New technologies have increased everyone’s access to the stories, images and videos chronicling Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine and the destruction and misery that resulted.
During Russia’s unprecedented incursion into Ukraine, the interconnectedness, immediacy and importance of social media have been brought into sharp relief.
Facebook, TikTok, Instagram and Twitter are full of photos and videos of shootings, explosions and burning Russian tanks and buildings. There are also videos of demonstrations from Berlin to St. Petersburg, the bodies of abandoned soldiers and a flood of Ukrainian refugees pouring into surrounding countries.
The Internet has also enabled interaction between Ukrainians and people from all over the world. These exchanges have helped Ukrainians feel less isolated and allowed many to reveal their personal stories, according to experts at the University of Miami.
“Our access through digital media allows us to witness the violence and resistance experienced by people around the world,” said Karin Wilkins, dean of the School of Communication and global media expert. “We are more connected than ever as a global community.”
While this immediate access to major conflict is not entirely new – social media has played a role in the Arab Spring uprisings, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – the current conflict in Ukraine appears to be bringing conflict within reach. .
“I can’t think of any war, not even the 21st century wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, where social media had such an impact,” said Heidi Carr, assistant professor of professional practice in the School of Communication. “Not all fighters have a javelin strapped to their shoulder; some of these battles are won by those who have a keyboard and a cellphone.
Carr communicated with an artisan in Kiev whom she met through Etsy.
“I messaged him through the Etsy communication system just to ask if he was okay and if there was anything we could do to help,” she said. “He replied a few hours later, talking about towns that no longer exist and young women giving birth in air-raid shelters.
Victor, the artisan, wrote that he was embarrassed to ask for help, but if someone could raise funds, the money raised would be used to buy medicine and food for those on the front lines .
“I posted his message on Facebook, and a number of friends also contributed through his PayPal account.
And in the midst of this war, he’s responding to us through the Etsy messaging system how much our support means to the nation of Ukraine in this ‘war on darkness for peace,’” Carr said.
Indeed, during this conflict, new technologies facilitated certain strategies that had not been used before, including the following.
- Billionaire Elon Musk has offered access to his Starlink satellite to Ukrainians to ensure they have internet access.
- Anyone can now track where Russian oligarchs have fled thanks to a Florida student who created an algorithm that tracks their private jets, CBS News reported.
- Mothers and fathers of Russian soldiers who are looking for their sons can go to a Ukrainian-created website that provides information on the fate of soldiers and information on their capture or death.
- CBS News’ “Sunday Morning” program featured a group of young Ukrainians who call themselves a “social media resistance group” with a mission to message the media via TikTok, Instagram and Facebook to spread information about the war.
Over the weekend, Russia imposed a 15-year prison sentence on any person or media organization that reports what the country calls “fake news” about the incursion. The Russian media are forbidden to call the conflict a “war” – they must call it a military operation instead.
“Russia’s government-controlled media portrays the invasion as a mission to save Ukrainians from a neo-Nazi government that threatens Russia,” said Joseph B. Treaster, a professor at the School of Communication and a seasoned correspondent. of the New York Times which covered several wars.
It is unclear how much social media posts are entering Russia. Disruptions to internet and mobile phone service have been reported in Ukraine, Treaster said, and Russia has reportedly blocked Twitter and Facebook.
“Reports say Russia has also blocked the BBC and Voice of America websites,” he said, “and they say Russian TV and radio don’t show the bombing of Ukrainian cities and protests against the invasion”.
“Some Ukrainians,” he said, “told The New York Times that relatives and friends they had phoned in Russia did not believe they were under siege.”
On Tuesday, The New York Times withdrew its reporters from Ukraine. Meanwhile, the BBC has sent its staff back to the war-torn country.
Wilkins said political leaders, such as Vladimir Putin, might try to restrict access to specific digital platforms like Facebook, but it is not possible to completely isolate people from global media sources. “And that’s a good thing,” she said.
Although social media offers an “up close” and personal view of the war, some images have been manipulated, experts warn.
Treaster suggested that a critical eye is needed when looking at war through the lens of social media.
“You have ordinary Ukrainians with cellphones sending raw footage,” Treaster said. “They are under attack. They see part of the picture. You have the Ukrainian government and Russia with powerful social media skills sending messages. Often the source is unclear. It is difficult to know what is exact, what is real and what is fabricated. »