Social media has become the primary source of information for news audiences around the world eager to learn about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Meanwhile, the Russian and Ukrainian governments are using it to set a broader media coverage agenda.
Official Russian government accounts were found to amplify pro-Russian disinformation on Twitter. Meanwhile, the Ukrainian government has appealed to its 2 million followers on the platform for support.
Information warfare is no longer an add-on to strategy, but a parallel component of military operations. The rise of social media has made it easier than ever to see how states use mass communication as a weapon.
Incorporating social media into mass communication began with political communication aimed at building and controlling empires.
Whether it’s Darius the Great imposing his image on buildings and coins to help control the Persian Empire; Henry VIII’s illuminating use of portraiture, or the well-documented use of radio and film in World War II – Media technology has long been used to spread political ideas.
Social media adds another element to the mix and brings immediacy to strategic political communications.
In asymmetric conflicts (such as the one we are seeing now in Ukraine), a successful social media account can be a useful weapon against an adversary with many guns and tanks.
The local uprisings of the Arab Spring in 2010, especially in Egypt and Tunisia, were one of the first movements in which social media played a key role.
Democracy advocates use Twitter, Facebook and YouTube to maintain a network of communications and openly criticize their governments for the world to see.
The government was quick to realize the power of social media. Their response is to limit access to social media and their own use of social media.
Social media alone may not be able to spark widespread change, but it certainly can.
Information warfare Tensions between Russia and Ukraine have a long history and were highly profiled on social media before the latest incursion.
Since 2014, pro-Russian accounts have been spreading disinformation about Russia’s role in the Donetsk region, fueling chaos and instability, and aiding the Russian takeover. This is actually a key element of Russia’s “hybrid warfare” approach.
Russian strategic operations and Ukrainian counterattacks have been extensively studied by researchers. Not surprisingly, the vast majority of this research found that each side framed the conflict in very different and different ways.
The study also found that social media can sustain or even exacerbate online animosity among Ukrainians and Russians.
For example, after Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 was shot down by Russia over Ukraine, an analysis of 950,000 Twitter posts found a flood of competing claims online, sparking a truth struggle that continues to this day.
Back in 2014, General Philip Breedlov, NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, described Russia’s communications strategy in Ukraine as “the most astonishing information warfare blitz we have ever seen in the history of information warfare.”
Those efforts have escalated since Russia recently expanded its invasion of Ukrainian territory. With so much noise, it’s increasingly difficult for users to comprehend a flood of contradictory, emotional, and (often) difficult-to-verify information.
The situation is even more difficult when the tone of the post changes rapidly.
The Ukrainian government’s Twitter account is a study of content and tone contrasts. Built in more peaceful times, the profile cheerfully says: “Yes, this is the official Ukrainian Twitter account. Beautiful photo: #BeautifulUkraine Our music: #UkieBeats”.
But the account now publishes a slew of war-related content, images and videos as part of its strategic communications campaign.
This includes serious news updates, patriotic innuendos to historical events and figures, anti-Russian material and — before the recent reports of mass deaths — a fair amount of humor.
Why use humor? Humor has long been used as an element of communication and public diplomacy – even during wars.
For example, at the turn of the century, the Serbian Otpor resistance movement used humor effectively in its campaign to overthrow dictator Slobodan Milosevic.
Humor works especially well on social platforms because it goes viral.
As far as Ukraine’s defense is concerned, it shows contempt. After all, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy (former comedian) is known in the political spotlight for a satirical TV production. In it, he played the role of a teacher whose rant about corruption he secretly filmed went viral, leading to the character becoming president.
Zelenskyy’s Twitter account is now the most direct and reliable way for many Ukrainians to obtain vital information about the invasion and negotiations between Zelenskyy and other leaders.
The thousands of “shares” these posts have received are helping Ukraine’s campaign.
Zelensky’s recent speech at the Grammys reinforced his understanding of the need to remain visible to the world at this critical time. His speech received a lot of support on social media (as well as “propaganda” calls from Russian supporters).
Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s Twitter account has been dormant since March 16.