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The Role of Social Media in Russia’s War on Ukraine


Dan Ciuriak is a senior fellow at CIGI (Centre for International Governance Innovation), where he is exploring the interface between Canada’s domestic innovation and international trade and investment, including the development of better metrics to assess the impact of Canada’s trade agreements on innovation outcomes. Based in Ottawa, Dan is the director and principal of Ciuriak Consulting, Inc. Dan is also a fellow in residence with the C. D. Howe Institute, a distinguished fellow with the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada and an associate with BKP Economic Advisors GmbH of Munich, Germany. Previously, he had a 31-year career with Canada’s civil service, retiring as deputy chief economist at the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (now Global Affairs Canada).

The outbreak of the current Russian-Ukrainian war quickly detonated social media. A large number of information, reports and personal stories about the war flooded into the Internet, setting off the first "social media war" in the 21st century. In response to this crisis, the Center interviewed Mr. Dan Ciuriak exclusively to understand his answer to the question about the role of social media in the Russian-Ukrainian war.


The Role of Social Media in Russia’s War on Ukraine

Dan Ciuriak

8 April 2022

Abstract: Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has shell-shocked the world. It has monopolized headlines in the print and broadcast media, unleashed a torrent of instant analysis in professional commentary, and flooded social media. This note considers how social media has been weaponized in the war effort of both sides and to what effect. Propaganda techniques and capabilities gain power in the new digital environment. At the same time, social media networks can help to expose propaganda and the decentralized nature of social media creates new challenges for authorities in controlling narratives. The net effect of the tension between information and disinformation cannot be settled on an a priori basis. When governments have “market power” in information space – which is the case, for example, within Russia – social media appears to be a very powerful tool for shaping public opinion. When information space is contested – which is the case in the much more open Internet in much of the rest of the world – there is a pitched battle being waged to set the narrative. The conclusion of that battle is as yet unclear.

Keywords: social media, Ukraine, Russia, propaganda, information society, market power

JEL Codes: F51, N44

Acknowledgements: This note was prepared in response to a request for comment on the role of social media in Russia’s war on Ukraine from the Saint Pierre Center for International Security, Guangzhou, China.

The First Social Media War

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has shell-shocked the world. It has monopolized headlines in the print and broadcast media, unleashed a torrent of instant analysis in professional commentary, and flooded social media. In the comments that follow, I consider how social media has been weaponized, both before and during the hostilities, and to what effect.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has been described as the first full-blown “social media war” (Suciu, 2022). It also charts new territory in other ways because of the digital transformation: it is the first full-blown cyber war and the first hacker war featuring both state and non-state actors attacking the information infrastructures of the combatants[1].

Further, with 20-20 hindsight, it is stunning to realize the extent of the groundwork for the invasion laid down before the fact through Russia’s influence campaign to weaken the parties who could potentially come to Ukraine’s aid. This includes buying “Londongrad”[2]; the “kompromat” (the compromise) of Donald Trump[3] and influence over the Republican Party (Nguyen, 2018), including through Fox News (Klaas, 2021); and more generally sowing divisiveness in western societies through manipulation of social media. For example, there were significant correlations observed between the support for the Canadian Truckers’ Convoy and the 1/6 movement in the United States[4], which in turn is linked to the Russian-compromised circles around Donald Trump. Similarly, there were strong links between the backers of Brexit and the Trump campaign as uncovered by award-winning journalist Carole Cadwalladr[5] .

Technological conditions determine how wars are communicated. However, these technological conditions apply to both sides.

For Ukraine, social media provides new channels to get information out about the conduct of the war in small fragments that ultimately create a mosaic for netizens that describes the experience of the war. This helps preserve internal resolve to resist and helps build external support for assistance, as well as continuously contributing to the documentary record that will ultimately shape historical narratives – and increasingly likely support war crimes charges.

For Russia, social media is another channel in which the “fog of war” must be generated – wars of choice constitute a crime per se and, insofar as the crime scene cannot be hidden (e.g., the atrocities in Bucha[6]), a campaign is launched to sow doubt about what is seen (see, e.g., reports of social media use by Russian officials to deny and indeed invert the story abroad, while suppressing and sanitizing it domestically[7]).

This is just the latest instance in which changed technological conditions shaped how wars are communicated. Looking back, the US invasion of Vietnam is often described as the first major “television war,” in that television for the first time surpassed print media as the main source of information for the attacking side[8]. It is also described as the first “televised war”[9], as it brought the scenes of war into people’s living rooms, though the footage was heavily edited for American audiences. The choice of what to show and the accompanying narrative remained, therefore, under the control of the US networks.

The 2003 US invasion of Iraq, meanwhile, was the first major “Internet war”, in which “warblogs” gained readership rivaling the major political opinion journals[10] and fact checkers challenged accounts in the mainstream media.[11] However, impressionistically, the communication of the US invasion of Iraq was dominated by the cable news networks, which continuously cycled the reports from correspondents broadcasting live from Baghdad – but embedded with US troops. The perspective on the events conveyed to most of the world was that of the invading side.

The Implications of the Splinternet

What is to some extent different in the case of the Russian invasion of Ukraine is that it is the first war of the digital era in which the message is not almost entirely under the control of the invading side. It might be described better as the first war of the “splinternet”, the evolution of the Internet based on national sovereignty in cyberspace as per the “Wuzhen Initiative” adopted at the 2nd World Internet Conference, Wuzhen, 18 December 2015[12].

Inside the closed Russian Internet space, the message is controlled and the narrative is pro-invader. Incidentally, the same is true inside China’s Internet space behind the Great Firewall: the narrative is aligned with Russia’s. To understand the implications, for the average Chinese interpreting the online flow of information, the Russian account of its invasion of Ukraine is to the experience of Ukrainians being invaded what Japan’s account of its invasion of China in 1937 was to the experience of Chinese, for example in the Rape of Nanjing. Thus, in Russia’s narrative, the Russian invaders of Bucha, a suburb of Kyiv, destroyed nothing, killed no-one, and withdrew[13]; they insist that the destruction and death documented by Ukrainian military and political leaders, as well as by international journalists, was a “provocation” perpetrated by Ukraine to defame Russia. Japan similarly sanitized the results of its invasion, mounting “a vigorous propaganda campaign … to portray Nanjing in peace and prosperity under Japan’s benevolent occupation,” [14]– in sharp contrast to the reality of the massacre as reported widely abroad due to the presence of western journalists in Nanjing at the time and, of course, as recounted by Chinese survivors[15].

In the West, the Internet is not under sovereign control, but it is contested and subject to heavy influence campaigns. Through platforms such as Twitter, Instagram, Reddit, Telegram, and TikTok, Ukrainians have been sharing photos, videos, and personal stories. These put a human, relatable face on the war and its impacts, free of the euphemisms and prepared lines of governments, the academic-style analyses by experts, and the selectivity of the narratives created by media organizations. A young girl documents on TikTok her life in a bunker in Chernihiv under bombardment by Russian invaders, and poses in front of the ruins of apartment buildings destroyed by Russian fire[16]. Another in Mariupol makes a video diary; she bears an uncanny resemblance to another girl who kept a diary during a war – Anne Frank.[17] Unlike Anne Frank’s diary, which only surfaced some 15 years after she died in a Nazi concentration camp, this diary is available now, on Youtube, in (near) real time. We hear the constant presence of bombardment, the account of the daily trials – melting snow for water, surviving a blast from an incoming shell that destroyed the apartment in which she was sheltering, the attempt to keep track of time.[18] We are not sheltered from the horror by the distance of time; and we remain in horror because her fate is not yet told.

Ukrainian President Zelensky used to be in show business. He can deliver a line. His daily broadcasts have been critical in maintaining the spirit of defense forces. But the social media impact, while important because of the immediacy, is likely secondary to the fact that Zelensky and his government did not flee.

However, while social media has helped Ukraine to get information on the war out, every post is targeted by what appears to be a largely automated, bot-driven disinformation campaign, which mostly aims to create doubt in order to dissipate the reaction.

Caught in the crossfire, the social media audience must decide for itself whom to believe. Many have argued that we live in a “disinformation age”[19] or a “post-truth world”[20]. Elsewhere, I have argued that humanity has always lived in a “contested truth” world and thus we have an evolved, innate ability to detect deception – a “smell test” if you will[21].

The open question is: how well are people adapting to the changed technological conditions? Propaganda techniques and capabilities gain power in the new digital environment. At the same time, social media networks can help to expose propaganda and the decentralized nature of social media creates new challenges for authorities in controlling narratives. The net effect of the tension between information and disinformation cannot be settled on an a priori basis.


An Interim Assessment

Almost invariably, wars feature a predator-prey relationship: they are started by more powerful countries attacking a weaker country in pursuit of some “interest”. Typically, the difference in power is measured in orders of magnitude. Importantly, in the context of the modern information society, power includes what might be termed “market power” in information space, which is manifest in dominant powers being able to control and shape the narratives that individuals adopt and present as their own[22]. In the modern information age, the preparation for war tends to follow a rather simple formula:

· De-legitimize the target country;

· Demonize the target country;

· List grievances, which legitimize the use of force; and

· Concoct a “casus belli” (a cause for war) to serve as a trigger.

Given the discrepancy in power, the invasion is anticipated to be with overpowering force (“shock and awe”) with an intent to portray the invasion as a “liberation” and invaders as “saviours” once the deed is done.

Russia’s playbook in its preparation for the invasion of Ukraine followed this template[23]:

· De-legitimization: “Ukraine is not a real country” – although it is a founding member of the United Nations and was recognized by Russia upon dissolution of the Soviet Union.

· Demonization: “Ukraine is full of Nazis” – although the consolidated far right share of the vote in the last Ukrainian election managed to get only 2.25% of the vote and failed to win even one seat in Ukraine’s parliament. Not to mention that President Zelensky is Jewish.

· A litany of grievances: Russia has been robbed (by transfer of historic Russian lands to Ukraine under the Russian-led Soviet Union), betrayed by NATO expansion (although Ukraine is not a NATO member); and threatened with mass destruction (“It would not be an exaggeration to say that the path of forced assimilation [of Russian speakers in Ukraine], the formation of an ethnically pure Ukrainian state, aggressive towards Russia, is comparable in its consequences to the use of weapons of mass destruction against us” [24]– never mind that Russia’s 144 million population is under no threat of Ukrainianization and that many Ukrainians speak Russian yet identify for the most part as Ukrainians.

· The casus belli: an invasion was necessary to stop a genocide in the Donbas – which of course was already occupied by Russian forces!

Russia is much larger than Ukraine. In 2021, Russia’s population of about 144 million was about 4 times larger than Ukraine’s population of 44 million; its GDP of US$1.65 trillion (2021) was 9 times larger than Ukraine’s US$181 billion[25]. Russia’s defense budget of US$45.8 billion is 11 times larger than Ukraine’s US$4.2 billion[26]. Russia is a nuclear power, bristling with “tactical” nuclear weapons that guarantee its territorial safety from military attack; Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons in exchange for a guarantee of its territorial integrity from, inter alia, Russia. Not surprisingly, the war is fought in Ukrainian territory with Russian forces invading. It could not be otherwise.

The arguments do not have to make sense or stand up to serious scrutiny – all they have to do to succeed is to be endlessly repeated. This reflects the Internet adage known as Brandolini’s Law [27], which holds that the effort required to refute a falsehood is an order of magnitude larger than the effort required to create it in the first place. This is where social media have been something of a game changer: since (a) they command a larger share of a population’s attention than traditional media; (b) the replication of memes is highly scalable through bot accounts; and (c) the techniques developed for the “attention economy” [28] have been put in the service of propaganda for exploitation by seeding doubt and rage.

Thus, when governments have “market power” in information space – which is the case, for example, within Russia – social media appears to be a very powerful tool for shaping public opinion. When information space is contested – which is the case in the much more open Internet in much of the rest of the world – there is a pitched battle being waged to set the narrative. The conclusion of that battle is as yet unclear.

Interviewers: Chen Liyuan, Zhang Jiabao

Translators: Li Yuhan, Xu Houkun, Wang Xuetong

2022.04.08


[1] Conger, Kate and Adam Satariano. 2022. “Volunteer Hackers Converge on Ukraine Conflict With No One in Charge.” The New York Times, 4 March <https://www.nytimes.com/2022/03/04/technology/ukraine-russia-hackers.html>.

[2] Hyde, Marina. 2022. “It’s Putin’s tale of two cities – London for his oligarchs, Kyiv for his bombs,” The Guardian, 25 February. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2022/feb/25/tories-oligarchs-london-government-putin-donations

[3] Ioffe, Julia. 2018. “Now We All Know What Putin Has on Trump,” GQ, 17 July. https://www.gq.com/story/what-putin-has-on-trump. Klaas, Brian. 2021. “He worked in Russian media. He recognizes the same tactics at Fox News,” The Washington Post, 23 March. https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2021/03/23/he-worked-russian-media-he-recognizes-same-tactics-fox-news/

[4] Aziz, Saba. 2022. “‘Incredibly scary’: How Canada’s trucker convoy protest is galvanizing the American right,” Global News, 8 February. https://globalnews.ca/news/8602177/freedom-convoy-protest-us-far-right-support/; Fawcett, Max, 2022. “Anti-vaxxer truck convoy signals insidious spread of Trumpism in Canada,” Opinion, National Observer, 27 January. https://www.nationalobserver.com/2022/01/27/opinion/anti-vaxxer-truck-convoy-signals-insidious-spread-trumpism-canada

[5] Cadwalladr, Carole. 2017. “The great British Brexit robbery: how our democracy was hijacked,” The Guardian, 7 May. https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/may/07/the-great-british-brexit-robbery-hijacked-democracy; Rawlinson, Kevin. 2018. “Carole Cadwalladr wins Foreign Press award for Trump and Brexit work,” The Guardian, 27 November. https://www.theguardian.com/media/2018/nov/27/carole-cadwalladr-wins-foreign-press-award-for-trump-and-brexit-work.

[6] Foer, Franklin. 2022. “The Horror of Bucha.” The Atlantic, 4 April <https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2022/04/russia-bucha-killings-war-crimes-genocide/629470/>.

[7] Whalen, Jeanne, Robyn Dixon, and Mary Ilyushina. 2022. “Russia denies and deflects in reaction to Bucha atrocities.” The Washington Post, 4 April <https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2022/04/04/russia-bucha-atrocities-war-crimes/>.

[8] McClancy, Kathleen. 2013. “The Iconography of Violence: Television, Vietnam, and the Soldier Hero.” Film & History 43(2): 50-66.

[9]Steinman, Ronald. 2017. “The First Televised War.” The New York Times, 7 April <https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/07/opinion/the-first-televised-war.html>.

[10] Reynolds, Glenn Harlan. "The Blogs of War: How the Internet is reshaping foreign policy." The National Interest 75 (2004): 59-64.

[11] Claims have also been made that the 1999 Yugoslavian Civil War was the first Internet war (Wired Staff, 1999), as the Internet became an additional source of information dissemination on the course of the war.

[12] Malcomson, Scott. 2015. “Welcome to the Splinternet.” The World Post, 21 December <https://www.huffpost.com/entry/welcome-to-the-splinterne_b_8855212>.

[13] Whalen, Jeanne, Robyn Dixon, and Mary Ilyushina. 2022. “Russia denies and deflects in reaction to Bucha atrocities.” The Washington Post, 4 April <https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2022/04/04/russia-bucha-atrocities-war-crimes/>.

[14] Xie, Kailing. "The affective life of the Nanjing Massacre: Reactivating historical trauma in governing contemporary China." HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 11.3 (2021): 1000-1015.

[15] Zhang, Lianhong. 2017. “The Nanjing Massacre and the traumatic memory of Nanjing residents,” Chinese Studies in History 50(4): 258-265. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/00094633.2017.1404785

[16] Vidal Egea, Ana. 2022. “From Anne Frank’s diary to TikTok: the Ukraine war (almost) live.” El Pais, 19 March <https://english.elpais.com/international/2022-03-19/from-anne-franks-diary-to-tiktok-the-ukraine-war-almost-live.html>.

[17] Kitnya. 2022. “The girl from Mariupol, who made a video diary actually looks like Anne Frank.” Reddit, 1 April <https://www.reddit.com/r/ukraine/comments/ttnylg/the_girl_from_mariupol_who_made_a_video_diary/>.

[18] YouTube. 2022. “Video diary of a girl from Mariupol (03/2022) - English subtitles.” YouTube, 31 March <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0rHGd0osKP0>.

[19] Bennett, W. Lance and Steven Livingston (eds). 2020. The Disinformation Age. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[20] D'Ancona, Matthew. 2018. Post-Truth: The New War on Truth and How to Fight Back. London, UK: Ebury Press.; McIntyre, Lee. 2018. Post-Truth. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

[21] Ciuriak, Dan. 2021. “The Age of Disinformation: The Role of Market Power in Information Space.” Ciuriak Consulting Discussion Paper <https://papers.ssrn.com/abstract=3944863>.

[22] Ciuriak, Dan. 2021. “The Age of Disinformation: The Role of Market Power in Information Space.” Ciuriak Consulting Discussion Paper <https://papers.ssrn.com/abstract=3944863>.

[23] Ciuriak, Dan. 2022. “Every Casus Belli is False.” Ciuriak Consulting Commentary. https://papers.ssrn.com/abstract=4078861

[24] Putin, Vladimir. 2021. “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians.” Kremlin, 12 July <http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/66181>.

[25] IMF. 2021. World Economic Outlook Database, October 2021. Washington DC: International Monetary Fund.

[26] Martin, Chris. 2022. “A graphical comparison of Russian and Ukrainian military forces.” Defense News, 24 February <https://www.defensenews.com/global/europe/2022/02/24/a-graphical-comparison-of-russian-and-ukrainian-military-forces/>.

[27] Brandolini, Alberto. 2013. “The Bullshit Asimmetry: The Amount of Energy Needed to Refute Bullshit Is an Order of Magnitude Bigger than to Produce It.” Twitter, 11 January.; Williamson, Phil. 2016. “Take the time and effort to correct misinformation.” Nature 540: 171.

[28] Lewis, Paul. 2017. “Our minds can be high jacked.” The Guardian, 6 October <https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/oct/05/smartphone-addiction-silicon-valley-dystopia>.


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