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Personalities of Public Opinion: The Influencers Dominating Ukraine’s Wartime Social Media

Social media content from Ukrainian platforms and authors has become a top source for news about the war. Although some experts have voiced concerns regarding disinformation and manipulation in crowd-sourced news, this has, nonetheless, remained an important source for documenting Ukrainians’ experiences on the ground. According to Civil Network OPORA, Telegram is the most popular social media platform among Ukrainians for getting news, followed closely by YouTube and Facebook. About two per cent of respondents to an OPORA survey used other social networks, most likely apps such as WhatsApp and Signal.

This piece takes a deeper look at the current social media landscape in Ukraine and examines the different types of actors that influence Ukrainian social media.

Public officials and governmental institutions

Social media engagement in Ukraine has skyrocketed since the invasion. The graph below shows how the number of posts per day climbed sharply at the start of the invasion, with a predictable decrease in posts over time.

More particularly, Ukraine has become the epicentre of a rising trend in political communications: the political influencer. The strongest case of this phenomenon is President Volodymyr Zelenskyy himself, no doubt helped by his previous career as a comedian and as a popular politician. He was among the first in the Ukrainian political arena who significantly increased his engagement in social media, especially Instagram and Telegram, making them the cornerstones of his election campaign in 2019. His trademark is personally filmed videos (in the same style as influencers), where previous heads of states generally engaged with their constituents through highly produced content. Currently, President Zelenskyy is the top influencer in Ukrainian social media, easily outweighing many news agencies, let alone individuals.

An image of President Zelenskyy in his daily vlog on Instagram, discussing war causalities (31,000 causalities from the Russian side) “in the meaningless war started by Russia”.

Valerii Zaluzhnyyi, a four-star general who has served as the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine since July 27, 2021, has also risen in popularity as an influencer and commenter. Oleksiy Reznikov, a lawyer and politician who has served as the Minister of Defence since November 2021, is another popular voice.

The Office of the President, the Parliament of Ukraine, the Cabinet of Ministers and other governmental bodies have also grown as influencers in social media, although this is mainly due to increased public interest in their work related to the war with Russia and its various effects. Echoing the president, Ukrainian Armed Forces and other current top influencers have, of course, also increased in popularity.

Municipal and regional leaders

The most prominent accounts among other influencers are those of regional and municipal leaders in areas where the war has been most active. For instance, the vlogs of Vitaliy Klytchko (mayor of Kyiv), Vitaliy Kim (head of the Mykolayiv Regional Administration), Sergiy Suhomlyn (mayor of Zhytomyr) and Sergiy Gaiday (head of the Luhansk Military-Civil Administration) have become extremely popular on YouTube. With the exception of Klytchko, who was famous as a world-champion boxer before the invasion, the other municipal and regional leaders who have become social media stars were significantly less-known across the country before following the example of Zelenskyy.

Although these leaders have capitalised on this trend, it is worth noting that it is difficult to assess whether it has been part of a strategic communication plan from the government, or whether the martial law imposed in this time of war has provided them with additional powers to leverage modern tools for public relations. In addition to the invasion, Ukraine has also been undergoing reforms to decentralise the government (undoubtedly adding to the resilience of Ukrainians). This combination has changed the way public officials reach their constituents, and it is unlikely that there will be a return to the previous model once the war is over.

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Vitaliy Kim (head of Mykolayiv Regional Administration) reports on his Twitter account about a Russian spy drone that was shot down in Mykolayiv.

Ukrainian army, intelligence, security service and law enforcement agencies

The Ukrainian Armed Forces, the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU), the Military and the National Police, already vital as primary sources of news in times of war, have now adopted new, important and unique roles. Apart from informing social media on developments in the war, they engage in producing video content to boost morale, to provide warnings and preemptive messages, to debunk myths, and to publish intercepted communications among the invading Russian forces (including calls to their families). There are also entities specifically created by the government, such as the Centre for Strategic Communication, and placed under the Ministry of Culture and Information Policy of Ukraine, which focus on communications aimed at countering external threats and, particularly, information attacks by the Russian Federation. Another example is the Centre for Countering Disinformation, which is a working body of the National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine. The Centre carries out measures to counter current and projected threats to national security and the national interests of Ukraine in the information sphere, working information security in the country, the detection and counteraction of misinformation, the effective counteraction of propaganda, destructive information influences and campaigns, and the prevention of attempts to manipulate public opinion.

A photo shared in the Telegram account from the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) regarding the capture of a women who worked as a spy for Russia.  It is noted that such actions are punishable by up to 15 years in prison.  On the screen of her telephone, there is a thread in which she reports on local developments, the number of military personnel and vehicles she has seen, and other information. 

Advisers and insiders

Currently, a large number of insights and reactions to the war, which also may sometimes be criticisms or notes of appreciation, come from two sources: Oleksiy Arestovych, adviser to the Office of the President, blogger, actor, and political and military columnist, and Anton Geraschenko, a current official advisor and a former deputy minister at the Ukrainian Ministry of Internal Affairs. They each have about half a million followers on Telegram, as well as being interviewed numerous times on different media and, as such, are extremely popular and influential voices on Ukrainian social media.

Pictured is the Telegram channel of Oleksiy Arestovich. In the screenshot there is a fragment of an interview where he shows the open-air storage of 1,000 M777 howitzers in the United States, raising the question as to why they are not being given to Ukraine.

While these influencers are advisers to those in official positions, it is worth noting that they are not officially accountable for the information they provide. This arrangement obviously gives them more freedom regarding the content they post than is the case for governmental officials. There has been speculation, therefore, that they are helping the government by testing messages and noting the public reactions to potential decisions such as, for example, using the Ukrainian Armed Forces to end the Russian occupation of Crimea.

Political parties and their leadership

Under the current circumstances, parliament political parties (except the president’s Sluga Narodu, which supports the president and echoes his statements), cannot be considered very influential newsmakers in their own rights. Nonetheless, they do have a certain audience and use it to spread their narratives.

European Solidarity of Petro Poroshenko (Zelenskyy’s predecessor as president) and Batkivschyna of Yuliia Tymoshenko (who was also a presidential candidate) have a bigger weight in social media compared to the others.

There is a clear division between the so called ‘’pro-Poroshenko’’ and ‘’anti-Zelenskyy’’ teams, with the former including members of Poroshenko’s political party and various politicians and individuals who are becoming increasingly vocal in criticising the current President, mainly for the lack of preparation before the war (which allegedly has led to huge human losses and the Russian capture of southern territories), among other criticisms. Those who support Zelenskyy – or choose not publicly to oppose him – do so because they believe open criticism could weaken Ukraine’s position in this war. In most cases, rather than voice criticism, they ask for investigations into such allegations, with the resulting accountability to be established after the war.

News agencies and news aggregators

News agencies and aggregators play an important role in balancing the information on social media, as they do in every news ecosystem. News agencies provide a valuable addition to the news cycle by reporting on the war, with the influence of on-the-ground coverage and combining it with journalistic principles of fact-checking, checking sources making editorial decisions.

The most popular traditional media sources followed online by Ukrainians are 25 Ukrainian Pravda, TSN, Obozrevatel, UNIAN, NV, 24tv, Ukrinform, BBC Ukraine, Focus, LB and Dzerkalo Tyzhdnya. It is clear that all the media rely on their journalists, who themselves often become influential figures in their respective fields.

Journalists and experts

There are several journalists who hold different positions (mostly editorial) and have greater name recognition than the media outlets for which they work. Dmytro Gordon, a journalist, interviewer, politician and singer who has a controversial reputation but, nonetheless, has 3 million subscribers on YouTube, providing evidence of his influence, is one such example.

The YouTube channel of Dmytro Gordon. In the video, Gordon is interviewing Oleg Zhdanov, a Ukrainian war expert.

Yuriy Butusov, a journalist and editor of the Ukrainian news site Censor.net, is another example. He has often ended up at the centre of scandals, such as in physically assaulting a pro-Russian politician on a live talk show in February 2022, only a couple of days before the invasion, for refusing to condemn Vladimir Putin. He has also been criticised by some for showing “too much” of the reality of war.

Another fitting example of deep commitment to his job, despite all the risk it entails, may be found in Andriy Tsaplienko. A journalist, presenter, filmmaker and writer, who for many years has reported from different hot spots, including during the Russian invasion of Crimea in 2014. Tsaplienko was captured and tortured by armed pro-Russian activists after filming the siege and assault of a Ukrainian military base at Sevastopol by Russian troops.

Finally, Illya Ponomarenko, defense and security reporter at the Kyiv Independent, has a solid reputation and a loyal audience.

Due to different circumstances, not all the aforementioned individuals are necessarily the most popular voices on Facebook or Telegram. But with hundreds of thousands of followers who actively read their work, their commitment, reputation, and analytical and strategic thinking make them immensely valuable and, thus, influential (or proxy-influential – when their information and knowledge are used by more popular individuals and sources in social media) in the Ukrainian social media landscape. The same applies for those in the following category.

Military and political experts

Beginning with the war in the Donbas in 2014 and, certainly, after the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, information and commentary from military experts have been in great demand. Currently, one top example is Oleg Zhdanov, who served as a military officer from 1987 to 1992, including in the Western Group of Soviet troops in Germany, who has become extremely popular and sought after for interviews on a daily basis by various media outlets. Taras Chmut, a veteran of the war in the Donbas in 2014 and a co-founder of the Ukrainian Military Portal has a certain degree of influence, especially among volunteer communities helping the military, as well as internally displaced persons and other vulnerable groups in Ukraine.

Political experts always have a niche in the media landscape. Due to the ongoing war, however, those experts providing their opinions on geopolitics and the potential consequences for Ukraine have gained in popularity. Yuriy Romanenko, political expert and editor-in-chief of the online media outlet "Wave" is one example.

Following the Russian invasion, criticism of the government was poorly received, but the number of voices critical of the president, his ruling party and the government is increasing. Boryslav Bereza, politician and former member of parliament, is an example of this change in behavior.

Screenshot from Telegram channel of Boryslav Bereza, where he criticizes President Zelenskyy for ordering the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine to check the availability of bulletproof vests in the Ukrainian Army. Bereza argues that such a task should have been assigned to the Minister of Defence, since it is responsible for such matters, and claims this shows Zelenskyy’s incompetence. 

Anonymous Telegram channels

As previously noted, Telegram channels are hugely influential in the war. As mentioned above by OPORA, Telegram accounts are the primary way that Ukrainians consume news online, with more than two-thirds of those getting their news from the internet reporting they use it as their primary platform.

Apart from the accounts of known moderators, there is a significant role played by anonymous Telegram channels. These channels do not officially represent any individuals, media outlets or institutions but, in many cases, the owners of these channels can be linked to and affiliated with certain organisations (though none are confirmed). These can be different in nature – from purely informative channels, such as Ukraine Online, that repost content, citing their sources, to those who from time to time add commentary to the news, for example Ukrainian News and, finally, those such as Rezident that obviously engage in influence operations with highly manipulative posts.

Moreover, it is not always immediately clear to the reader the objective or agenda of the channel in question. In many cases, such channels may look like standard news aggregators or professional communities, with no other objective than to grow their following.  One common tactic relies on posting mostly innocent, sourced content, and then mixing in manipulative comments or providing a link to a propaganda source. Such tactics and similar approaches are dangerous, as it is more difficult for audiences to discern the difference between factual and accurate news and “news” that is disinformation.

Even before the war, there were numerous investigations into the influence of pro-Kremlin Telegram channels or other information operations on parliamentary decisions. It is obvious that Russia continues to use Telegram channels for disinformation and propaganda purposes in relation to the war.

Factchecking organisations and cyber-activists

Since the Russian invasion of Donbas and the annexation of the Crimea, factchecking movements have developed rapidly as means to fight Kremlin disinformation and propaganda efforts. Stopfake is a good example of a factchecking organisation that has grown and become famous both within Ukraine and abroad. Even though these are extremely valuable sources for different stakeholders, these organisations do not necessarily have the most popular accounts among social media.

There was also a boom in the activities of so-called “cyber activists” after the invasion. Many Ukrainians (and others) responded to the appeals to join the ‘’cyber-army’’ to help fight Russian aggressors online. For example, Yegor Aushev, the founder of several cyber security companies, recruited a group of hackers within (and outside) Ukraine to protect the country’s digital infrastructure and create breaches in the invaders’ systems. One from the recent examples of such activities was on June 17 at the St. Petersburg Economic Forum, where Vladimir Putin’s address was delayed for 90 minutes due to a cyber-attack coordinated by the IT ARMY of Ukraine. 

army ukraine telegram

A screenshot from the telegram channel of the IT ARMY of Ukraine (255,000 subscribers), where, in a post dated June 15, there is a call on all to ’visit’’ together the St. Petersburg Economic Forum.  

However, for obvious reasons, most of those people are operating anonymously. Nevertheless, they can be considered influential actors in Ukrainian social media.

Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine contributed to further growth in the popularity of social media as a source for news and information. Telegram has become a leader among social media in this regard. Its use as a primary source of information, however, creates certain dangers especially relevant to the current situation; it has been used for spreading Russian propaganda and disinformation and in different informational operations helping Russia to wage the war in Ukraine. Nevertheless, Ukraine has won the first wave of informational war, and we will cover that in our next piece.

Photo credit: Official website of the President of Ukraine

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