In this war, the resistance will be digitized
by Matt Chandler and Graves Spindler
Much is made of Russian prowess in the dark art of information warfare. The authors of The Russian Enlightenment would turn over in their graves at the sight of a grand society’s creativity being sicced on such a despicable goal. In the past two weeks since Russia invaded Ukraine, who is emerging dominant and why? In preludes to the invasion of Ukraine, antagonists and protagonists have sparred on a new online battlefield — not for lives or territory — but for sentiment and control of information. It is a game of digital inches measured by many in likes and shares.
But even Russia’s greatest, deepest fake couldn’t have predicted what Ukraine would have in store for them, an authenticity and mastery of basic social media that couldn’t be blunted with a bullshit piece of news promoted by a bot farm. Imagine Leo Tolstoy sitting in judgment of the small man running Russia for his own purposes, all the while underestimating the spirit of the people and leadership in Ukraine. Several lessons in how to effectively counter chronic misinformation are emerging from this fight.
The Arrogance of Putin’s Audience Assumptions
To divide the government from its people, Russian President Vladimir Putin tried to cast Ukraine’s Jewish President Volodymyr Zelensky and his administration as “drug addicts and neo-Nazis,” extolling Ukrainian troops to “take matters into your own hands.” The Ukrainians knew exactly who they needed to affect externally, not just Western media audiences, but policymakers and their constituencies. Shortly before the invasion began, Zelensky directly appealed to the Russian people in a Facebook video seen by the world, invoking peace and freedom. In nearly split screen, Putin spun a paranoid tale on state media of a “special military operation” ostensibly aimed at protecting Russian interests in two eastern Ukraine separatist regions. Explosions from Russian rockets and missiles soon rippled across the country, with images shared widely via social media knocking Putin’s narrative off track instantaneously with Ukraine’s most important audiences. With efforts focused on shoring up Russian support, Putin’s ham-handed communications gave Ukrainians an opportunity to immediately delegitimize his reasons for war to audiences in Europe and beyond.
Social Media — A Misinformation Tool…And a Vehicle to Persuade
Russian information operators have longed used social media as a channel for their efforts, supercharging viral and untrue content to sow division. For Ukraine, social media has provided a channel to the world that to date, neither bombs nor electronic warfare methods have turned off. At times, Ukrainian content has been questionably sourced, but hopeful underdog resistances are not criticized for tidiness. They use social media to organize resistance, share escape routes, and celebrate heroism — re-democratizing the platforms in a way not seen since the Arab Spring. As a country under siege, Ukrainians aren’t relying on cable news cameras or the BBC to tell their story to the West. They are the resistance on their own digital soil. No misinformation machine can outman or out click that. When the Russians bombed Kyiv’s TV tower on March 1, it didn’t blunt Ukrainians’ ability to communicate with the world. It was another TikTok showcasing Russian aggression. This was Putin’s Grand Miscalculation.
To See is to Believe
Russia’s external narrative has primarily been communicated with staid misinformation tactics that an American swing voter in a focus group would spot at first glance. In Ukraine, civilians captured video of what it was like in the fearful moments when Russian forces attacked with aircraft and shelling, immediately distributing them via social media and giving observers a ground level look. Ukrainians rallied around the still to be confirmed story of the “Ghost of Kyiv,” a fighter pilot who became an ace in a day after supposedly downing six Russian aircraft. Photos of Zelensky in a helmet and body armor circulated with the insinuation of a leader at the front, though later were proven to have taken months earlier. Memes are created and shared. This was juxtaposed to images of Putin holding court at a bizarrely long, opulent table in Moscow. Messengers continue to oftentimes be ordinary Ukrainians rallying to the cause of resistance and bringing us into their world in the plain language of a street brawler. Seeing, instead of just hearing about it, helps us believe it’s true. And so far, Ukrainians are giving us line of sight into what is happening, unfiltered from the politicians, the diplomats, or the media.
Though precedent might suggest that Russia has the upper hand when it comes to fighting a (mis)information war, Ukraine is proving day after day that they have the expertise — and seemingly, the authenticity — to counter Putin’s propaganda machine. There will continue to be lessons to learn for the rest of us on how best to battle rampant misinformation throughout this conflict.