Depending on whom you follow on social media, you might have very different impressions about who is winning the war in Ukraine. The “fog of war” has always been a factor in any military conflict, but social media has made the situation even worse. It can sometimes be shocking how some people can say Ukraine and NATO are winning the war, and an entirely different group of people can say that Russia is winning the war.
The new information war
Quite simply, what’s taking place online is a new kind of information war. According to Western experts, the Kremlin and its allies have deployed a vast army of bots, fake social media accounts, propaganda, and manipulated images and videos to try to convince people that they are winning the war.
But the Kremlin, for its part, says that the West is attempting to wage its own form of information warfare, complete with a charismatic Ukrainian politician as the face of the war. Volodymyr Zelensky, it turns out, is actually an actor who played a Ukrainian president on TV before becoming the real-life president of Ukraine. Truth is stranger than fiction.
Social media narratives
It all comes down to changing hearts and minds. For Western military leaders, the primary focus is convincing the American people that Ukraine really is winning the war, that the spring offensive (which turned out to be a summer offensive) is a great success, and that Russia is just days away from losing the war. After all, who would agree to sending billions of dollars in new weapons into a conflict that we have no chance of winning?
So, of course, the entire Western narrative has been easy to spot from the very beginning. According to this narrative, the Russians are a bungling army that can’t shoot straight. If they managed to win a conflict (such as the epic battle for Bakhmut), it was only at the cost of enormous death tolls. And, of course, we’re told every day that the Russians are running out of weapons, out of ammunition, and out of morale. And, yet, every night, there are massive strikes all across Ukraine and the noose seems to be tightening around Kyiv.
Not to be outdone, the Russian social media narrative is even more fanciful. According to Russia, Ukraine is full of neo-Nazi holdovers from the World War II days, the Ukrainian army has lost hundreds of thousands of men, and the government in Kyiv is relegated to conscripting old retirees from Ukrainian villages to fight the Russians. And, on top of that, the Russians accuse Ukraine of blowing up a huge hydroelectric dam, blowing up an oil pipeline, plotting to blow up a nuclear power plant, and hosting U.S. bioterrorism labs. If Americans think the Russians are the “bad guys,” the Russians think the Americans are even more diabolical.
The new weapons of war
In this information war, the weapon of choice is video. The two main Russian propaganda arms for overseas audiences – RT and Sputnik – have become very adept at manipulating social media video clips for maximum effect. In some cases, they are even creating deepfake videos of Ukrainian president Zelensky and circulating them across social media.
And, of course, they have become masters of fine-tuning the message for specific audiences. In parts of Africa, Latin America, and Southeast Asia, it turns out that “anti-colonial” narratives work quite well. It might sound cynical to say this, but casting the U.S. as an evil colonial power is a message that “converts.” This could explain why nations such as Brazil and India are now leaning towards Moscow and not Washington.
Was that a Kremlin coup attempt?
To see how confusing this information war on social media can be, just consider the recent series of dramatic events in Russia, in which a mercenary military leader (Yevgeny Prigozhin) appeared to orchestrate a coup attempt against the Kremlin. Across social media, hashtags like #RussianCivilWar began to trend as events unfolded, and it became almost impossible to figure out what was real, and what was fake. Twitter armchair generals were tweeting out opinions and reactions all weekend.
And what about Prigozhin himself? Even before his mutiny in June, he was a popular celebrity on social media. His Telegram account with over 1 million followers is one way that people are following the war, and his mercenary group (known as the Wagner Group) has a complex web of both real and fake accounts.
Thus, when Prigozhin first started speaking out against the Kremlin, it was via social media. When CNN wanted to show you what was going on, they usually managed to splice in some of his social media video tirades against the Russian military brass. And when Prigozhin announced that he was calling off the coup and turning around, he did so via a 1-minute voice message on his Telegram account.
The winner of the social media war
There is an old saying: “History is written by the victors.” And that’s what will likely be the case here in the Russia-Ukraine war. Whoever wins the war will declare its social media narrative as the “winning” narrative, and that’s what the history books (or, at least, Wikipedia) will record as the true outcome of the war.