Since the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, European media and social networks have been flooded with information and videos from both sides. The info-media war between Russia and Ukraine plays a key role in this conflict. For guest contributor Noemi Mena Montes, Ukraine is winning the narrative – read her blogpost to understand how.
The post is the fourth in a series drawing on a RENFORCE expert seminar on the EU’s response to the war in Ukraine, held online on 8th March 2022, and follows analysis of the EU’s response to the migratory flow from Ukraine, the EU’s decision to provide weapons to Ukraine, and the EU’s economic sanctions against Russia. Stay tuned to RENFORCE Blog for further commentary on the EU’s neighbourhood policies and Ukraine.
Wars are fought on many fronts. Although the first image that comes to mind when we think of armed conflict is that of the battle itself, there are other spheres where opposing actors organize their offensive and defensive strategies in coordination with their closest allies. Since the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, international media and social networks have been flooded with information and videos from both sides. We are talking about the digital battle for communication, which involves winning the narrative and the support of public opinion.
However, the info-media war between Russia and Ukraine didn’t start yesterday. As some scholars had highlighted, the Russian narrative of misleading images and information about Ukraine already started in 2014. Since then, Ukraine has been developing digital tools to identify fake news and trolls from Russia. This is the case of the website Stopfake.org, a fact-checking site to counter the Russian narrative by refuting misinformation and exposing misleading images about Ukraine. This investment is now one of the reasons why Ukraine is leading the social media war and its role in this conflict.
Digital activism in the Ukrainian war
Nowadays, social media is bringing the invasion of Ukraine to our phones and our living rooms. The other reason for this social media impact is the charisma and communication skills of Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky. He masters the art of reporting the breaking news of the war in real-time. His very personal campaign and use of social media have connected with the Western audience and that has helped Ukraine.
At the same time, social media is helping Ukrainian refugees to communicate with their diaspora communities. Thanks to these virtual connections, many of them got the chance to go to the country where they have relatives and friends.
It is important to highlight how social media gives voice to more citizens and becomes more powerful. As social platforms become more powerful, governments, institutions, and politicians have stepped up efforts to use them.
At the same time, some pictures and videos have been manipulated and posted with the intention to show that Ukraine is manipulating the information about the war, but actually, they were manufactured Russian fake news. It is also possible to observe the unfolding of an informal/grassroots infowar, with citizens leaving fake Google reviews to tell Russians what’s really happening in Ukraine. Social media platforms such as Telegram and TikTok are also used as hot points for propaganda and misinformation. Actually, social media is changing the way wars are fought today.
Different communication strategies of Putin and Zelensky
While Ukraine (and more specifically its president) has opted for a close, constant and direct discourse, the Kremlin’s media apparatus is characterized by its rigidity, censorship, and repression. The channels used by both sides to convey their messages are not the same either.
Putin’s government had been blocking Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Moreover, the Russian government blocked around 30 Russian, Ukraine, and international media websites; among these were the BBC, Radio Liberty, and the German public radio and TV Deutsche Welle. For a very long time, Moscow correspondents have been compelled to avoid taboo subjects and practice self-censorship of their news stories. Russian media are ordered to use only “information and data from official Russian sources” and to use the term “special operation” to refer to the invasion. This intensified media censorship reflects Putin’s concern about the impact that truthful news could have on Russian citizens. Putin’s dictatorship continues to use the traditional media, such as Russia Today and Channel 1, and persecutes the independent media.
On the other hand, the EU has decided to suspend the broadcasting activities of Sputnik and RT/Russia Today until Russia ends its war in Ukraine and stops disinformation campaigns in European member states. The European Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen said in an official statement: “We are witnessing massive propaganda and disinformation over this outrageous attack on a free and independent country”. And she added: “In this time of war, words matter”. It seems that the European Union had been taking this role of vigilance against fake news and misinformation during this Russian-Ukrainian war. However, this European decision to suspend Russian Public Media has been criticized by journalist associations and other actors from the point of view of freedom of press and expression.
In Ukraine, meanwhile, the open information environment means that many media outlets and international journalists have been able to engage with local colleagues in order to cover the full picture of the true situation in the country. This interaction has helped to underline the common professional shared values that connect Ukrainians and their Western media peers. In the words of Lina Kushch, President of the Union of Journalists: “We are working very closely with our international colleagues, at the moment we have about 2000 international correspondents in Ukraine, some of them in areas where it is more difficult for local journalists”.
Moreover, Ukrainians have incorporated digital tools into the equation that would have been impossible just a few years ago: social media. Soldiers and people with mobile phones are documenting the fights, their suffering, and their exodus. This has allowed them to depict the truth of the battle from their perspective, gaining viral worldwide attention and appealing to public opinion emotions.
It is interesting to observe that Russia’s investment in disinformation is not helping the country win this war. Social media has entered the battleground. And so far, Ukraine’s citizen journalism and their president’s open communication style are winning the information and media war.