Russia’s brutality against Ukraine is unfolding on social media

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Wednesday, March 2, 2022

Social media is exposing Putin's invasion of Ukraine in real time

The week after Russia’s invasion, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky tweeted out, “To the world: what is the point of saying «never again» for 80 years, if the world stays silent when a bomb drops on the same site of Babyn Yar?”

Zelensky was referring to the site of a Nazi massacre. The 44-year-old president has pleaded with the world every day via Twitter, as others document missiles striking on the short-form video platform TikTok.

The images and videos of Russia’s attack have helped spur protests from Berlin to Mexico City. Activists have called for Western powers to punish Russia for its attack on Ukraine, a former member of the Soviet Union that has increasingly allied with NATO members. The pleas via social media likely helped propel the U.S. and its allies to hit Russia with tough economic sanctions to choke off its resources.

“Social media has had a significant effect on the prosecution and perception of this conflict,” Emerson Brooking, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, told Yahoo Finance. “In particular, I think social media has been instrumental in showing Ukrainian resistance, and then rallying Western and global support for the Ukrainian cause.”

Zelensky’s success in rallying Ukrainians

Since the start of the conflict in Ukraine, Zelensky has used his Twitter account to rally everyday Ukrainians to defend their homes. He’s called on the U.S., NATO, E.U., and seemingly every friendly democracy to sanction Vladimir Putin and Russian oligarchs, as well.

And it’s worked. Ukrainians of all stripes are lining up to fight Russian’s forces. And thanks to Zelensky’s powerful displays, the U.S., E.U., and even famously neutral Switzerland have not only levied sanctions against Russia, but are determining which Russian banks to eject from the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication.

SENSITIVE MATERIAL. THIS IMAGE MAY OFFEND OR DISTURB People take part in an anti-war protest, after Russia launched a massive military operation against Ukraine, in Lisbon, Portugal, February 27, 2022. REUTERS/Pedro Nunes
People take part in an anti-war protest, after Russia launched a massive military operation against Ukraine, in Lisbon, Portugal, February 27, 2022. REUTERS/Pedro Nunes

“Where [the social media reaction] has really manifested is the speed with which both the U.S. and European Union policymakers have agreed on extraordinary measures, the provision of arms to Ukraine and essentially the expulsion of Russia from the global economic system in five days,” Brooking said. “I think the act of invasion, coupled with the fact that it's so visceral and accessible, has really driven the Western response so far.”

It’s not just Zelensky drumming up Western backing for Ukraine.

Tweets show residents in the Ukranian village of Bakhmach blocking tanks with their bodies. Facebook photos display teenagers in Kyiv preparing molotov cocktails. There’s a decent chance you saw 13 Ukrainian soldiers tell a Russian warship “Go F… yourself,” while defending critically important Snake Island. That incident unfolded on TikTok, Instagram, heck, seemingly every social media service.

These are the images driving users to advocate for Ukraine’s defense and Russia’s withdrawal.

Dangers of disinformation

But Ukrainians aren’t the only ones using social media to build support at home and abroad. Russian-backed groups flood Facebook (FB), Instagram, Twitter (TWTR), YouTube (GOOG, GOOGL), and TikTok with propaganda, filling users’ feeds with conflicting reports of Ukrainians surrendering or falsely claiming Zelensky has fled Ukraine.

The sheer volume of content from the conflict makes it difficult to decipher propaganda from reality.

“There's information coming from both sides in a steady stream and a torrent of information becomes a little bit overwhelming,” explained Ari Lightman, professor of digital media and marketing at Carnegie Mellon University’s Heinz College. “We're seeing [Russian] propaganda being generated and highly opinionated calls for action, culture advocacy, and calls for help on the other side.”

To combat Russia’s propaganda, Facebook parent Meta on Monday said it’s taking action against a hacking group and an influence campaign pushing pro-Russian propaganda. It’s also demonetizing pages run by Russian state media agencies like RT.

Alphabet’s YouTube, Microsoft, and TikTok also either removed RT and another Russia channel called Sputnik from their services or blocked them in Europe.

Social media attention is fleeting

Despite the power of social media, users have short attention spans. Look no further than the initial support Western Twitter users threw behind protesters during the Arab Spring in the early 2010s before eventually losing interest and tuning out.

Or the litany of causes users have supported by briefly changing their profile photos or user names over the years. Remember when you changed your profile photo to a French flag and then replaced it with a shot of you sipping beer at the pool?

“Attention has a half life,” Brooking said. “As the world becomes more and nearer to the tragedy that's unfolding in Ukraine, and as Ukrainian losses mount, as Kiev looks less like a European capital and more like a bombed out ... city. There may be a temptation for Western observers to turn away.”

If Western users do turn away from the conflict, support for Ukraine could dry up — along with its chances of beating down Putin and staying independent of Russia. Still, it’s clear that Ukraine will not go down without exposing Putin’s brutality to the world, one TikTok at a time.

By Daniel Howley, tech editor at Yahoo Finance. Follow him @DanielHowley

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