Guns, tanks and Twitter: How Russia and Ukraine are using social media

Social media has become a primary source of information for news-hungry viewers around the world, trying to understand Russia’s aggression in Ukraine. At the same time, it is being used by the governments of Russia and Ukraine to set the agenda for extensive media reporting.

Official Russian government accounts have been seen spreading pro-Russian misinformation on Twitter. Meanwhile, the Ukrainian government has taken to the platform to appeal to its two million followers for support.

Information is no longer an extra arm of warfare, but a parallel element to military operations. The rise of social media has made it easier than ever for states to use mass communication as a weapon.

Mass communication, a mixture of social media, was started for the purpose of establishing and controlling the empire of political communication.

Whether Darius the Great imposed his image on buildings and coins to help control the Persian Empire; Inspired use of Henry VIII portraits, or the well-documented use of radio and film in World War II – media technologies have long been used to spread political ideas.

Social media has added another element to the mix, and brought immediateness to strategic political communication.

In asymmetrical conflicts (as we now see in Ukraine), a successful social media account can be an effective weapon against opponents, including many guns and tanks.

Local uprisings in the Arab Spring of 2010, especially in Egypt and Tunisia, were among the first campaigns where social media played an important role.

Proponents of democracy have used Twitter, Facebook and YouTube to maintain a network of communications and publicly criticize their governments for allowing the world to see.

It didn’t take long for governments to realize the power of social media. And they responded by restricting access to social media as well as using it themselves.

Social media alone may not be able to provoke massive change, but it can undoubtedly play a role.

Tensions over the information war between Russia and Ukraine have a long history, and were widely reported on social media before the latest attack.

Pro-Russian accounts have added to the confusion and instability about Russia’s role in the Donetsk region since before 2014 and have aided Russia’s occupation. It was, in fact, an important element of Russia’s “hybrid warfare” approach.

Russia’s strategic move, and Ukraine’s countermeasures, have been extensively studied by researchers. Surprisingly, research has shown that each side is formulating the conflict differently and in different ways.

Studies have shown that social media online can perpetuate and even exacerbate the animosity between Ukrainians and Russians.

For example, after the Malaysian airline flight MH17 was shot down by Russia over Ukraine, an analysis of 950,000 Twitter posts found an excess of online rival claims, creating a struggle for truth that continues to this day.

In early 2014, NATO’s supreme allied commander in Europe, General Philip Bradlov, described Russia’s communication strategy in Ukraine as “the most amazing information war blitzkrieg we have seen in the history of information warfare”.

These efforts have intensified since the recent expansion of Russian aggression on Ukrainian territory. And with so much noise, it is becoming increasingly difficult for users to understand the catastrophe of conflicting, emotional and (often) difficult to verify information.

This is even more difficult if the tone of the post changes quickly.

The Ukrainian government’s Twitter account is a survey of the contrast between both content and tone. Setting up in a more peaceful time, the profile happily says: “Yes, this is the official Twitter account of Ukraine. Excellent photo: #beautiful Ukraine Our music: #UkieBeats”.

But the account now posts various war-related content, photos and videos as part of its strategic communications campaign.

It includes serious news updates, historical events and patriotic allusions to the people, anti-Russian elements and – before the recent genocide report – a lot of humor.

Why use humor? Humor has a long history of being used as an element of communication and public diplomacy – even in times of war.

Humor, for example, was effectively used by the Serbian Otpo Resistance Movement in its campaign to overthrow the dictator Slobodan Milosevic earlier this century.

Humor is especially effective on social platforms because it creates virality.

And in the case of Ukraine’s defense, it shows disobedience. After all, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky (a former comedian) was famously in the political spotlight for producing a satirical television show. In it, he plays a teacher whose secretly filmed rebellion about corruption goes viral, leading the character to become president.

Zelenskyy’s Twitter account is now the most immediate and reliable way for many Ukrainians to get important information about attacks and discussions between Zelenskyy and other leaders.

Thousands of “share” posts are helping to promote communication in Ukraine

Zelensky’s recent speech at the Grammy Awards reinforces the need for him to be visible to the world at this critical time. His speech has garnered a lot of support on social media (as well as the “propaganda cries” of Russian supporters).

Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s Twitter account has been inactive since March 16.

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