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Eight Things You Should Know about Social Media in the War on Ukraine

This report is the first instalment in a series of reports analysing public online discourse on social media around the war in Ukraine. 

Amid the fog of war, social media has played an outsized role as a source of news, activism, dissent and, of course, manipulation. The Russian war against Ukraine has already been dubbed the “Most online war of all time [until the next one]” or the “First Tik Tok war”. Here are eight things you need to know about social media and the war on Ukraine.  

1. Russia built a foundation of disinformation for years as justification to invade Ukraine 

Russia´s war against Ukraine started in 2014, with the illegal annexation of Crimea; its online campaign to discredit Ukraine started even earlier. Initially, Russia had the upper hand, but Ukrainians adapted and responded through public education, fact-checking and strategic communication.  

The impact of Russia’s disinformation practices is particularly evident in its success in the domestic market, with more than 70 per cent approval of what the government insists on calling a “special military operation” (although opinion poll results from authoritarian states need to be taken with a grain of salt).

It is often said that Russia’s disinformation worked too well, with war preparations being based on a propagandised view of Ukraine only waiting to be “liberated”, leaving Russian troops unprepared for the fact that Ukrainians see them as invaders.

Russia’s disinformation efforts in Ukraine have been much less successful, in part due to an extreme form of message overreach and the success of the Ukrainian response. 

mobile phone conversation ukraine

A photo of a text exchange from a Russian soldier’s phone. In a chat with his mother, he expresses shock; they were told they'd be greeted as liberators and, instead, people are throwing themselves in front of armed vehicles and calling them fascists.

2. The Ukrainian response was delayed, but impactful

While Russia’s information operation began even before the annexation of Crimea, Ukraine offered little in the way of response until the current invasion began. Now, however, Ukraine has worked creatively to create its own influence operations to not only combat Russian narratives, but also to create its own to boost the country’s morale and speak to an international audience. Some of the tactics include heightened transparency, preemptively sharing intelligence on Russian movements, and extensive reporting in the media (traditional and social) of Russian war crimes. These simple methods have worked to successfully inoculate Ukrainians against disinformation and limit the force of Russian disinformation externally. Ukrainian social media also continues to engage with key individuals dedicated to opposing the Russian government and to anti-Kremlin cyber-activism, such as Mark Feiygn, a Russian opposition politician and lawyer who runs a YouTube channel dedicated to the topic, and Yulia Latynina, a Russian journalist.

This Twitter post by the SBU, the Security Service of Ukraine, reads “The Russian occupiers were so arrogant that looting in Ukrainian houses became like a trip to the supermarket for them’’. The tweet also links to an interception of a call between a Russian soldier and his wife, who asks for a laptop, sneakers and a suit of the right size.

3. Facebook dominates online discourse in Ukraine, while Telegram is the rising star

Keeping with global trends, 56 per cent of Ukrainians report using Facebook as their primary source of information, although there is evidence that this number is falling. Next in popularity are Instagram (25 per cent) and Viber (24 per cent). Twitter, while heavily used by government officials for public relations, is much less popular among ordinary Ukrainians.

The real star of the social media landscape in Ukraine is Telegram. It shows growth of 5 per cent over last year. It is now one of the most popular messengers in Ukraine, where interest groups form public channels to share information. Its popularity inevitably makes it a favoured target of cyberattacks by Russian-affiliated hackers.

4. Bans and regulations affect the social media landscape

Following the onset of the war, Russia banned Facebook and Instagram, deeming their mother company, Meta, to be “extremist”. TikTok subsequently blocked new Russian-generated content in response to new censorship laws, through which the Kremlin criminalized independent journalism. In response, VPN usage in Russia has skyrocketed, as a way for Russians to reach Western social media sites and access independent media.

In contrast, Ukraine has leveraged independent journalism and open social media access to further its information operations. For example, Ukraine moved to lift the ban on VKontakte, the Russian social network tool, to leverage the power of social media to “spread the truth about the war raged” to Russian audiences.

5. OSINT and cyber-activism have taken off since the war started

Open-source intelligence (OSINT) has become increasingly important since the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. OSINT relies on drawing security-relevant intelligence from publicly available information, such as social media posts, photos and videos with geotags, documents, and images from satellites.  

The Russian military successfully used OSINT from Ukrainian social media to calibrate their missile attacks. The Ukrainian government responded by criminalizing the spreading of such information and spreading awareness of Russia’s tendency to use this tactic.

Ukrainians use OSINT to counter Russian propaganda efforts and have employed it to expose numerous cases of Russian war crimes. Additionally, in Ukraine, OSINT has gained an even more symbolic value. It has contributed to bolstering the morale of the Ukrainian nation, as it has allowed citizens to take part in the war efforts by contributing through evidence gathering and by assisting the Ukrainian army in locating and destroying Russian troops.

kolona

A tweet from the SBU showing the result of the operation based on the coordinates received through StopRussianWarBot (a telegram bot created by the SBU for gathering data on the location of Russian troops). Coordinates of enemy vehicles marked “V” in the Kyiv region were received, checked, and then handed over to the military to make the strike.

6. Deepfakes and the force of technology 

Synthetic content (i.e., deepfakes) is slowly becoming a more prevalent tool for disinformation. The Russian invasion of Ukraine demonstrates how deepfakes can comprise a notable part of modern information warfare and how they can complement traditional strategies in combat.  In March, a deepfake surfaced portraying Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy urging his forces to surrender. While the video was easily spotted by most viewers as being a manipulation, due to its low quality, Defence Intelligence of Ukraine issued a warning about the tactic, as experts and academics warned this mediocre attempt could be “the tip of the iceberg” for video manipulation content.  

7. From politician to influencer? 

President Zelenskyy’s messaging style has been noted for being inspiring and direct. He often employs self-shot methods to give the impression of direct communication with his citizens and the world. He has regularly turned to social media for regular “fireside chats” to speak directly to Ukrainian citizens and sustain morale during the invasion. He engages in daily vlogging and attempts to appeal not only to Ukrainians, but also to Russians, by speaking in Russian to emphasize his appeal to them.  

This has become an enduring trend in the war in Ukraine. After the invasion, more and more state officials, including at the regional level (such as heads of administrations, mayors, etc.), use social media in a way similar to influencers to communicate essential news and raise morale. This contrasts heavily with the traditional, dry nature of official reporting in Russia.  

8. Platforms are struggling to react quickly 

Not only has online (dis)information played a critical role in the Russia´s war against Ukraine, but the war has affected the online information industry in countless ways, bringing pressure on it to react. Many companies have suspended sales or services in Russia, closed offices and offered support to refugees fleeing Ukraine.  

Policy changes to respond to disinformation in times of crisis have, however, been slower to develop. Just recently, Twitter unveiled its new crisis misinformation policy to label false coverage and avoid the amplification or recommendation of content once it has been identified by fact-checking. This comes after months of struggling with fraudulent accounts that popped up at the start of the invasion.  

Additionally, according to internal emails to its content moderators, Meta platforms (Facebook, Instagram) temporarily allowed death threats to Russian President Vladimir Putin and Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko in some posts by their users, under the practice of a “spirit-of-the-policy” allowance following the invasion.  

Platform changes such as these are often controversial and create real-life consequences for the flow of (dis)information in the war.  

Social media cannot be viewed as just another platform to spread information. The invasion clearly demonstrates that modern warfare is evolving alongside the widespread use of social media platforms to influence public opinion, increase the effectiveness of military operations, and spread sophisticated information tactics, either through bias-confirming narratives or using new technology.  

Next in our series on social media in the war on Ukraine, we will look deeper at the current landscape and describe the most influential voices and accounts.  

Photo credit: UN Women/Maxime Fossat