The invasion of Ukraine may be the first war that everyone follows on social networks, just as the 1991 Gulf War was the first to be followed live on television. And Russia is not doing very well on this front: if you spend some time on Twitter you can see that a majority of its users are in favor of the Ukrainians and in clear opposition to Putin. Of course, there are many accounts and tweets that defend the Russian occupation, but most prefer to side with the invaded and not with the invaders.
All these messages may be useless in the face of bombing, but they are not as useless as it may seem: propaganda is no longer just leaflets, posters and speeches on television; they are also memes and tweets. And these are some of the factors that are influencing Ukraine’s advantage in this field:
1. Zelensky speeches and @Ukraine memes. The correspondent for EL PAÍS, María Sahuquillo, described the president of Ukraine, Volodímir Zelenski, as an “unexpected hero”. This is how many also see him on Twitter, judging by the impact of his speeches, which are shared, subtitled, thousands of times, or of his videos from Kiev. It is not just an anecdote: according to the New York Times his speech on February 24 helped convince the most reluctant European countries to approve harsh sanctions against Russia.
In addition, his image is opposed to that of Putin, as Andrea Rizzi recalled in his recent analysis… Or as the official Ukraine account summarized in a tweet. The publication compared images of Zelensky (with his family, with his defense minister and in Kiev) with the loneliness of the Russian president, who is gaining the image of an autocrat isolated from reality and distant from his ministers, generals and advisers, in this case also literally. By the way, @Ukraine has 1.5 million followers. Before the attacks, there were about 300,000, according to data from Socialblade. The account has shared memes comparing Putin to Hitler and recalling that are at a clear military disadvantage.
Zelensky has gotten another helping of good press for his past as a comedian. These days he has remembered himself for good, and not with the usual contempt, rescuing videos that reminded him that dubbed paddington bear and who won the Ukrainian version of the contest Look who is dancing.
so apparently Zelenskyy won the Ukrainian version of Dancing with the Stars in 2006 and the tape is even better than whatever you’re imagining pic.twitter.com/L1gnKD2ISr
— Kat Abu (@abughazalehkat) February 27, 2022
2. The resistance and the ‘Molotov cocktails’. Ukraine’s role as a victim of aggression by a much more powerful Army has left scenes of resistance and heroism, such as that of the soldiers on the island of Serpents who refused to surrender to a Russian warship and who also they allowed themselves the luxury of sending him to hell. audio has been shared thousands of times in dozens of tweets. There is also a possible good news: it was believed that all died, but according to the Russian agency Tass and the Ukrainian border guard, they survived and were arrested.
Audio from Snake Island, Black Sea:
Russians: This is a Russian warship. I propose you lay down arms and surrender to avoid bloodshed & unnecessary victims. Otherwise, you’ll be bombed.
Ukrainians: Russian warship, go fuck yourself.
They were all killed https://t.co/uNqh5b9L8C
— Christopher Miller (@ChristopherJM) February 24, 2022
The invasion has also left behind moments of urban guerrilla warfare, such as a tractor taking on a tank, unarmed citizens facing armored vehicles, or civilians collecting weapons and learning how to molotov cocktails to defend their cities. Even the official profile of the Ministry of Defense has published tutorials explaining where to aim.
Закінчення війни – В РУКАХ КОЖНОГО З НАС!👊🏼
Знищуй! Пали! 🔥
Викидай ворога зі свого дому, своєї країни! pic.twitter.com/t1d8mKirEC
— Defense of Ukraine (@DefenceU) February 28, 2022
To these heroic images can be added the video of the Ukrainian crossing a tank that had run out of gas: “If you want, I’ll tow you back to Russia.” This video showed an Army that was less well prepared than was believed and a military operation that encountered more problems than expected, which could also give encouragement to the Ukrainian combatants and their allies: there is no big deal. And as a more surreal example we have the TikTok video in which a mechanic and influencer Ukrainian-born Russian teaches how to start an armored vehicle, in case anyone finds one that the Russians had to leave behind.
Amazing footage from Melitopol of Ukrainians stopping the onward advance of a Russian convoy and chanting “Occupants!” and “Murderers!” The jittery Russians are firing into the air pic.twitter.com/j3jypGJdgz
— Matthew Luxmoore (@mjluxmoore) March 1, 2022
3. Victims and refugees. Russia cannot even be proud of the rapid advance of its troops in the country. The images of bombings and attacks they only provoke outrage, horror and sadness. In addition, and since it is an invasion, all the civilian victims are Ukrainians: both those who die in the bombings and the 300,000 refugees who have left the country and have already arrived in the EU. Russia has a very difficult time imposing its story of the release of allegedly Nazi leaders when the images that reach us are of families fleeing their attacks, with added problems for those who lived in Ukraine and came from Africa and Central Asia. In addition, the threat of using the atomic bomb has not exactly helped to add supporters to his cause.
This is what they are doing now to Kharkiv – a city that they totally believed was part of the “Russian world”. What will they do to the OTHERS?? pic.twitter.com/PXKVVG5snq
— Christo Grozev (@christogrozev) February 28, 2022
4. Disinformation is still Russian. The EU has banned Russian international television, the state-owned Russia Today and Sputnik TV, from broadcasting in Europe, in a highly questionable decision as it is a form of censorship. Facebook and Instagram have restricted the access of these media to their platform and Twitter has added a label to their publications, and has announced that it will do so with other public channels. Also added this warning to the personal accounts of some collaborators, although they do not work exclusively for these media. Russia has responded by limiting its citizens’ access to Facebook and Twitter.
Today, we’re adding labels to Tweets that share links to Russian state-affiliated media websites and are taking steps to significantly reduce the circulation of this content on Twitter.
We’ll roll out these labels to other state-affiliated media outlets in the coming weeks. pic.twitter.com/57Dycmn8lx
— Yoel Roth (@yoyoel) February 28, 2022
Sure there is Ukrainian propaganda, beyond memes. But it should be remembered that Russia has been under fire for years for spreading disinformation and fake news outside its borders, including accusations of meddling in the 2016 US election.
The little confidence in the Russian media is also noticeable in another area: the publications of Zelensky and the Ukraine account, for example, are received with more applause than criticism. The opposite happens when the tweeter is a Russian public representative. For example, the Russian Embassy in Spain has been in war mode for days, just like the rest of the country’s embassies. But it only allows you to respond to the accounts that you expressly mention in his posts: to seek responses to his posts, most of which are not very complimentary, you have to gossip in the retweets with comment.
As we said, all this may seem unimportant in the context of a war. But we must remember that social media posts are also political messages and propaganda. As communication expert An Xiao Mina writes in her book Memes to Movements, memes are not just displays of humour, but they are also (or can be) “semi-public and symbolic micro-actions” that help change public opinion and draw the attention of the media and other network users.
Of course, this Twitter victory may come to nothing or almost nothing if Russia occupies the country and puts in a puppet government. But, for now, the invasion is not being the triumphal ride that many feared. Putin has met with resistance from the Ukrainians, with the frontal opposition of much of the world and with a media battle that is also being waged on social networks and that is impossible to control. At the moment, he is losing her.
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