Social Media’s Relationship with the Ukrainian War

By Ana Perez, 9th Grade

As the war in Ukraine unfolds, information on the conflict is spreading through social media apps such as Twitter and TikTok. The war has even been called “the world’s first TikTok war” as users spread the information in real-time. Images, videos, and satellite pictures are quickly shared worldwide as the conflict continues, allowing both sides of the conflict to spread both real information and misinformation. 

The Russian government has a long history of sharing misinformation on their conflicts. The first example is the Annexation of Crimea in 2014 where the Russian Internet Research Agency paid various users to spread misinformation through Twitter and Facebook. The misinformation campaign went so well for the Russians that it continued during the 2016 American Presidential Election and the Ukrainian Invasion. However, Russian misinformation isn’t exactly “good.” Stengel (2022), former editor of Time Magazine stated that “It’s not that they were so good, it’s that we were so susceptible. Disinformation always seeks a kind of biased audience. And people are receptive to it.” He also added that “They’ve [Russia] seemed behind the times, years out of date, and they’re paying the price for it.” While the Ukrainian government shows videos of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy leading civilians in devastated cities, the Russian government is airing addresses made by President Vladimir Putin. Ukraine has also shown that they know how to share information as they use traditional social media to share the devastation of war. 

When the war first started, Zelenskyy shared several videos where he showed that he stayed behind in Kyiv to fight with his people, such as his famous “I need ammunition, not a ride” video; this made him go from an unknown president to an international hero as he received support from almost all corners of the world. Meanwhile, Putin is staying behind closed doors and is rarely seen in public appearances by the rest of the world. What is seen from him in social media is usually videos of him acting like a ‘clown’ or just straight-up delusional. 

But the Russians are still spreading a lot of misinformation through TikTok and Telegram. One Ukrainian citizen, Levina, said that she found many Pro-Russian videos while looking for ‘Ukraine’ on TikTok in several languages (English, Russian, Ukrainian, and Mandarin) – most of those Pro-Russian videos looked fake to her. Other pieces of disinformation included Russia claiming that the US was selling chemical weapons to Ukraine and claiming that the victims of an attack in a Ukrainian hospital were paid actors. 

Russian officials have also attempted to block, fine, or censor what he calls “Western” social media platforms that are “spreading disinformation in favor of Ukraine.” Russian residents, especially those in younger generations, are still able to access those social media platforms and see all the content that the Russian government is trying to censor, which shows that Russia does not have the grip they’d like on social media platforms and information. However, while that content can still be accessed, several factors such as intimidation has made sharing news and the flow of information so much harder than it was before – and it has also caused a generational shift in Russia. Most in the younger generation who can access unblocked social media thanks to VPNs are generally against the war while those in the older generation see it as justified. Although, it’s also important to take into account that there are many younger Russian generations that do believe in the war and in the misinformation spread by the Russian government. One social media influencer Elvina Borovkova shared a video explaining why she believed that some allegations against Russian soldiers, which claimed that they were sexually assaulting Ukrainian women, were fake. “Russian women are the most beautiful women in the world, and for better or worse, our soldiers are in demand among them. Do you really think they need Ukrainian women? It’s scary to even touch them, full of venereal diseases.” She then went on to claim that the atrocities in the Bucha Region were faked by Ukrainians “trying to blame Russia for a fake atrocity.”

Many companies such as Meta, YouTube, Twitter, and Google have taken several measures in order to stop Russian disinformation and limit advertising in Russia. Meta, for example, has been taking down various networks run by Russians and Ukrainians that “ran a handful of websites masquerading as independent news outlets, publishing claims about the West betraying Ukraine and Ukraine being a failed state.” They have also announced that they are demonetizing Russian state media accounts and are adding safety measures to accounts based in Ukraine by allowing them to lock their user profile and hide their friends’ list. They have also announced that they are “reviewing other government requests to restrict Russian state controlled media.” YouTube, which is owned by Google, declared that they are preventing Russian companies and state-run news companies from earning money from the videos they upload. Google has announced that they are blocking several Ukrainian areas in Google Maps in an effort to protect the citizens. Twitter has declared that they are actively working to remove disinformation and has suspended advertisements in Russia and Ukraine. 

However, some leaders say that these companies are not responding aggressively enough. The Prime Ministers of Poland, Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia wrote a letter to the CEOs of Facebook, Google, YouTube, and Twitter where they shared their sentiments. “Although the online platforms have undertaken significant efforts to address the Russian government’s unprecedented assault on truth, they have not done enough,” said the letter shared by Estonia Prime Minister Kaja Kallas. “Russia’s disinformation has been tolerated on online platforms for years; they are now an accessory to the criminal war of aggression the Russian government is conducting against Ukraine and the free world.”

An exception to this is Telegram. The founder, Pavel Durov, who is Russian, has stated that he will “protect information about Ukrainian users” but he has not taken any steps to remove Russian disinformation, such as fake news reports or fake Zelenskyy deep fakes. Watts (2022) said that “The information battle today is on Telegram. Right now, you’re seeing the Ukrainians use it to a successful degree to do distribution of content and connecting with like-minded audiences all around the world.” And now that Telegram is virtually the only link between Russian social media and Western social media, he added that “I think there’s tons to learn from what’s happening right now that would be instructive for democracies as well as it goes forward.”

Social media has had a big impact on the Ukrainian Invasion as most of the information the average person will see is most likely on Twitter or Facebook. This allows leaders on both sides to easily spread misinformation. What we can do is think critically about the information presented to us in order to not be swayed by fake information.

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