Ukrainian Politics Moves Online: The Age of Digital Resistance
The war in my country broke out when I was too far away, it seemed, to do anything. Waking up on February the 24th, a date I will now remember forever, I habitually picked up my phone and my worldview was shattered. I have remained glued to my phone since.
Waking up on February the 24th, a date I will now remember forever, I habitually picked up my phone and my worldview was shattered. I have remained glued to my phone since.
As a Ukrainian and a journalist, consuming and analysing information became my contribution to the war effort and, truth be told, my coping mechanism. Very quickly I realised that waiting for mass media to release accurate, verified war updates was unbearable, ineffective and insufficient. Instead, I resorted to Telegram, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. To my surprise, I watched as social media swiftly transformed from a space for public discussion and the sharing of information into a political platform for public officials to communicate with citizens.
When Russian troops came, the Ukrainian government, already armed with the tools they had gained during the pandemic years, swiftly prepared to resume their work in the digital environment. Yelyzaveta Yasko, a 31-year-old member of the Ukrainian Parliament and the Ukrainian delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, easily moved her career to the digital realm at the beginning of the invasion; 90% of the committee has now followed suit.
Yelyzaveta Yasko during a panel discussion on NATO's role in the new world order at St. Gallen Symposium 2022 (Photo by Markus Ketola)
But 21st-century digital technologies offer more to the Ukrainian government than just the facilitation of discussions. Thanks to the internet, social media networks and shared digital multimedia content, Ukrainian politicians actively communicate with the Ukrainian public, distressed and dumbfounded by the war. Yasko too now supplements traditional media outlets with Telegram channels and official government social media accounts to access the news.
I watched as social media swiftly transformed from a space for public discussion and the sharing of information into a political platform for public officials to communicate with citizens.
The Ukrainian wartime communication process is quite simple: digital media news channels re-post public officials’ social media messages with war updates, complement them with fresh battlefield footage and expert commentary and deliver them to users like me in a linear thread of succinct yet informative news updates. Lower expectations of journalistic objectivity and verification, in combination with the nature of the digital world, allows social media newsmakers to release relevant information more immediately than traditional outlets can.
Realising social media's advantages, political figures in Ukraine began setting up Telegram, Twitter and Facebook accounts to spread urgent information and communicate with the public. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is an obvious example and the international face of Ukraine, but at home, he is just one of many public officials leading a robust digital resistance campaign and advocating for local and international support.
Other “digital stars” include Vitaliy Kim and Serhiy Haidai, the governors of Mykolaiv and Luhansk regions respectively, and Oleksiy Arestovych, the adviser to the Head of the Office of the President of Ukraine. None of them were widely known in Ukraine, let alone abroad, before the war but they have become successful political communicators, interviewed daily by the biggest local and foreign media. Their prominence came about due to their active engagement with social media.
A post by Vitalii Kim (@kimkimvitalii) captioned '100 days'.
Kim, Haidai and Arestovych have different communication styles, but all three channel their composure and charisma to reassure, calm and inspire the public with regular video updates on the latest military and infrastructural developments. In one of such videos, Kim announces an air raid alarm while chewing and addresses the public, “War is war, but lunch stays on schedule. I recommend you do the same”.
At the onset of the war, this kind of political communication, bordering on fatalism or indifference, conflicted with my inner turmoil. But gradually I gave in to the politicians’ endurance and stoicism. Like many others in Ukraine, including my family and friends, these political messages now assure me that our leaders know what they are doing and are ready to openly communicate the situation with the public.
“We are winning the informational war,” Yasko says. “There is just so much reliable information, and we are spreading international awareness about what is going on in Ukraine. Many people are inspired, and they admire us.”
In turn, social media echo chambers spread contemporary war fables, including those about a Ukrainian grandma who brought down a Russian drone with a jar of pickles tossed from her balcony, gopniks (or Romas, according to some sources) who stole Russian military vehicles, grandmas in occupied regions who stuff pastry with poison or sedatives before passing them to Russian soldiers in search of food. Importantly, these stories are not necessarily factual; they are national myths in the making, serving a symbolic function and having an inspirational effect on the population and, accordingly, the development of resistance. The truth of these stories is not easily verifiable, and it is unlikely that a substantial number of people sincerely believe in such rumours. But the positive effects of these stories—to create unity, solidarity and fighting spirit—are apparent. And even if these stories are not true, they do reflect a very real culture of resistance, with instances of people going onto the streets and standing in the way of Russian tanks without hesitation well documented.
In contrast to Ukrainian digital wartime innovations, Putin and his war apparatus restrict access to social media and the Internet overall, block VPNs, censor undesirable information, prosecute for posting online and pollute the informational field at home and abroad with intentionally deceiving, confusing narratives. “Our communication is effective, but, unfortunately, Russian propaganda incites hatred and creates disinformation,” Yasko notes.
Sergei Shoigu, the Russian minister of defence, Igor Konashenkov, the chief spokesperson for the ministry, Dmitry Medvedev, the former Russian president and current chair of the Security Council, and other officials actively spread factual misinformation, maintaining a victorious picture of the invasion for the domestic audience. To enhance the effect, Russian media talk show personalities (Margarita Simonyan, Vladimir Solovyov and others) shape public opinion with deliberately hateful rhetoric and act as an extension of the government mouthpiece, at times contemplating how Western involvement in Ukraine may lead to a Third World War and justifying Russian use of nuclear weapons.
Among many other staggering propaganda contraptions, there are Ramzan Kadyrov’s anti-retreat regiments of the Russian army, which in Ukrainian media are often laughed off as “Chechen tiktokers” for their unconvincing (yet entertaining) staged video clips of combat in Donbas. One such video displays the Kadyrovites interrogating an alleged Ukrainian soldier taken hostage in Mariupol who, shortly after the video was posted, was recognised by viewers as a member of the local homeless community. Such blatantly fake videos, released on TikTok and other social media, aim to portray Russian military power as fearsome and effective.
There may be countless subjective 'truths' but none of them equals the truth of a united nation that wants nothing but freedom and is ready to defend itself.
Admittedly, Ukrainian soldiers release battlefield footage too, supplementing it with upbeat music to boost public morale. But neither these bravado clips nor Ukrainian wartime national myths are comparable to the orchestrated misinformation commissioned by the Kremlin, well illustrated by the Russian UN ambassador reading his speeches emotionlessly off the pre-written sheet. The main difference here, perhaps, is that Russian propaganda is constructed strictly in a top-down manner, whereas the Ukrainian government limits itself to releasing reports of the army’s successes as well as losses and leaves space for interpretation, criticism and outside reporting, local as well as international. When reports turn out to be erroneous, the authorities do not hesitate to correct their previous statements. While Ukrainians clearly understand who the enemy is and why, for an average Russian it has become progressively more complicated to grasp what is true and what is false due to the sheer volume of misinformation, deceptive narratives and censorship of dissenting opinions.
“I think with their bots and other technologies they are trying to change the situation in the field,” Yasko confirms. “But they are failing. I am assured that at the moment they are coping badly.”
Paradoxically, in Ukrainian fields, there were recent sightings of Russian war machines with inscriptions alluding to a popular phrase claiming that power lies in the truth. Perhaps the creators of such messages believe that repeating their words louder and more frequently can turn a lie into a truth, but we in Ukraine disagree. We do agree, though, that truth is powerful. Our leaders, without pretence and superficial formality “go out” onto the digital marketplace of ideas to calm the population and promote resistance and optimism. This way they secure tremendous public trust. Ultimately, the scope and depth of Ukrainian resistance to the Russian invasion, facilitated to an immense extent by digital and social media, proves that there may be countless subjective 'truths' but none of them equals the truth of a united nation that wants nothing but freedom and is ready to defend itself.