Social Media and War | Adobe Stock 493435591
Image: Adobe Stock

The Russo-Ukraine War Is a Mediated War – Not Just a War on the Media

How the Russo-Ukraine War generated a media dimension of its own and how it linked the myths of the past century to the challenges of our own.

The experience we may call a mediated war – that of ongoing hostilities being observed via mass media – is nothing new. Beginning with the articles by Sir William Russell on the Crimean War of 1853 – 1856, over less than a hundred years, it evolved into the newsreels of the U.S. Office of War Information and Die Deutsche Wochenshau of WWII. The Vietnam War of 1955 – 1975 became the first military conflict to be televised, while a wider availability of video cameras in the ’90s threw amateur footage into the mix. Many of those videos, shot by combatants or civilians in a conflict zone, came from independence wars in former Yugoslavia and Chechnya.

Finally, from the mid-2000’s on, the internet has become a major channel for every kind of war reporting from all kinds of sources: national, international, rebel, and civilian. Abundant GoPro footage of NATO troops in Africa and the Middle East, notorious prisoner execution videos by ISIS, and a combat vlog such as Gniew Eufratu of a Polish volunteer fighting against them with Kurdish militias in Syria are only a few examples of a vast genre. A far cry from Sir William’s Crimea reports, during the withdrawal of the US troops from Afghanistan, in August 2021, you could ask any question via an online chat to a Le Monde resident reporter in Kabul or watch live updates on daily life under the Taliban rule from YouTuber
Qawi Khan based in Kandahar.

By the time Russia invaded Ukraine on 24 February 24, 2022 (just half a year later), no breakthrough in media technologies had happened. The invasion itself was neither unexpected nor even an opening act of aggression. Still, back in 2014, Russia militarily occupied and stole from Ukraine the Crimean peninsula (the very place to which Sir William once accompanied British expeditionary troops), to no effectual response from the international community. That same year, it arbitrarily started a proxy war in two eastern Ukrainian provinces of Luhansk and Donetsk, which has since generated its own track of media record – and blatant human rights violations. The very atrocities of the invading Russian army (terror bombing of residential areas and civilian shelters, [Amnesty International 2022] kidnapping, torture and murder of civilians, [Gall 2022] weaponization of rape [Hinsliff 2022]) were but a larger-scale reiteration of what they had already been doing in Chechnya, in Georgia, in Syria, in Africa. [German 2022]

And yet the invasion of Ukraine was the first war in history to create a media dimension of its own: a full-blown mode of remote experience of and even participation in the conflict. Already in the tense build-up phase in early February, enormous attention was drawn to Ukraine from all over the world – and readily reciprocated by Ukrainians themselves. From countless publications and social media posts by common people, anyone could learn not only what it felt like to live in a country on the brink of war and also get some practical advice on getting your “go bag” [D’Agostino 2022] ready and staying safe in an emergency.

When the war did finally break out, the media response was nothing short of overwhelming. In every major news outlet, updates followed hourly, one after another – sometimes faster than one could read them. From the first missile strikes on Ukrainian cities early in the morning to a weird declaration of a flimsily-pretexted crusade against “drug addicts and Neo-Nazis” by the Russian dictator, to the advance of invading armored columns from three directions to an airborne assault on the airport of Hostomel near Kyiv, the capital. And yet the Ukrainians struck back the very same day, with missiles at an airfield on Russian territory; Hostomel was contested; the first Russian POWs were captured by the afternoon, a couple of lanky guys looking awkwardly young.

Anxiously refreshing newsfeeds in one application after another, one would be treasuring these small successes all the more in the face of the looming fall. I wonder if anyone, on that first day, expected anything but another blatantly criminal annexation – again, with the tacit consent of an indifferent and inactive international community. Who would believe in a relatively poor, relatively small country with a history of Communist regime and serious corruption challenges – especially after the Afghani precedent the year before? [Ward 2021] The only optimism Ukraine could afford at that point was of a twisted sort: the war would be very rough for the Russians, but only as a guerilla insurgency, after Kyiv is captured and Ukraine is occupied. [Evans 2022] There was much indignation in those first hours, much helplessness and much despair, but also the purest sympathy for a most deserving underdog.

In a matter of hours, the word “Ukraine” rose to the top of most-searched lists all over the internet. In a matter of days, the membership of the Ukraine-themed community on Reddit, a not particularly mainstream and not strictly informative platform, went from about 50,000 to more than half a million. Overnight, an ostensible demand materialized for skill in the once obscure Ukrainian language worldwide. Many wanted to learn the freshest news from local sources; some were preparing to meet, in their locality, refugees fleeing the conflict. Very determined few sought ways to join the defending army; quite a few only pretended they did.

While governments appeared hesitant initially, if not indulgent to the aggressor, private outreach came in proportions hardly seen before. And once again, it was met with equal willingness to reach out from within the besieged country. From a purely technical standpoint, in terms of internet access and availability of mobile phones and cameras, Ukraine was hardly in any special position compared to many other sites of ongoing military conflict. But from the very beginning, a huge effort was made, both on the public and the private level, to keep the whole civilized world informed: both of Ukraine’s plight and its resolve to fight back. 

This effort and the attitude behind it made possible not merely extensive journalistic coverage of the conflict but a new level of sharing the experience. In Afghanistan or Syria, it was mostly about Westerners reporting and narrating, as drastically opposed to nearly uncannily taciturn locals. Whenever any footage was shared, it was shared locally more often than not, making its way to the worldwide public, again, via Westerners. In Ukraine, in contrast, an observer would be virtually invited: to wait with willing conscripts in a line to their local draft office, take a tour of a makeshift bomb shelter in an apartment block basement, and to accompany troops on an urban patrol mission, or civilian volunteers in getting Molotov cocktails ready for the last line of defense. A mediated war, indeed.

Some of the most striking contributions would come from random civilians shooting with their phone cameras the invasion as they saw it. From the window of someone’s kitchen, we would observe Russian troops moving down the street or even engaging in firefights; on a roadside, explore a personnel carrier left behind by fleeing Russians; survive Russian machine-gun fire in a car, or run for cover with civilians caught by shelling in a residential block’s courtyard. With the camera shaking in the operator’s hands, and his or her (often explicit) comments to someone else around or no one in particular, available on social media within hours of recording, it would bring one much closer to the frontline than any professional reporting.

It was by random witnesses, too, that some of the most detestable scenes of the invasion were filmed. Among them, a Russian missile striking a residential block in Kyiv; a Russian tank running over a civilian ca, with the driver inside; and an elderly civilian man, his leg torn off by an explosion, being pulled by his son while under fire from Russian soldiers. A post office in Belarus, a satellite state of Russia, leaked a three hours-long video of Russian personnel sending home the things they looted in Ukraine.

Some other videos became iconic, like that of an elderly woman in an occupied town recommending a Russian soldier to keep sunflower seeds in his pockets if he wanted to have some flowers on his grave. Some showed nearly comical interactions between the opposing sides, like a group of clueless Russian soldiers who had run out of fuel asking a civilian local for directions – and being offered a free ride back to their country.

Sometimes one could see some common person’s update from the war zone on a live stream. A couple of months into the fighting, during the notoriously grisly siege of the coastal town of Mariupol, a teenage girl would publish her video diary. It featured melting snow to get water and observing artillery damage to residential buildings right across a street through a shattered window. During the battle for Kyiv, less than a week into the invasion, one could even watch live footage from a few spots in the downtown area real-time. Another channel of remote war experience came with footage shot from drones, both civilian and military. From above, one could watch vehicles being destroyed, bombs being dropped on personnel, or even full-scale skirmishes taking place. On another occasion, a drone filmed refugees trudging on foot along a dirt road.

Sometimes this openness had dire, lethal consequences: reckless sharing on social media could tip the enemy off and hinder the operations of Ukrainian troops. [Didenko 2022] But adjustments were made swiftly, embedding operational security protocols into the mediated war. The notion itself, “operational security”, became a part of the once leisurely video-browsing experience.

Those videos would be shared by civilians and combatants from both sides on social media like YouTube, Twitter, Reddit, and TikTok. The latter, a platform for short videos, had become so popular in the conflict zone that prosecutors view it as a source of evidence for war crime investigations. [Murgia 2022] Social media brought the casualties and the perpetrators of the conflict much closer to the observer, exposing the human beings behind mere names. You could witness a Russian soldier brag about looting Ukrainian shops shortly before ending up KIA (Killed In Action). Or you could watch the last Instagram story shared by a young mom and her very little daughter, both victims of a Russian missile attack on Vinnitsya.

Of course, there were a few fake videos or old footage being passed for recent – but with it came a whole new dimension of mediated war. The website Oryx undertook the titanic task of collecting and verifying photos and videos of destroyed vehicles and equipment on both sides. Casual users quickly figured out ways of discovering and discarding an inauthentic report. [O’Flaherty 2022] To further track and verify developments on the frontline, enthusiasts would resort to satellite live maps and photos. This method helped debunk the Russian claim that the invading army perpetrated no atrocities against civilians in the middle-class Kyivan suburb of Bucha. [Kuklychev 2022] Another enthusiast set up a resource for tracking and verifying Russian officer losses in real-time. Unlike a reader of the ridiculously propaganda-heavy British war press of WWI, [Greenslade 2014] who was left to rely on little more than his common sense, a random observer of the war in Ukraine got an impressive verification apparatus at his disposal, free of charge.

Another peculiar feature of this mediated war came in the form of daily addresses by Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the President of Ukraine. A former comedian, largely unpopular in the country before the invasion and often treated dismissively by the media, [Adler 2022] he refused to flee Kyiv as the Russian troops were circling on it. From his new office in a bunker, having ditched a suit for fatigues, the President would update his citizens – and the rest of the world, even addressing even Russians in their language – on the most important developments twice each day in the morning and evening. In contrast to the shifty, laden with euphemisms parlance of the Russian authorities, with their mannerisms of those used to not being trusted but still being obeyed, Zelenskyy spoke in clear terms, with the most down-to-earth demeanor.

“I need ammunition, not a ride,” Zelenskyy was reported to reply to an evacuation offer in the first week of the war. [Kessler 2022] Whether factual or not quite strictly so, this quote will certainly go down in military history far beyond Ukraine. Of course, it’s not the only legend this war gave rise to. Among others is the Ghost of Kyiv, a fictitious fighter pilot; the daring helicopter missions to resupply the besieged defenders of Mariupol; the (factual and documented) F-word reply of a heavily outmanned coastal guard garrison to a surrender demand from a Russian warship. Ukrainian expletives, it should be noted, became a genre of memes in their own right. [Tarrazi, 2022] The bomb-sniffer dog Patron (it means “cartridge” in Ukrainian) became the mascot of ordinance safety. Previously obscure or only locally-known Ukrainian performers, like the post-punk one-man band SadSvit or the electronic duo ProBass & Hardi reached out to a global audience after their works were used as soundtracks to military footage.

Civilian reporting affected the world of mainstream entertainment and sports, too. The punishment of a Russian athlete for displaying the logo of Russia’s aggressive operation [Church 2022] set not only a highly-visible precedent for the future but also a possible standard for the freedom of speech. You might have the right to be obnoxious, hateful, and delusional. But self-defeating escapades offending common sense rather than sensibilities, like promoting utter disregard for any international cooperation and peace at international sports events, should be fair game for censors. The case of Brittney Griner, a basketball player from the USA who ended up a hostage of the war, arrested in Russia on dubious drug charges, was nothing short of weaponizing the sports scene. But it also might not have happened ifthe pay gap between male and female athletes not force Griner to work in higher-risk countries. [Wamsley 2022] 

While global celebrities like Angelina Jolie, Sting, and Stephen King stood openly in support of Ukraine, the invasion put Ukrainian entertainers in a precarious position. Many put their fame in the service of the defense effort [Savage 2022] a few others – among them, singers [UARefugees 2022] and video game developers [Raevskyi and Spirin 2022] – were hesitant to cut ties with their Russian markets. In Russia, it was and had always been a matter of shut up or get out – or else. [Abdollah 2022]

The war produced a body artwork, too. A song dedicated to the Turkish-made Bayraktar combat drone; anthropomorphic avatars for NATO-supplied weapon systems, St. Javelin being the most famous; a mobile game about destroying Russian tanks as a Bayraktar operator; countless murals, paintings, collages – and of course an abundance of internet memes. Some of these were made locally; quite a few internationally. Sunflowers became a symbol of the Ukrainian war effort and the destruction of the enemy. Traditional rooster figurines (shown intact amidst the ruins of another residential block targeted by a Russian missile) are a symbol of resilience. [Beley 2022]

The mundane word “palyanytsya” (a type of bread) came to symbolize the Ukrainian identity when confused civilians came to use it as a test to tell Ukrainian troops from Russians (it is notoriously difficult to pronounce for Russian-speakers). The awareness of Ukrainian culture, literature, and history (including its Proto-Indo-European prehistory and Viking beginnings) itself became a symbol of this struggle.

One got the opportunity to participate in the Russo-Ukranian War as well, as it is not limited to volunteers for the Ukrainian International Legion alone. From the very first hours of the war, a network of fundraisers and charities was spearheaded by the government-run United 24. One could donate for defense, tactical equipment, medical supplies, rebuilding damaged infrastructure and animal shelters, to particularly affected cities; individual military units; charities of all shapes and profiles; individual initiatives or particular individuals. In Lithuania, a fundraiser collected $5 million to buy a Bayraktar for Ukraine – which Baykar, the manufacturer, ended up delivering for free to match their generosity. [Bir 2022] 

As the Anonymous hacker network joined the war effort early on, one could – and was urgently invited – to contribute to their Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks on Russian websites by simply keeping a web page open in one’s browser. Later, as the focus shifted to artillery war of attrition in the Eastern provinces, you could sponsor an artillery shell with a personal message for the invaders. On social networks tracking, calling out, and boycotting those international companies which failed to leave Russia became a form of grassroots protest.

Others would be taking part in the dramatic support effort for millions of Ukrainian refugees. That they were given an overwhelmingly warm welcome provided for some publications a pretext to play the race card in comparing their treatment to that of Middle-Eastern or African arrivals. The actual reason, however, should rather be sought in the organized manner of their exodus. The Ukrainian government let only the most vulnerable – women, children, the elderly, the sick – leave the country, mandating all able-bodied men to stay within and be available for defense. [Harlan 2022] Is it surprising, then, that people running from so obviously a heinous invasion, so obviously in need of shelter, and posing no real or apparent threat to the security of the locals, received the compassion they wholly deserved?