Ukraine, viral media, and the scale of war

If there’s one thing Twitter and Facebook and Instagram and TikTok are good at, it’s making content go viral. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which began late last month, is no exception to that rule: each day since has brought new images, videos, and memes that circulate widely, some of which become their day’s trending topic. There’s the video clip of Volodymyr Zelensky, the president of Ukraine, speaking defiantly about resisting Russia’s attack; photos of Vitali Klitschko, Kyiv’s mayor, in army fatigues, often shared with references to his height and background as a heavyweight boxer; images of a man standing in front of a line of Russian tanks, an echo of the famous “tank man” photo taken in China’s Tiananmen Square in 1989.

There’s the old Ukrainian woman who told Russian soldiers to put sunflower seeds in their pockets, so sunflowers would grow on their graves; the soldiers on Snake Island who told a Russian warship to “fuck off.” The list goes on—and, while some viral images have been revealed to be fake, or decontextualized, or cleverly designed misinformation and propaganda, others offer intimate fragments from a distressing attack, and perhaps even a hopeful narrative of Ukrainian resistance. The Washington Post writes that the social media wave “has blunted Kremlin propaganda and rallied the world to Ukraine’s side.”

The virality of the images may drive attention, but, from a journalistic perspective, the same images often do a poor job of representing the stakes and the scale at hand. Social media is a little like pointillism—a collection of tiny dots that, taken together, reveal a broader picture. But, over the long term, war defies such a portrayal. The forty-mile-long convoy of Russian military vehicles headed toward Kyiv is a good example—a massive stretch of tanks and trucks whose sheer size resists easy, close capture for social media shares, and whose movement—imperceptibly slow, at times—should give us pause before embracing easy narratives. As Ryan Broderick wrote in his Garbage Day newsletter, “winning a content war is not the same as winning an actual war”—whatever “winning” looks like in this case.

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Such a wave of content suggests a process of “memeification, the [M]arvel-isation, the spectacle of an ongoing war rendered as entertainment,” argues Hussein Kesvani, a British writer Broderick quotes in his newsletter. “This is less about a lack of empathy or understanding of human suffering, and far more indicative of platforms doing what they were designed to do in producing everything as content.” Of course, it’s not just social media that risks trivializing or overlooking human suffering as it selectively elevates portions of a massive crisis—traditional media often does this as well, as we’ve noted before when it comes to coverage of things like climate change or the covid pandemic. 

Struggles against oppression outlast social media virality. Social media posts played an instrumental role in rallying participation in, and attention to, the Arab Spring, antiauthoritarian popular protests that led to the fall, in Egypt, of President Hosni Mubarak’s dictatorial government. A decade on, “the hopes awakened by the protests have vanished—but the underlying conditions that drove the unrest are as acute as ever,” Liz Sly wrote for the Washington Post last year.

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It’s also worth interrogating our reasons for sharing the content we do, and resisting the temptation to use social media platforms as assignment editors. Vicious wars have persisted in places like Afghanistan, Yemen, and Somalia for decades, with little or no social media virality to speak of.  Recently, a photo of a young Palestinian girl standing up to an Israeli soldier in Palestine did go viral—but only because people thought it was a young Ukrainian girl standing up to a Russian soldier.

Here’s more on social media and Ukraine:

  • Open-source info: Despite its flaws, social media has some obvious benefits during a conflict like the one in Ukraine. In some cases, images—and the data points they carry—can provide evidence that journalists and others need to show what is happening on the ground. That open-source intelligence is “helping clear the fog of war in Ukraine,” as Peter Aldhous and Christopher Miller write for BuzzFeed News. Last week, Christiaan Triebert, who works on visual investigations at the New York Times, walked through such material in order to verify an alleged explosion in Ukraine
  • A “force multiplier”: Casey Newton writes in his newsletter Platformer that social media has put public opinion solidly in Ukraine’s corner, and has made the war “feel like something that average people around the world can participate in.” As he notes, when the government of Ukraine tweeted asking for donations of cryptocurrency to help defend the country, people contributed almost $10 million in two days. (The total is now above $30 million.) And when a government minister in Ukraine asked for volunteers for an “IT army” of hackers to defend its infrastructure, 175,000 people signed up. Since then, the group has conducted denial-of-service attacks against dozens of Russian websites and services, including banks and government agencies.
  • Trouble at home: Some argue that images of dead Russian soldiers posted on social media might have an impact on the war, because they could weaken Putin’s support at home. “It’s been shocking to see that they’re leaving their fallen brethren behind on the battlefield,” Evelyn Farkas, the top Pentagon official for Russia and Ukraine during the Obama administration, told the New York Times. Admiral James G. Stavridis, a former nato commander, told the Times that Putin “is going to have some difficult explaining to do on his home front.”

 

Other notable stories:

  • Ukrainian journalist Yevhenii Sakun was killed on Tuesday when Russian forces shelled a television tower in Kyiv, the Committee to Protect Journalists reports. Sakun, forty-nine, was a camera operator for the Ukrainian television station LIVE, which had covered the Russian invasion; Sergiy Tomilenko, the head of the National Union of Journalists of Ukraine, told CPJ that Sakun was working at the site with his colleagues at the time of the shelling, and his body was identified by his press card. According to CPJ, two journalists with a Danish newspaper were also shot and injured while reporting in Ukraine.
  • Brian Stelter and Bianna Golodryga report for CNN that journalists from Russia’s last independent news network are fleeing the country, one day after Russia effectively shut the network down. “The country’s Prosecutor General’s Office issued an order on Tuesday to restrict access to both TV Rain, also known as Dozhd, and a radio station, Radio Echo, also known as Ekho Moskvy,” CNN reports. “Then on Wednesday, TV Rain’s Editor-in-Chief Tikhon Dzyadko announced on Telegram that he and his family, along with the editorial staff, have left Russia.”
  • On Tuesday, Reuters reported that Google had blocked mobile apps connected to Russia Today and Sputnik from its Play store, after earlier removing the Russian state publishers from its news products. Anna Belkina, editor in chief of Russia Today, said technology companies that have cut her outlet off have not produced any evidence of falsehoods. The European Union said both RT and Sputnik have been banned, while Apple said on Tuesday that RT and Sputnik have been removed from its app stores outside Russia. Spotify has also removed all content from the two Russian state media outlets.
  • Savannah Jacobson writes for CJR about how a change at the top of WNYC, New York’s public radio station, has led to turmoil throughout the organization. Audrey Cooper, formerly the editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, was appointed editor in chief of WNYC in June 2020. “In interviews with eighteen current and former WNYC staffers, a picture emerges of Cooper as an energetic and ambitious leader, but also one who is occasionally vengeful and inspires fear rather than trust,” Jacobson writes. “Journalists worry any comment that she perceives negatively will doom their careers.… Slower, more thoughtfully produced radio is disappearing in favor of cheaper and quicker stories.”
  • Social Media Today reports that Facebook’s latest “transparency report,” in which the company shows which pages get the most engagement on the platform, has some missing information. The most-visited page on the platform, which got more than 120 million views, is not named—all there is on the graph is a note that says the page was removed for violating the service’s community standards. “This latest report further underlines concerns with Facebook’s distribution, as a Page that it’s identified as sharing questionable posts, for whatever reason (Meta won’t clarify the details), has gained huge traction in the app, before Meta eventually shut it down,” says Social Media Today.
  • Paroma Soni writes for CJR about a new tool that allows journalists to quickly sort through foia data dumps. The tool, called Gumshoe, was developed by Hilke Schellmann, a journalism professor at New York University, along with Dr. Mona Sloane, a senior research scientist; Julia Stoyanovich, a computer science professor; and a team of graduate students at NYU’s Center for Data Science. Gumshoe is an artificial-intelligence tool that uses natural language processing to sort through large caches of text documents and categorize them by relevance to the journalist’s main topic of investigation.
  • The Assembly, a year-old news outlet in North Carolina, announced a crowdfunding campaign to support its journalism. Kyle Villemain, editor in chief, said the paper has formed a partnership with Journalism Funding Partners, “a national nonprofit whose board includes an array of great journalism leaders with ties to North Carolina, including Orage Quarles, Sharif Durhams, Anders Gyllenhaal, and Jim Goodmon.” He said the organization has set a goal of raising $3 million from individuals and foundations over the next two years, and that this money will fund twenty-two new full-time reporter positions.

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Mathew Ingram is CJR’s chief digital writer. Previously, he was a senior writer with Fortune magazine. He has written about the intersection between media and technology since the earliest days of the commercial internet. His writing has been published in the Washington Post and the Financial Times as well as by Reuters and Bloomberg.

TOP IMAGE: A volunteer of Ukraine's Territorial Defense Forces stands in the crater from the explosion near a checkpoint in Brovary, outside Kyiv, Ukraine, Tuesday, March 1, 2022. Russian shelling pounded civilian targets in Ukraine's second-largest city Tuesday and a 40-mile convoy of tanks and other vehicles threatened the capital — tactics Ukraine's embattled president said were designed to force him into concessions in Europe's largest ground war in generations. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)