While editing footage in his local cafe on June 27, Kristian Voloshchenko, a 23-year-old videographer from the Central Ukrainian town of Cherkasy, was getting distracted from work by checking social media. Amid food and fashion-related posts, he came across breaking footage from Kremenchuk, a town some 120 km away, that made blood freeze in his veins: people diving into the fountain to avoid fire, bodies too burned to be identified.
Despite the occasional appearance of images like these in Ukrainians’ social media feeds, the main war-related narrative in Ukrainian society remains robustly optimistic, Voloschenko says. Ukrainians tend to get over the bad news fast, or at least their way of coping with it seems to be much more stoic rather than fatalistic. “There’s no one single demeanour across the country, and everyone’s mood changes every day. But what remains constant is the victorious attitude. Whatever happens, people believe in Ukraine’s triumph. Posts about the imminent victory and the faith in our warriors never vanish from our feeds,” he says.
Even the most superficial review of just a handful of Ukrainian social media posts reflects this mixture of pain and hope. Although there is a popular opinion in the West that social media fuels polarisation and erodes democracy, sometimes helping political figures like Donald Trump rise to power, Ukrainians seem to have found a way to harness the best out of digital communication. Ukrainian Facebook, Instagram and Twitter are brimming with cheerful, often triumphant celebrations of even the slightest military successes, like a destroyed drone or a rocket shut down. Through this, we can see that both mournful and hopeful types of messages contribute to a complex digital resistance effort led by Ukrainians. Simultaneously, the Russian side of the conflict does not hesitate to interfere with the Ukrainians’ struggle. Essentially, war-time digital media communication has both positive and negative effects on the social mood across Ukraine and therefore deserves a closer look.
Even the most superficial review of just a handful of Ukrainian social media posts reflects this mixture of pain and hope.
Ukrainians react to the ongoing Russian invasion with creativity and at an unprecedented pace, made possible by modern digital technologies. Apart from pictures, videos and compilations of recorded Ukrainian military successes (exploded Russian war machines, gruesome clips of Russian casualties, etc.) Ukrainian social media is brimming with various war-related art. “Music, graffiti, mural art, packs of patriotic tattoo sketches and whatnot,” Voloschenko counts them off.
Among many other songs and films and poems made during and about the war, Okean Elzy, an internationally famous Ukrainian rock band, released their new music video dedicated to all those who currently fight for Ukraine. The video for their song “Flowers of mine fields” fuses scenes of peaceful urban life with footage of the army patrolling Ukrainian countryside, and the soldiers’ attachment to their families is displayed both through the lyrics and visual narrative. The music video reached 715,000 views on YouTube in two days and there are thousands of comments from people all around the world wishing strength and victory to Ukrainians. “I am not Okean Elzy’s fan at all, but I have to say this new music video is quite powerful,” the videographer says.
In an inspirational feat of goodwill, Ukrainians even created online communities that help families identify Russian soldiers that were killed, wounded or taken hostage during the war. Such instances of empathy and innovative approaches to digital resistance are countless, and their effect on the social mood is doubtlessly immense.
But Ukrainian wartime social media undoubtedly has two sides to it. Not only in terms of generating optimism alongside picturing uncensored, brutal imagery but also in whom it serves to help. The Ukrainian army draws inspiration from public celebrations of their military achievements, which creates a positive feedback loop of boosting morale between society and the army. Military men and women receive encouragement from civil society as well as technical support and humanitarian aid, clearly with all being similarly vital for the maintenance of high spirits.
The Ukrainian army draws inspiration from public celeberations of their military achievements, which creates a positive feedback loop of boosting morale between society and the army.
Image Credit: Denys Tsiperko - an illustrator based in Kiev
But sometimes sincere support of resistance in the public sphere may backfire. A good illustration of such instances comes from the reporting of a 13-year-old schoolgirl in Western Ukraine, who wrote a letter of support addressed to Ukrainian soldiers but instead received, via her Vkontakte social media page, a personal, taunting video response from Russian soldiers. According to the article, in his response one of the Russian soldiers mentions, “Your defenders, supposed defenders… Here they are lying [in the ground] nearby.” The girl’s parents had to delete her social media page as a result of receiving such a response.
And it is not only public morale that takes a toll from the double-edged sword of digital media communication. Predictably, Russian security services and ordinary war supporters have easy access to Ukrainian social media posts too, and they effectively extract useful intel about artillery hits and misses to help their army make corrections. “But this doesn’t stop some in Ukraine from releasing the footage of shelling, movement of troops etcetera,” Voloshchenko notes. Thus, releasing details of military developments on social media does both good and evil, a fact illustrated by multiple reports of well-intentioned Ukrainian citizens carelessly posting videos or pictures of the Ukrainian army locations, which were followed by Russian strikes in the area.
There are signs that the Russian top-down propaganda strategy came to fruition too. A substantial part of the dogmatised (or “zombified” as we say in Ukraine) Russian masses, who picked up the narratives raining onto them from the state-sponsored TV, now actively help spread those messages of hate and misinformation, utilising the same social media. In line with the Kremlin strategy of denying the obvious and relativising truth, Russian social media users respond to the Ukrainian informational, creative and humanitarian digital action by bilious social media commentary, questioning the authenticity of released footage and data.
In a mind-boggling and borderline dystopian fashion, pro-Putin pundits like Solovyov, Kisilyov and Simonyan, as well as government-controlled bot farms, re-use Ukrainian-published images and videos of Russian war machines turned into scrap metal, insolently claiming that these are in fact Ukrainian military vehicles destroyed. Mimicking the style and rhetoric of Ukrainian public pages, Russians create pro-war online communities that generate support for the Russian war effort.
And the backing of the Russian invasion does not remain merely virtual. Incessantly labelling Ukrainians as nazis, the Russian public sphere swells with omnipresent “Z” and “V” war insignia, pictured on vehicles, buildings, billboards, T-shirts, doughnuts and virtually anything else. My favourite, perhaps, is an aerial picture of several dozens of young, terminally ill children forming Z in front of the hospice building in Kazan—this is Russia today.
Here, once again, the effectiveness of Russian propaganda is evident: although most of the public war insignia postage is initiated and sponsored by the state, many ordinary citizens pick up on the trend and actively support it, be it at gift shops or a gymnastics medal podium.
It is clear that we may never grasp the full scope of digital media influence on the Russian invasion of Ukraine. On the one hand, social media helps rally the population together, building social cohesion, unity and solidarity. It opens up new venues for creative expressions of frustration, fear and hope. The mixture of frightened and optimistic tones in Ukrainian social media trends is, therefore, not that surprising. Voloshchenko said he believes that five months of living under the invasion and the decreasing intensity of warfare numbed people’s fears and made them “somewhat used to living under such conditions.” News from Kremenchuk and the like then become an occasional wake-up call, and most seem to cope with it by doubling down on the victorious attitudes.
Perhaps at the heart of this ambivalence is a loss of control – social media users like Voloshckeno and I can rarely predict the digital reaction to the ongoing war in our country and how it might affect warfare: we simply respond to the war as best we can and hope that ordinary Russians do the same sooner rather than later.
But the same social media posts, especially the ones with detailed or visual proofs of Ukrainian military progress, allow for a Russian counteraction to the Ukrainians’ efforts. While illustrations of war provide meaning and cause for resistance for those away from the frontlines, in Ukraine or abroad, they can also impede the military fight by giving away valuable intelligence or providing fertile ground for further Russian propaganda. Perhaps at the heart of this ambivalence is a loss of control — social media users like Voloshchenko and I can rarely predict the digital reaction to the ongoing war in our country and how it might affect warfare: we simply respond to the war as best we can and hope that ordinary Russians do the same sooner rather than later.