It was certainly a first: a wartime leader communicating through selfies as his country was invaded. For the first few weeks of the Russian invasion of Ukraine we became used to President Volodymyr Zelenskiy appearing with his arm held out to hold his phone, unshaven and dressed in casual military-style T-shirt, as he exhorted the rest of the world to come to Ukraine’s aid.
Zelenskiy has form, as they say. In 2019, when he campaigned for the presidency, he used social media almost exclusively, so much so that traditional media outlets complained they had no access to him. Before the war, if known in the West at all, it was as a bizarre figure. As is well-known, he was an actor and comedian before standing for his first electoral office and winning the presidency. He played a small part in the first impeachment of Donald Trump in 2019, when Trump withheld funding from Ukraine unless Zelenskiy investigated Joe Biden’s son’s commercial activities in the country. There is an image of him meeting Trump, where he looks like a scolded schoolboy, out of his depth. Today his videos and posts go viral. His Twitter account is reported to have gone from 300,000 followers to five million in a few days.
With the invasion, he moved to social media again, as he had done in the presidential election. His online popularity worked because he was good at cutting though with simple messages, emotional messages: “We are fighting for our rights, for our freedom for our lives.” While Russian forces far outnumber Ukrainian, online messaging helped galvanise widespread support in the first days of the invasion, with the mantra, “we will not give in.”
Compare Zelenskiy’s personal appeal, in combat helmet, surrounded by ordinary soldiers, or out on the streets of Kyiv, to that of Putin, surrounded by generals, saluting ceremonial guards and meeting Macron at that now famous table. Zelenskiy drew on that image online: “Sit down with me, you don’t need a big table, I am an ordinary man, I won’t bite.” It worked with Ursula von der Leyen, who declared: “Volodymyr Zelenskiy and the people of Ukraine are a true inspiration.”
Meanwhile in Russia, Putin blocked access to Facebook and limited access to Twitter. He has also signed a law banning the use of the words “war” or “invasion”, preferring “special operation to demilitarise Ukraine”. Anyone who publishes “false information” can be sentenced to up to fifteen years in prison. BBC and Bloomberg are among those media organisations who have withdrawn from Russia for safety reasons.
Before the election in 2019 Zelenskiy had been the star of Servant of the People (which was then registered as his party name when he stood for election), a television series about an ordinary teacher who is elected president. Now he is a household name, personifiying the unequal struggle of the people of Ukraine, and marking a significant change in how wartime communications are carried out.
Aside from Zelenskiy on Twitter, the real format for this war appears to be TikTok, the social media platform known for short videos of lip-syncing teenagers and dance routines. More than one commentator has called the war in Ukraine the first TikTok war. Both Zelenskiy and Joe Biden have appealed to TikTok “influencers” to cover the war. Content on TikTok relating to Ukraine has exploded since the country was invaded, with videos tagged #Ukraine surpassing 30.5 billion views by mid-March.
With that dramatic rise came a flood of misinformation and disinformation. Videos of unrelated explosions were reposted as if they were from Ukraine. Uploads from video games were passed off as footage of real-life events. An explosion was shown that turned out to be that of Beirut port in 2020; images of Russian and Ukrainian soldiers eye-balling each other were from the 2014 invasion of Crimea. Russian propaganda went viral before it could be removed and footage from other conflicts were posted as if they had just happened. A former Miss Ukraine had to correct an impression that her posing with a gun (a replica) meant she was part of the defence of Kyiv. She was just trying to inspire, she said. Some TikTok posts are funny. One has a teenager in a bunker pointing out her ration pack, her sleeping bag and water storage while some cheesy pop plays ‑ a parody of a TikTok video of a teenager pointing to her possessions in her bedroom.
Technie optimists always see some social media platform as a game changer, something that has replaced mainstream media, that is telling the story as it really is, going round the “gatekeepers”: Twitter for the Arab Spring and YouTube in Syria.
Harvard’s Shorenstein Centre on Media has researched the impact of TikTok on the reporting of the war:
We have observed TikTok users inside Ukraine using the app to raise awareness about the crisis and document their experiences under siege. These videos range from sardonic to deeply emotional. Videos detailing the violence and destruction occurring in several of the country’s major cities are also common on the app. Ukrainians in and outside the country are using the platform to speak directly to western audiences who may not know the history of Ukraine.
Russian users, on the other hand, have been barred from uploading and livestreaming to the platform since March 6th, 2022, when TikTok suspended service in the country in response to a Russian law criminalising “fake news” (meaning information that conflicts with state-sanctioned reports related to the invasion). Before that, there were Russian users who had posted videos of the anti-war protests that broke out at the onset of the invasion in Moscow and other Russian cities.
However, researchers also noted instances of mis- and disinformation across all the major social media platforms during the Ukrainian crisis. Shared social media features, such as anonymity in usernames and the ease with which content can be reposted, can make it hard to trace a post to its source across many platforms. This sourcing becomes even more challenging during breaking news events, when the demand for on-the-ground updates outpaces the speed at which reliable, authoritative news sources can verify information. In this search for news, people turn to social media platforms to fill the gaps.
TikTok seems to presents particular challenges for viewers attempting to separate fact from fiction, according to the Shorenstein Centre research. Several features of the platform’s technological infrastructure and user culture make it particularly susceptible to hosting and spreading recontextualised media and other forms of viral misinformation.
TikTok is particularly good for remixing media, allowing users to upload videos and sound clips without attributing their origins, which makes it difficult to contextualise and factcheck, according to the research. This has created a digital atmosphere in which “it is difficult – even for seasoned journalists and researchers – to discern truth from rumour, parody and fabrication”, researchers added.
While the world has rallied behind the Ukrainians’ bravery in defending themselves against invasion by a stronger neighbour, there is less about the informational war. There is little doubt who is winning that one. Russia has all but closed down the country to verifiable news. Propaganda channels such as RT continue to broadcast, but even the few independent media that continue to operate must do so within constraints imposed by the government. Meanwhile, the president of Ukraine is a hero and Ukrainian soldiers can be seen dancing to Nirvana songs on TikTok. One such soldier in the Donbas region has over 2 million followers.
One of the issues that has arisen is the contrast to how wars in other parts of the world are covered. A CBS News reporter was forced to apologise for suggesting the war in Ukraine was particularly shocking because the country was “relatively civilised” and “European” compared to Iraq and Afghanistan. Credulous reporting and unchallenged assumptions about who is and isn’t trustworthy ‑ or who does and doesn’t deserve our compassion ‑ can have major consequences, of course.
But how used to freedom of expression and the press was Ukraine before the war? And does its history warrant its demand to join the EU?
Achieving some semblance of a free press has not been easy for Ukraine. During my first working visit to Kyiv I met a journalist at a reception at a US diplomat’s apartment. Quite casually, he said that he had been fined US$1 million for publishing material disliked by the authorities. His newspaper was operating without telephones and had to vacate its newsroom. He was not worried: US$500 would have worried him: that he would have had to pay. The harassment of his newspaper meant that he had not been paid for six months.
At the end of the same visit, as I was being driven to the airport, the driver casually nodded up the road, in the direction of some woods, and says that was where the decapitated body of the investigative journalist Georgiy Gongadze was found. President Kuchma (in office 1994-2005) was implicated in his murder. Between independence and just before the war, some sixty journalists had died doing their jobs. Since the war, five have died and hundreds have been attacked by Russian forces.
The situation regarding press freedom has improved hugely in Ukraine. Reporters Sans Frontières, the press freedom human rights group, has listed the country at 97th on its press freedom index out of 180 countries (Ireland was twelfth). Even with that score Ukraine stands out as a beacon of freedom in the region. Russia stands at 150th and Belarus at 158th. Ukraine’s standing has been improving, dropping from 127th place in 2014. However, despite favourable comparisons with some of its neighbours, there are still issues with oligarchs, offshore ownership and political influence, but the general consensus is things are getting better. Afterall, its ranking is better than Bulgaria’s and not far off that of Hungary, both EU members.
Despite the attacks on journalists, both Ukrainian and international, the emphasis on social media hides the fact that there has not been enough traditional war reporting, with journalists actually being able to tell us what it’s like in Mariupol, or accompanying Ukrainian troops, to counter misinformation, in the role of witness. A great piece of reporting by AP on the siege in Mariupol by Associated Press reporter Mstyslav Chernov and his colleague Evgeniy Maloletka is a rare piece of on-the-ground coverage. What we are getting more in the West is coverage of a refugee crisis, rather than independent journalists doing what they do best, giving us verified accounts of what is taking place in his appalling war.
So, there are two wars going on, a real one and a virtual one. Only sometimes do they coincide. One example reported in the Financial Times was of the “liberation” of the town of Makariv. The liberation went viral on social media. The Ukrainian defence ministry declared that Ukrainian flag was raised and the enemy driven back. Around the world it was reported the Russians had been repulsed. But this was untrue. The mayor of Makariv told the Financial Times that Putin’s troops had only ever controlled about one sixth of the town, and they were still there.
Michael Foley worked on a number of EU-funded media development projects including with the BBC at the journalism faculty at Tara Shevchenko University, Kyiv and two other Ukrainian universities, between 2005 and 2007.