Social media has been heavily criticised in the last years for its negative impacts on mental health and its overall far-reaching influence on our daily lives. However, in the face of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, social media has fueled international cohesion and mobilised immense compassion. This movement did not halt at the screens of daily internet users but also resonated within politics. Social media press coverage of the happenings in Ukraine is not coming from the Ukrainian population but is also being spread and initiated by people from all over the world. Add this to the high-level politicians and diplomats who also continue to use socials as an outlet for conveying messages, speeches and conferences to keep interested parties informed as well as involved.
In this new age of media, news travels fast. It is multiplied rapidly and is (most often) easily accessible for everyone. Within research, this phenomenon is described as digital diplomacy, which stands for the growing use of ICTs and social media platforms by a country (or affiliated person) in order to achieve its foreign policy goals and practice public diplomacy. As nowadays social media is used by literally everyone, each person can contribute to a country’s foreign policy endeavours and advocate for one’s beliefs through disseminating (valid) information. And in the current Ukrainian-Russian war, this is becoming clearer than ever. This development appears to be a double-edged sword: social media has brought the war in Ukraine closer than ever and brings overwhelming support with it, but the sheer diversity of information on social media also hurts Ukrainian defense efforts. This article will provide a deeper analysis of the impact of social media in what is being referred to as Europe’s first ‘TikTok war’.
Social media in times of conflict
There are a couple of characteristics that make social media a favourable medium in times of crisis and mass mobilisation. Social media first of all permits ‘many to many’ communication, which means that messages can spread at lightspeed on platforms to countless users. Due to the low threshold of social media use, certain messages can reach and call up people who previously had no ties to politics or the military and help people from all backgrounds communicate and cooperate on common topics and causes. Moreover, as Tetyana Bohdanova argues in her research article on the use of social media in Ukraine’s 2014 Euromaidan uprising, social media has allowed protesters to keep each other informed, attract attention of traditional media and help organise activities to help sustain the protest movement.
It is believed that social media is also a very effective way to call people to action. Research has shown (Bohdanova, 2014) that social networks online work the same way as they do offline in the sense that we are more motivated to do something when we see that friends or family also participate. One retweet or post can go a long way in inspiring your inner circle to join in as well. Social media also enables people with no large following or respectable position to access a large audience, which means that events that previously would go unnoticed are able to reach millions of people in a matter of minutes once they go viral. Now, more than ever, the world can witness the atrocities that people in Ukraine are enduring, without having to rely on the capability of journalists in the country to capture everything.
Digital diplomacy & the Ukrainian government
Both the Ukrainian government as well as Ukrainian citizens have made use of social media, showing the power and impact of digital diplomacy in times of crisis. All branches of the Ukrainian government have been increasingly active on social media, both in Ukrainian and also in English, showing that their intended audience also lies outside of Ukraine’s borders. @Ukraine on Twitter is the official Twitter page of the country. The account predominantly posts in English. This account, which has commented on Russia’s aggression even before the start of the war, regularly uses memes and other types of dark humour to address the political situation. This cynical approach has proven to be very popular among Gen-Z users of the platform and has attracted a large youthful following. The government itself is also active via accounts such as @Kabmin_UA_e which is the official Cabinet of Ministers and the president’s account @ZelenskyyUa. The type of posts from these accounts can be roughly categorised into roughly five groups:
- On-site information
The accounts all provide information about current happenings. The goal is likely to inform foreigners and get their support.
- Support statement
Companies, celebrities and states that have publicly stated their support of Ukraine are shared by the government’s account. Stephen King’s support statement is for example shared by the account.
- Call to action for organisations
Over the past few days, we have seen government representatives that have used Social Media to publicly ask countries, corporations and other organisations for help. The minister of Digital Transformation Mykhailo Fedorov has for example asked Visa and Mastercard to block all cards issued within the Russian Federation. By communicating through public channels Ukraine can profit from public pressure from the (international) supporters of Ukraine. This can be defined as a naming and shaming strategy. Europe, America and Great Britain have, for example, also been called out by the fact that they collectively still earn 700 million dollars a day from Russia.
- Call to action for individuals
Besides organisation, there are also posts that are aimed at foreign individuals. There are fundraisers for the army and emergency aid and the recruitment of foreign fighters. Recently the hashtag #BoycottRussia is trending, asking individuals to stop buying goods and services from Russian corporations. A good example of this was the request made by Ukraine’s vice prime minister Mykhailo Fedorov on Twitter aimed at Elon Musk to provide Ukraine with Starlink stations, the billionaire’s satellite internet connection. Twelve hours later Starlink was up and running in Ukraine, which was again confirmed by Musk through Twitter.
Starlink service is now active in Ukraine. More terminals en route.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) February 26, 2022
Access to traditional media has become increasingly difficult, making social media all the more important. After the missile strikes that hit the Kyiv TV tower on March 1st, multiple channels and broadcasts have temporarily gone dark. The attack is part of a larger strategy to cut off Ukrainian people from the internet and other forms of communication, according to Ukraine’s defence minister Oleksii Reznikov. ’Its goal is to break the resistance of people and army. At 1st, they can arrange a breakdown of connection. After the spread of massive FAKE messages that Ukrainian country leadership has agreed to give up.’ A message that he was able to convey through Twitter. The stances of the Ukrainian government on social media do not only inspire Ukrainians but also people outside of the country. This development is something that Anton, a 24-year old from Ukraine has also detected: ‘We cannot give up Ukraine because they do not give up on themselves. In this way, I think their social media approach is quite successful.’ By telling the world that Ukraine is not going anywhere, Anton argues, the rest of the world is incentivized to help in any way they can.
Zelenskyy’s public image
Digital diplomacy is a practice that is utilised perfectly by Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy. He entered the political sphere in 2018, with the creation of a political party (Servant of the People) and the start of a presidential campaign. The party was named after the show Zelenskyy starred in as, funnily enough, the Ukrainian president. The actor and comedian was already a popular candidate before his official announcement and successfully managed to defeat the incumbent president Poroshenko. During his campaign, Zelenskyy made elaborate use of social media channels like YouTube to address the Ukrainian public. But, even though he managed to win the election with 73% of the votes, it did not mean that Zelenskyy enjoyed a high approval rating among the Ukrainian public at that time. One of the main contributions to his low pre-war acceptance rate had indeed to do with the Russian threat in the East of the country, with many people not believing that Zelenskyy is capable of ending the war and defeating corruption, two of his main selling points during the presidential campaign. In addition to that, he did not gain much favour from appointing some questionable figures in his team.
Now that the worst fear of many Ukrainians has come true with the Russian invasion of the country, Zelenskyy’s public image has made a complete 180, especially in Western media. The president’s performance over the past couple of days has earned him a lot of goodwill. From his refusal to leave Kyiv to his appeals to foreign leaders, with his speech in front of the European Parliament even moving the interpreters to tears. It is no coincidence that Zelenskyy uses social media to make appeals to his people. On Western socials, Zelenskyy has managed to reach an almost cult-like status as both a genuine and approachable family man and tough war hero, with people claiming him to be the exact opposite of Russian leader Vladimir Putin. Interestingly enough, Putin himself has put a lot of effort into building his public image (remember the topless picture of him on a horse?), but Zelenskyy has managed to create an image that Putin has been aiming to create for himself ever since the beginning of his presidency.
This has set in motion a social media trend of posting old footage of Zelenskky: from tv speeches to his participation in the Ukrainian version of Dancing with the Stars, from footage from his acting days to even thirst trap videos on TikTok (if you need to Google this one, I apologise in advance). All this social media activity contributes to an enormously positive image of Zelenskyy in the Western world. After all, how could you have any animosity against the man who voiced Paddington Bear?
The rose-coloured glasses of the Ukrainians may be a little smaller than those of the people outside of the warzone, but debates on Zelenskyy’s capabilities as president have pretty much all halted. This is exemplified by Anastasiia, a 20-year old from Russia living in the Czech Republic: ‘In my opinion, hearing from your leader every day is the most inspiring and calming thing. Especially while knowing that he is somewhere close to you, in another city and did not flee in the first place. Almost all the people are using social media these days and when Ukrainian citizens see their President on the daily feed, this definitely brings them together. Not going to lie, but Russians are inspired and amazed by Zelenskyy’s speeches too.’ Something which is possible due to the fact that Zelenskyy also gives speeches in Russian. During times of crisis, there is no use in questioning your leadership. From a PR perspective, Russia couldn’t have done Zelenskyy a greater service.
Day 12 of Russia’s full-on invasion of Ukraine. Where’s President Zelensky?
“I’m staying in Kyiv. In my office. I’m not hiding. And I’m not afraid of anyone.”
The comic turned president has truly become a wartime leader. pic.twitter.com/dKbzYWwpbo
— Christopher Miller (@ChristopherJM) March 7, 2022
Power to the people
The government is not the only body that benefits from the use of social media. The medium keeps people connected to streams of information which have proven to be crucial in keeping citizens safe and help mobilise resistance. Nastya Tuman (@nastyatyman), a Russian mechanic with Ukrainian parents, uses TikTok to provide Ukrainians with elaborate videos on how to operate Russian tanks once they happen to ‘find’ them. Information that was previously limited to a select few, like technicians and soldiers, is now readily available to everyone who happens to stumble across her videos. But also videos on how to make Molotov cocktails and how to create barricades are popular tutorials that are going around on the internet right now. Yelyzaveta, a 24-year-old from Ukraine, agreed with the observation and mentioned that the Ukrainian Foreign Minister posted tutorials that help the Ukrainian civil society to protect themselves from Russian aggression. She thus feels supported by the Ukrainian political leaders. Regular civilians can now more than ever get involved in the war effort. Some examples are downright funny. Like the use of Tinder and Grindr by primarily Ukrainian women to locate Russian soldiers, but useful nonetheless. Other types of messages are focused on safety. For example, videos on how to make a survival kit and posts that share the geolocation of bomb shelters. The communication through social media in Ukraine itself proves vital in protecting people, organising resistance and keeping up morale among Ukrainians.
But with Russian efforts to invade the country intensifying in the past couple of days another use of social media is becoming more clear: the use of social media footage as evidence. The Nuremberg Trials, a series of international tribunals to investigate Nazi-German war crimes after WWII, have proven how crucial documentation is to provide some form of justice once the war was over. Videos of bombings, shootings and other war atrocities are being shared by Ukrainians on their social media platforms to inform the rest of the world of the terrible things that are happening at the moment in the country. This is not only to ask for action now but also to document these war crimes for later so they may not be forgotten.
Support for Ukraine has primarily been conveyed through social media channels, with the hashtags #StandWithUkraine and #FreeUkraine as common denominators. Footage of protests against the war have been shared in abundance: from Berlin to Canberra, from Manila to London, all over the world people have gathered to show their support. The Ukrainian flag is proudly held aloft on parliamentary buildings, schools and even ordinary homes and buildings colour blue and yellow. Even though this support is mostly symbolic, it does mean a lot for Ukrainian people, as exemplified by Anton: ‘’The global support is really important. We feel left alone, but the protests show us that Russia cannot win. Time is on our side, but we just need to win.’’
Ukraine is not only supported in spirit, but also through monetary means and supplies, and social media proves to be a fruitful environment to collect these donations. Anastasiia, because of her activity on multiple platforms, has witnessed the rise of these initiatives first-hand. ‘Since I follow a lot of chats and channels that help refugees and people inside the country, I have seen many things. For example, organised collection of first aid kits, packages with food and clothes, websites and pages with donations, organised through social media and transportation for people from the Ukrainian borders to safe places in the EU.’
The bigger social media like Instagram and Facebook allow for fundraisers to be hosted on their platforms, which have raised millions in the past two weeks for the Ukrainian cause. The Dutch organisation Giro555, which raises money in times of ‘exceptional humanitarian crises’ has managed to collect €137 million (a number which is still growing at the time of writing). Instagram and Facebook allowed people to donate directly to the cause but also allowed more indirect help to materialise.
The different types of fundraisers on the platforms also show the power that social media has in calling people from different subgroups, fandoms and niches into action. @vinylownik started the hashtag #VinylForUkraine, a challenge that asks vinyl collectors to use their collection to make the Ukrainian flag, add the hashtag and collect money for fundraisers that help the Ukrainian cause. The hashtag #cookforukraine has moved the big online network of chefs and (home) bakers to organise all sorts of initiatives to raise money. These initiatives range from adding Ukrainian dishes to the menu of restaurants and donating part of the proceeds to relief organisations to organising workshops and cooking events. Even the small gesture of cooking Ukrainian meals, posting them and asking to make a donation for Ukraine is doing the job.
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Limits to digital diplomacy
Widespread support and strong social media campaigns are not always enough to resolve a conflict. It only goes so far and like regular diplomacy, it does not physically stop bullets. It is also hard to measure the extent to which social media support would translate in the real world. It is relatively easy and cheap to share a post online, but are people willing to pay a price for their support in the real world?
One of the limits of digital diplomacy is that one can never know if the target audience will be reached. You are reliant on your followers and an algorithm, while you may want to reach the opposition. It is for example difficult to reach Russian civilians since they either will believe the Russian state Media or they will have trouble with accessing international social media. Yelyzaveta even states that social media, as the Western sphere experiences it, has close to no impact on internally mobilising the Russian population. In her opinion, due to ongoing Russian national propaganda, social media will not contribute to civil political movements as much as it does in other countries. As a Russian speaker, Anastasiia is doing what she can to help her Russian followers find independent information on the war. ‘I use social media to share media files, sources and my thoughts with Russian-speaking people, my friends and family as I know that they are very limited in the information they get. The situation is much worse than Europeans think. […] I simply share photos and videos taken in Ukraine, because most of my followers from Russia never see them.’
The announcement of the new ‘Fake News Law’ last week which criminalises any reporting on the ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine will isolate Russian users even further, helped by Facebook, Instagram and TikTok now being banned. Anton fears that it may already be too late to inform Russians on what is going on in Ukraine at the moment: ‘You must understand that propaganda has been doing its work for more than ten years now. Ukrainians have been dehumanised.’ A sentiment that is being shared by Anastasiia: ‘In the situation as such, people literally take what they are given and they start to believe what they are being told.’
Some diplomats are also wary of digital diplomacy because it polarises civilians more than they deem necessary. With polarised and enraged groups, the options of diplomatic dialogue become limited in both the range of options and the willingness to solve a conflict through diplomatic means. In addition, social media is meant for short messages, it leaves little room for nuanced debate. Statements may seem harsher than they are intended and content moderation often fails to uphold standard social etiquette.
In the end, much is still unknown about the impact social media has on crises on a scale like the Russian-Ukrainian war. There is loads to say on both the positive and negative effects that the connectedness of social media brings. But in the end, all the social media attention will remain limited, as Anton states: ‘Posting does not save lives, it does not protect our houses and buildings. It helps in building understanding about the situation and it shows Europeans what is truly happening […] Equipment will save lives, but even that I don’t know if it will be enough against the Russian military machine. In Ukraine, there are enough people to fight. We are not lacking people, but technology, weapons, air defence. Posting on Instagram is good, but we need actual diplomacy, so I hope it moves politicians to help Ukraine.’
*see Bohdanova, T., (2014) ‘Unexpected Revolution: The Role of Social Media in Ukraine’s Euromaidan Uprising’ European View 13:1 pp. 133 – 142.
Sandra Zwick has previously obtained a degree in Economic Sciences and Japanese Studies from Martin-Luther-University Halle/Wittenberg. She has recently graduated with a dual Master’s degree in European Governance at both Masaryk University and Utrecht University.
Anoek Zijderveld is a recently graduated student of International Relations specializing in Global Political Economy.
Linda den Bol graduated in history at Radboud University and obtained a dual-degree master’s degree in European Governance from Masarykova Univerzita and Utrecht University.
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