Ben Coates is the author of “Why the Dutch are Different: A Journey into the Hidden Heart of the Netherlands” (Nicholas Brealey Publishing, 2015) and “The Rhine: Following Europe’s Greatest River from Amsterdam to the Alps” (Nicholas Brealey Publishing, 2018).
About two weeks ago, an astonishing video from Ukraine appeared online. Russia hadn’t yet invaded at that point, but the video purported to show war breaking out in dramatic fashion. A fighter jet looped low over a town on an inky blue night and fired a missile at a target on the ground. It exploded in a starburst of orange flame, before a ribbon of pinkish, laser-like projectiles chased the plane away across the sky.
The clip was short but thrilling, and with tensions in and around Ukraine already rising fast, it was soon spreading like the Omicron variant — shared hundreds of thousands of times on Facebook and Twitter. In time, though, a small problem emerged. It turned out that there was no plane, no missile striking the ground and no colorful return fire. This video that people around the world were watching in their thousands was not live footage from the brutal conflict starting in Europe, but a clip from a computer game called Arma 3, which was released nearly a decade ago.
In the time since that video went viral, it has been superseded by countless other clips that are both real and far more horrifying: of beautiful old buildings in Kharkiv being destroyed, of brave Ukrainians resisting Russian tanks, of military convoys obliterated from the air, of Ukraine’s president bravely speaking out against Russian President Vladimir Putin’s genocidal aggression. But that video-game clip was, in a way, a fitting start for a conflict that some commentators have already taken to describing as “the first social media war,” fought not just with rifles and tanks but with iPhones.
In truth, the idea that the war in Ukraine is the first of the social media age is probably an exaggeration. In an era where we work, play, shop and date online, people have naturally waged war there too. The Arab Spring of 2011 was famously fertilized on social media, while the atrocities in Syria and the recent fall of Kabul were both heavily Tweeted and Instagrammed. In Iraq, ISIS made deft, if grotesque, use of modern technologies, carefully choreographing execution videos and, reportedly, even launching their own app, a sort of LinkedIn for lunatics that wannabe terrorists could, incredibly, download from the Google Play Store.
Despite this history, however, what’s happening in Ukraine represents something new and different. When the siege of Sarajevo started in the 1990s, Mark Zuckerberg was only eight years old, and when the Iraq War started, neither Facebook, Twitter, TikTok or Instagram even existed. The war in Ukraine is being covered on social media on a scale that is simply astonishing.
To give just one example: Videos of a heroic Ukrainian fighter pilot known as “The Ghost of Kyiv” have (according to the New York Times) already racked up nearly 10 million views on Twitter, more than 6 million on YouTube and up to 200 million views on TikTok. Thanks partly to viral content, once-obscure outlets have been propelled to global prominence: In mid-February, the startup media outlet Kyiv Independent claimed to have only about 20,000 followers on Twitter. Now it has over 1.6 million.
Even people in positions of influence seem to rely heavily on their news feeds when plotting the fate of nations. “As an analyst of what’s happening in Ukraine at the moment, I’m getting 95 percent of my information from Twitter,” one analyst from the think-tank RUSI told WIRED. As the British commentator Ian Leslie pointed out, it’s quite possible that the average Twitter user now has better access to information about this war than the United States defense secretary did at the height of the war in Vietnam.
The reasons for this explosion in online interest are complex, but they probably include the unique characteristics of the war itself. In an odd twist of fate, the start of the conflict dovetailed almost perfectly with the rapid easing of coronavirus crisis. And by accident or design, Russia invaded at the exact moment journalists and politicians were desperate to have something other than the pandemic to talk about, when many people are still mostly working from home and we’ve all become conditioned to endless doom-scrolling.
Then there’s the fact that the conflict seems like it could have almost been engineered to attract attention in the social media age. Some wars are fiendishly complicated and contain multitudinous shades of grey, but this one is (superficially, at least) fairly easy to understand, and easy to characterize as an old-fashioned morality tale of good versus evil, or David against Goliath.
Even the leading characters look like they could have been dispatched from central casting: On the goodies’ side, there’s a telegenic, charming former actor who looks like he’d make the perfect husband, and for the baddies, there’s a dead-eyed ageing autocrat who looks like a soulless shoe salesman from a small town in Siberia. And as a result, it’s perhaps unsurprising that millions of people who wouldn’t normally know Kyiv from Khartoum are taking an unusually intense interest in what’s going on.
To their credit, the Ukrainian government has been quick to recognize all this, and they have provided something of a master class in how to use social media to build support for an underdog. It of course helps that Ukraine is clearly on the right side of history: When a dictator claims to be “protecting civilians” while firing missiles at residential areas, and says he’s “de-Nazifying” a country while trying to kill its Jewish president, it’s only right and natural that most people would side with the victim rather than the aggressor.
The Ukrainian authorities have also been skillful at leveraging the key elements of modern social media — memes, wry humor, a bone-dry sense of irony — to make ordinary young people care about looming genocide in ways they perhaps haven’t in the past. Over the last couple of years, the official @Ukraine Twitter account has been a particular source for spiky jokes at the expense of its bullying neighbor, such as a mock medical guide illustrating the four main types of headaches: a migraine, hypertension, stress and “living next to Russia.” In another famous exchange from 2020, @Russia tweeted that Ukrainians could think fondly of “the good ol’ days” of Soviet domination, to which @Ukraine promptly replied that Russia was their country’s “toxic ex.”
In dark times, it can be easy to mock these tendencies to conduct foreign policy as if it were a squabble between bitchy characters in a rom-com. But it clearly works: Russian atrocities that might have gone largely unnoticed have sparked uproar around the world, and it’s hard for war criminals like Putin to rewrite a history that everyone has watched unfold. Public anger has helped pressure the European Union and others to take a hard line.
In some other recent conflicts, such as in post-2014 Iraq, it unfortunately often seemed that the “bad guys” had the upper hand on social media, and the forces for good were struggling to catch up. Now, thankfully, the opposite is true: The Ukrainians have not only won the hearts and minds of people across the world, but achieved two things that always seemed impossible: ending Swiss neutrality and getting the British tabloid press to lionize Eastern Europeans.
And yet there are reasons to be deeply uneasy about the way this bloody, brutal conflict is being portrayed. One major problem is with misinformation. Research has shown fake news can often spread much faster online than real news, partly because of how it’s tailored to induce a strong emotional reaction.
And in the case of Ukraine, that’s clearly happened often. Take those videos of the Ghost of Kyiv: The ace fighter pilot may have racked up millions of views, but according to the New York Times, he or she doesn’t actually exist, and one of the most popular videos shared by the @Ukraine Twitter account was actually a computer rendering from a flight simulator. In the rush to find click-worthy content, truth is often the first casualty.
More broadly, social media sometimes simplifies the conflict in ways that don’t seem helpful — gamifying a horrible struggle into a straightforward, time-limited contest with one winner and one loser, and an easy solution. In recent days, I’ve seen countless brilliant articles, Twitter threads, videos and explainers that help shed much-needed light on the situation. But I’ve also seen a lot of content that, due to the way it chases likes and begs for attention, fails to reflect the horrible complexities of the situation on the ground.
Recent talk of imposing a no-fly zone is a good example: I’m no defense expert, but as far as I can tell, no-fly zones are like free ponies for everyone: a policy idea that sounds instinctively appealing if you only think about it for three seconds while scrolling, but highly problematic to implement in practice. But online, it’s the simple solutions that get attention, and the boring ones get ignored. Nature abhors a vacuum, and Twitter abhors nuance.
It’s deeply discomfiting to see how a bloody, brutal, world-endangering invasion can be converted into a giant spectator sport. There are certainly many brave journalists, ordinary Ukrainians and others who are doing an outstanding job of reporting on the war and sharing valuable perspectives on it. But in many corners of platforms like Twitter and Reddit, too often the goal seems to be not to inform but to entertain.
This week, my own Twitter timeline has consisted of a never-ending string of livestreamed films of drones attacking convoys, photos of bloodied bodies on the roadside, handheld videos of homes exploding, clips of fathers sobbing as they send their children abroad. Horrific imagery gets repurposed to harvest likes and shares; and the glee with which Russian battle losses are reported (while often understandable) seems almost horribly dehumanizing. Suffering on all sides is being trivialized by people who have never experienced a war, and hopefully never will.
And some responses have been not just cringeworthy but wildly offensive: Last week, for instance, there was a furor over people praising Ukraine’s sultry “war aesthetic” and “apocalypse vibes.” Others are less gratuitously offensive but still treat the horrific situation like a cool TV series or new Marvel movie, with a hot lead, compelling plot lines and a tricksy new plot twist served up each day. War shouldn’t be a source of entertainment, but at the moment that’s exactly how it’s being treated. Are you bored of “Squid Game” and “Lupin”? Why not watch this drone footage of a kindergarten being blown up instead?
Whatever happens to Ukraine next, it seems inevitable that the social media masses will tire of talking about it sooner or later, and lurch on to something else, just as they have in the past (#BringBackOurGirls, anyone?). Until then, though, the information war rolls on, with no end in sight.
In the meantime, it’s hard not to be complicit. Last night, having spent half the day scrolling through viral videos, I sat down at home to watch a streaming drama about a dystopian future in which everyone’s performance is constantly judged on a five-point scale, and society operates like a never-ending popularity contest. The concept felt a little contrived and I got bored after a while, turned the TV off and went back online instead. A funny video of Ukranian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy had 8 million views and counting. I shared it with my followers, and carried on scrolling.