Ukraine: when war goes viral | TBEN | 31.07.2022

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Just before her daughter Liza was killed on July 14, Iryna Dmytrieva posted a video of the 4-year-old on Instagram.

The clip showed the girl with Down syndrome happily pushing her own pram through the streets of Vinnytsia in southwestern Ukraine.

Shortly afterwards, a Russian missile hit the city, hitting a hospital, shops and residential buildings – killing Liza and at least 23 others while injuring more than 200, including her mother.

Shortly before her daughter Liza was killed, Iryna Dmytrieva posted a video of the four-year-old

In the days that followed, as Dmytrieva’s critical injuries were treated in a hospital, Liza’s video went viral. It was often combined with media images of the girl’s empty pram lying on its side among the rubble.

At some point, international media picked up the story. When Liza was buried, publications such as the New York Times and Australian broadcaster TBEN reported her funeral.

“Liza’s story is heartbreaking,” said Yuliya Tychkivska, executive director of think tank Aspen Institute Kiev, “it shows the brutal reality of the Russian invasion. But without social media, it would never have reached the world.”

The 4-year-old’s death and how the news spread around the world illustrates the role social media is playing in the war in Ukraine – a conflict that has been described as the “most viral war” in history.

Infographic use of social media in Ukraine

Millions of actual war reporters

Since the rise of social media platforms in the mid-2000s, they have had an impact on wars from Syria to Ethiopia. But thanks to advances in technology, anyone with a smartphone can now be a war reporter. And the high number of social media users makes the situation in Ukraine unique.

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More than 76% of all Ukrainians use social media to keep up to date with the progress of the war, according to a May 2022 survey conducted by the Ukrainian NGO Opora. This makes online platforms – especially Telegram, YouTube and Facebook – the most popular news sources in the country.

Ukrainians use them as a source of information and to document the human toll of the war. Social media has also become an important tool for Ukrainians to organize resistance and collect donations for those affected by the attacks. And it is being used to rally international support for their cause.

Ukrainian influencer Mariia Bilenka

Mariia Bilenka, known online as mariia_white, has over 62,000 followers on TikTok

The story of Mariia Bilenka is a good example of this.

The 25-year-old social media marketing specialist had built a large following on TikTok by publishing videos about skin positivity.

When Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, she fled west and ended up in Germany.

Then she noticed a trend on TikTok: Ukrainians are posting clips of a peaceful Ukraine before the war, arranged to music by singer-songwriter Tom Odell.

So she went through her own videos on her phone. She found footage of Ukraine’s largest river, a sunset over the rooftops of Kiev, and a break dancer performing on the streets of the capital and turned them into a 15-second video clip, which she uploaded to her account. It was viewed four million times.

“I thought, if I already have this platform, why not use it to make people aware of what life was like in Ukraine before the invasion,” Bilenka says on the phone to TBEN from Hamburg, where she now lives.

More than four months later, Bilenka has been raising money and posting information about Ukrainian NGOs taking donations. This is her way of reminding the world that the war in Ukraine is far from over. “I don’t want people to forget that there are people fighting and getting killed every day,” she says.

Every time one of her more than 62,000 followers – many of whom are based in the US, France or the UK – sees one of those clips can help, she hopes.

“Personal stories play an incredibly important role,” said researcher Tychkivska. Such content has been instrumental in attracting and sustaining international attention, especially among non-political audiences.

Ukrainian officials are also well aware of the power of social media and are using it to spread their resilient messages. Most notably, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, a former actor, regularly posts video messages of defiance on Instagram, where he has nearly 17 million followers, and other platforms.

Ukraine Influencer Mariia Bilenka

Mariia Bilenka continues to post about the war in Ukraine

A wildfire of misinformation

But social media is a double-edged sword.

It is also used on both sides of the conflict to obscure facts and spread disinformation to manipulate public opinion with the intention of ultimately changing the course of the war.

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“Social media can be used for better or for worse,” said Yevhen Fedchenko, the director of the Mohyla School of Journalism in Kiev and co-founder of StopFake, a nonprofit watchdog that monitors Russian online propaganda and fake news. “And, like anything, you can arm it.”

On the other side of the battle lines, Russia has mounted a large-scale social media campaign to justify the invasion. This includes false stories about the need to protect ethnic Russians from genocide, the need to “denazify” Ukraine and claims of dwindling international support for Ukraine.

Often those stories are intended to reach a specific audience, such as the large Russian diaspora, or an audience in Africa or Asia, where Moscow is eager to strengthen its influence.

But this is not new, according to StopFake co-founder Fedchenko: Especially since Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula in 2014, there has been a wildfire of misinformation about the war online, he emphasizes.

That is why, in recent years, Ukraine has invested heavily in expanding high-speed internet connections across the country, and in teaching media literacy: students and teachers receive training that helps them spot false information designed to mislead them.

This gives Ukraine a head start in the ongoing online information war, Fedchenko believes. He is convinced that since the Russian bombs started falling on the country five months ago, the benefits of social media have outweighed the risks to Ukraine.

“If we didn’t have social media, the international coverage of this war would be very different,” he says.

Eugen Theise contributed reporting.