Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in late February, people around the world have watched the war play out in jarring detail — at least, in countries with open access to social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, TikTok and the messaging app Telegram.
“The way that social media has brought the war into the living rooms of people is quite astounding,” says Joan Donovan, the research director of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University. Fighting and explosions play out nearly in real time, and video messages from embattled Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy have stirred support across the West.
But that’s not all. Social media is actually changing the way wars are fought today, says political scientist Thomas Zeitzoff of American University in Washington, D.C., who is an expert on political violence.
The platforms have become important places to recruit fighters, organize action, spread news and propaganda and — for social scientists — to gather data on conflicts as they unfold.
As social platforms have become more powerful, governments and politicians have stepped up efforts to use them — or ban them, as in Russia’s recent blocking of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. And in a first, the White House held a special briefing on the Ukraine war with TikTok stars such as 18-year-old Ellie Zeiler, who has more than 10 million followers. The administration hopes to shape the messages of young influencers who are already important sources of news and information for their audiences.
The Ukraine war is shining a spotlight on social media’s role as a political tool, says Donovan, whose Technology and Social Change Project team has been following the spread of disinformation in the conflict. “This is a huge moment in internet history where we’re starting to see the power of these tech companies play out against the power of the state.” And that, she says, “is actually going to change the internet forever.”
Science News interviewed Donovan and Zeitzoff about social media’s influence on the conflict and vice versa. The following conversations have been edited for length and clarity.
SN: When did social media start to play a role in conflicts?
Zeitzoff: Some people would say the Zapatista uprising in Mexico, way back in the 1990s, because the Zapatistas used the internet [to spread their political message]. But I think the failed Green Revolution in Iran in 2007 and 2008 was one of the first, and especially the Arab Spring in the early 2010s. There was this idea that social media would be a “liberation technology” that allows people to hold truth to power.
But as the Arab Spring gave way to the Arab Winter [and its resurgence of authoritarianism], people started challenging that notion. Yes, it makes it easy to get a bunch of people out on the street [to protest], but it also makes it easier for governments to track these folks.
SN: How do you see social media being used in the Ukrainian conflict, and what’s different now?
Donovan: Some of the platforms that are more well-known, like Facebook and Twitter, are not as consequential as newer platforms like Telegram and TikTok. For instance, Ukrainian groups on Facebook started to build other channels for communication right before the Russian invasion because they felt that Facebook might get compromised. So Telegram has been a very important space for getting information and sharing news.
Telegram has also become a hot zone for propaganda and misinformation, where newer tactics are emerging such as fake debunked videos. These are videos that look like they’re news debunks showing that Ukraine is participating in media manipulation efforts, but they’re actually manufactured by Russia to make Ukraine look bad.
Zeitzoff: I think social media has probably afforded the Ukrainians an easier ability to communicate to their diaspora communities, whether in Canada, the United States or across Europe. It’s also increasingly affording unprecedented battlefield views.
But I think the bigger thing is to think about what these new suites of technology allow, like Volodymyr Zelenskyy holding live videos that basically allow him to show proof of life, and also put pressure on European leaders.
SN: Despite Russia’s big investments in disinformation, is Ukraine winning the social media war?
Zeitzoff: Up to the beginning of the conflict, many Ukrainians were skeptical of Zelenskyy’s ability to lead. But you look back at his presidential campaign, and he was doing Facebook videos where he would talk into the camera, in a very sort of intimate style of campaigning. So he knew how to use social media beforehand. And I think that has allowed Ukraine to communicate to Western audiences, basically, ‘give me money, give me weapons,’ and that has helped. There is an alternative scenario where perhaps if Russia’s military were slightly better organized and had a better social media campaign, it would become very difficult for Ukraine to hold.
And I would say that Russia’s propaganda has been sloppier. It’s not as good of a story. Ukraine already has the underdog sympathy, and they’ve been very good at capitalizing on it. They show their battlefield successes and highlight atrocities committed by Russians.
And the other thing is that social media has helped to organize foreign fighters and folks who have volunteered to go to Ukraine.
SN: Social media is also an enormous source of misinformation and disinformation. How is that playing out?
Donovan: We’re seeing recontextualized media [on TikTok and elsewhere], which is the reuse of content in a new context. And it usually also misrepresents the time and place of the content.
For instance, we’ve seen repurposed video game footage as if it was the war in Ukraine. While we [in the United States] don’t need real-time information to understand what’s happening in Ukraine, we do need access to the truth. Recontextualized media gets in the way of our right to truth.
And we want to make sure the information getting to people in Ukraine is as true and correct and vetted as possible, because they’re going to make a life-or-death decision that day about going out in search of food or trying to flee a certain area. So those people do need real-time accurate information.
There’s one other story about the way in which hope and morale can be decimated by disinformation. Among Ukrainians, there’s a lot of talk about when or if the United States or NATO will send planes. And there were these videos going around suggesting that the United States had already sent planes, and showing paratroopers jumping out. People were sharing these until they got to a reputable news source and heard the news that NATO was still not sending planes. So it can be something as innocent as a video that provides a massive amount of hope to people who share it, and then it’s all snatched away.
SN: What aren’t we seeing on social media?
Donovan: There’s a missing piece, which is that many social media algorithms are set to remove things that are torturous or gory. And so the very violent and vicious aftermath of war is something that the platforms are suppressing, just by virtue of their design.
So in order to get a complete picture of what has happened in Ukraine, people are going to have to see those videos [from other news sources] and be a global witness to the atrocity.
SN: Where is this all heading?
Zeitzoff: I think the biggest thing that’s changing is this decoupling of social media networks across great powers. So you have the Great Firewall [that censors the internet] in China, and I think Russia will be doing something very similar. And how does that influence the free flow of information?
Donovan: We try to understand how information warfare plays out as kind of a chess match between different actors. And what’s been incredible about the situation in Russia is you have this immense titan, the tech industry, pushing back on Russia by removing state media from their platforms. And then Russia counters by removing Facebook and Instagram in Russia.
This is the first time that we’ve seen these companies take action based on the request of other governments. In particular, Nick Clegg [the president of global affairs at Meta, the parent company of Facebook, Instagram and the messaging service WhatsApp] said that they were complying with Ukrainian asks. That means that they are taking some responsibility for the content that is being aired on their platforms. Whatever outcome happens over the next month, I don’t think the internet is going to be as global as it once was.