagues in Ukraine,” First said, “Western support on social media has been very inspiring to them. It helps them to know that they are not alone in the world right now, even though in many ways they are alone in their fight.”
Support for the Ukrainian cause on social media has had some concrete effects. It provides people with avenues to donate money or goods to help refugees or get money directly into Ukrainian pockets through movements like widespread booking of Airbnb stays in the country. It has even led to some impacts on the war effort, such as billionaire Elon Musk providing the Ukrainian government with access to SpaceX’s Starlink satellite internet. But what effects can generic public support for a cause beyond their borders on social media have?
“It’s already made huge differences in the kinds of embargos that countries are willing to make,” Conaway said. Public support for the Ukrainian war effort may be able to take some credit for actions to cripple the Russian economy as well as some of the arms that are being sent to Ukraine to help them defend themselves. And it could continue to do so, and Russia’s economy will only feel the effects of global sanctions harder as time goes on. But while it may have a part to play in getting guns into Ukraine, support on social media doesn’t replace boots on the ground.
“We know that if Russia really wants to beat Ukraine and is willing to put all its efforts to accomplish that goal, then they will win,” First said. “No amount of social media support is going to change that.”