Since the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, social networks have been flooded with videos from both sides. Mobile phones in hand, soldiers and civilians are documenting the war as it happens. Social media has become part of the battlefield. And so far, Kyiv is winning.
Ukrainian photographer Valeria Shashenok usually posts videos of her travels, fashion shoots or nights out with friends on her TikTok account. But since the beginning of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the twentysomething now tells of her daily life under bombardment in the city of Chernihiv, about 100 kilometres north of Kyiv. Set to music and with a dash of dark humour, she describes “an ordinary day in an air raid shelter” or offers advice on “what to buy in a supermarket during wartime” to her 300,000 followers.
As Ukraine continues to face multiple assaults and the number of people fleeing the country surpasses 2 million, Shashenok’s videos may seem quirky, even tone deaf. But in the age of social media, when mobile phones allow us to watch a war live, they are generating millions of views.
Dancing soldiersEven Ukrainian soldiers are using Instagram, TikTok and Twitter to tell their stories from the battlefield. With 4.3 million followers, Alex Hook is the best known among them. Based in the eastern Donbas region, he regularly posts videos of himself and fellow soldiers dancing to Nirvana songs or preparing for battle.
The Ukrainian army also has its own Twitter account that provides hourly updates on the war to more than 350,000 followers. The country’s armed forces show images of combat, but also of Russian soldiers taken prisoner, which is prohibited by the Geneva Conventions.
Influencers turned fightersThe use of social networks in war is not new. During the Arab Spring and the ongoing Syrian civil war, various parties have used them to organise demonstrations and sway public opinion in their favour.
The difference today lies in a new kind of storytelling. As more and more people carry a mobile phone and regularly document their days on different social platforms, war has become a subject like any other. Young people use their own emojis and slang to share their experiences in real time. Amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, some Ukrainian influencers – once better known for their beauty tutorials than for their political stances – have turned into resistance fighters, version 2.0.
Anastasiia Lenna, Miss Ukraine 2015, has ditched her glamorous dresses and now shows herself wearing combat gear and holding a machine gun on her Instagram account, urging her compatriots to defend their country.
Singer Nadya Dorofeeva, who has 5 million followers, has stopped posting pictures of private beaches and exclusive parties. She appeared in tears on her account to call for an end to the fighting. “I am staying in Ukraine, in Kyiv! I ask everyone to stay calm, not panic, stick together and only read official sources! And support each other like never before!” she wrote next to this picture.
Andriy Khlyvniuk, the lead singer of Boombox, one of Ukraine’s most popular bands, gained attention by singing a traditional hymn with a rifle at his shoulder. The star abandoned his US tour to fight the Russian army.
Winning the digital battle Ukraine’s leaders have also realised that the war is being fought on social networks. Until recently, Russia was a master in the art of disinformation with the help of armies of pro-Kremlin trolls, but Moscow has been outclassed during its invasion. Since the start of Moscow’s offensive, videos and posts by and about Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky have gone viral on the internet, generating global sympathy for Ukraine. His Twitter account has grown from 300,000 to 5 million followers in a few days.
The former comedian turned head of state has shown himself outdoors among the population in Kyiv – in stark contrast to photos of Russian President Vladimir Putin keeping his distance from even his most trusted advisers and belying Russian claims that he has fled the Ukrainian capital.
Zelensky addresses his fellow Ukrainians and the whole world almost daily, urging them to continue to resist. In contrast, Putin appears distant and martial, sitting at a comically elongated table or accompanied by a few officers standing at attention. To control public opinion in Russia, Putin has blocked access to Facebook and limited access to Twitter. He has also signed a law banning the use of the word “war” in reference to Russian actions in Ukraine and penalising anyone who publishes “false information” with up to 15 years in prison.
Russian celebrities speak outThe Russian government has also tried to orchestrate a campaign of support for the invasion. According to Reddit, dozens of Russian influencers have posted similar videos in which they reiterate the Kremlin’s baseless claims of a “genocide in the Donbas” against pro-Russian separatists.
Russian “influencers” on TikTok defend the invasion of Ukraine by giving the same exact propagandist speech as each other pic.twitter.com/dJo3lIdhT5
— Fifty Shades of Whey (@davenewworld_2) March 4, 2022
Some Russian celebrities have chosen to express their disagreement with 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.
One of the country’s most popular rappers, Oxxxymiron, 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 forced to hide in basements or in the metro while others are dying,” he said in a video.
In her 2003 essay “Regarding the pain of others”, American philosopher Susan Sontag explained that the Spanish Civil War gave rise to photojournalism – with pioneers such as Robert Capa and Gerda Taro taking their Leicas to the front lines – and that a few decades later, the Vietnam War was the first to be televised on a daily basis. Today, wars are fought not only on the battlefield, but also on social networks.
The war in Ukraine will go down in history as the first to have been documented in real time. But what will remain of these images of refugees on the road, children under bombardment or exhausted combatants?
The multitude of images may “simply evoke our bemused awareness, a feeling of sympathy that lasts only long enough to keep us scrolling”, the writer Kyle Chayka wrote in a New Yorker article entitled, “Watching the world’s ‘first TikTok war’”. But as Russian forces grow nearer to Kyiv, major media organisations “are pulling their journalists to safety”.
“Social media is an imperfect chonicler of wartime,” Chayka said. Nevertheless, “In some cases, it may also be the most reliable source we have.”
This article has been translated from the original in French.