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Social Media Discussion of the Ukraine Invasion: The Positives and the Negatives

Max E. McCombs is internationally recognized for his research on the agenda-setting role of mass communication, the influence of the media on the focus of public attention. McCombs is the Jesse H. Jones Centennial Chair in Communication Emeritus at the University of Texas at Austin and has been a visiting professor annually at the University of Navarra in Spain since 1994. He also has been a visiting professor at the University of Vienna and at Catholic University and Diego Portales University in Santiago, Chile. His representatives include The News and Public Opinion: Media effects, Setting the Agenda: The Mass Media and Public Opinion, etc.

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman described the Russian-Ukrainian conflict as “the first war reported on TikTok by super-empowered individuals who only own smartphones.” Then New York magazine created the compound word “wartok”.Through the media platform, the battlefield situation is sent to the public network and browsed by thousands of people. In history, media reports will trigger a series of political effects, and even have an impact on the war process. The emergence of new media may continue to amplify this effect. In response to the above questions, the Center conducted an exclusive interview with Professor Max E. McComb, hoping to understand his views on the role of social media in the context of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict.

Maxwell E. McCombs: Social Media Discussion of the Ukraine Invasion: The Positives and the Negatives

Public opinion evolves from the confluence of information from media channels and the personal experiences of citizens. And that confluence is highly turbulent, even for a single social group or country, even more so worldwide. For the last half of the 20th century, formal media channels – newspapers, television, news magazines, and cable television – were citizens’ dominant sources of information about public affairs. However, in its closing years came the internet and, subsequently, the kaleidoscopic mix of new communication technologies—most notably social and mobile media – that have blurred the traditional boundaries between various organized media channels of communication and their content as well as between medium and interpersonal communication.

This merger of medium and interpersonal communication represents a communication revolution, a vast expansion of the communication experiences available to members of the public. BBC World News and CNN, along with numerous other international news sources, and are widely available worldwide. Also widely available are channels that represent a particular point of view. All these channels merge with personal channels, such as Weibo. Facebook and Twitter represent an exponential expansion of personal conversations about public issues from citizens’ dialogue about public affairs even two decades ago.

In the best of all possible worlds, this vast expansion of sources of information in combination with widespread opportunities for personal conversation would be a universal civic agora, a broad civic arena for a specific community, perhaps most of the world will form an entire nation or region. Unfortunately, we do not live in the best of all possible worlds. The empirical agora defined by formal news channels and social media is a Gordian knot of contradictory strands. In particular, these strands are highly visible in social media. Individuals forward news reports from formal news organizations. They also forward misinformation and deep fakes from biased news sources as well as limited news reports from news organization in rigidly controlled regimes. Sorting out these strands is an especially demanding task due to the limitations of citizen capacity, limitations ranging from indifference to civic matters to the amount of time and skill needed for such a complex task. Plus there is the challenge of an emotional versus rational perception of the messages found in social media. All of these competing strands are highly visible in the social media messages regarding the invasion of Ukraine.

Formal news coverage of the invasion is extensive. Major news organizations from many countries have sent dozens of journalists to Ukraine, providing rich sources of information on television and in newspapers that far exceeds the usual coverage of international issues. This provides the public with multiple sources of news for analysis and discussion on social media. Supplementing the coverage of professional journalists is the work of ordinary citizens in Ukraine who tell the story of death and devastation in their country from their personal experience, a flowering of public journalism on social media without any previous parallel. This is a positive contribution of social media to provide needed orientation for Ukrainian citizens within the turbulent situation of the invasion and beyond Ukraine to provide the world with an extensive picture of the war.

In stark contrast to this complex positive strand are the deliberate deepfakes and unsubstantiated conspriacy theories spread by those seeking the advance the goals of the invasion. The Russian deepfake purporting the show the president of Ukraine urging his countrymen to surrender stands at the top of the list. This strand represents the negative use of social media at their very worst. Occupying the space near the deepfakes are those channels that have been saturated with mis/disinformation since the invasion of Ukraine.

Sorting out the flow of information in these channels is a daunting task for ordinary citizens. At this point, social media play equally positive and negative roles in the formation of public opinion. One avenue for increasing the positive contribution of the social media to civic life are efforts to equip citizens with critical skills for the evaluation of social media content. The comparison of news from multiple media organizations is a starting point. Close attention also should be paid to the presentations by many news organizations on their gatekeeping process, how they validate news reports related to the Ukraine invasion before publishing them. Analogous to the concept of replication in the sciences to validate the findings of individual studies, establishing a network of independent gatekeeping groups – news organizations, academic researchers, and civic organizations – to distinguish accurate reports from misinformation and fake news would be an invaluable contribution toward making the social media more positive contributions to the formation of an informed public opinion.


Contact: Li Yuxuan

Questioner: Chen Liyuan

Translator: Li Yuhan

Corrector: Xu houkun

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