How social media helps tell the full story of the Russia-Ukraine War


It’s unfair that while people are fighting to survive, people are going about their normal lives as if a war isn’t occurring. But if you have a phone, you can’t ignore the atrocities that are happening in Ukraine. Social media is a big player in this war, helping develop a narrative around the war and making sure key things come to the surface.

The Ukrainian war isn’t the first nation to use social media during a war. If you look at the Arab Spring in 2011, social media helped garner support and bring down governments. It has also been used as a vehicle for the Kremlin, or the Russian government, to spread misinformation and for Ukrainians to share their experience, revealing their reality in real-time. People around the world share memes or dark humor tweets to cope with the uncertainty in the world. Social media also helped reveal the bias in how a war in Europe gets more attention and sympathy vs. a war that happens in a Black or Brown country. African students and refugees in Ukraine shared their stories of experiencing racism while trying to get out of the country. We will be diving into all the ways, listed above, that social media plays a crucial role in shaping how we view this Ukrainian War.

The Russian government using social media to spread misinformation

The wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was also a wake-up call for major social media giants like Meta and Twitter. Social media companies have seen themselves as creating a space where everyone can practice their right to free speech on their platforms. These tech companies now don’t have a choice but to rethink their role in politics and public discourse.

To respond to these countries’ needs, the initial response has been to stop Russian-run media organizations from running ads online, and the creation of internal teams of native Ukrainian and Russian speakers to monitor misinformation.  To go further Meta and Facebook banned Russian media organizations/ platforms from being used in the European Union. Some of the misinformation around this invasion included the confusion around what happened on Zmiinyi (Snake) Island, an island located 30 miles south of Ukraine’s mainland in the Black sea. 13 Ukrainian soldiers were believed to be killed during the first day of the invasion after telling a Russian warship to “go to hell.” We now know the soldiers are alive. The Ukrainian Naval Forces posted on Facebook that “our brother-in-arms is alive and well.”  They mentioned that the Russians destroyed the island’s infrastructure, which made it seem like everyone was dead.  During this war, there has also been a lot of repurposing of old images or videos trying to paint a different image of what is happening on the ground.

President Vladimir Putin knew he had to justify his invasion into Ukraine, so he filmed a message to the Russian people before the invasion. Putin framed himself as a savior, bringing back Ukraine to its rightful home, Russia, and “denazify” the nation. The real truth about Ukraine is that the country desperately wants to be an autonomous nation and join the western world, to become a part of NATO. There is a long history of Ukraine trying to leave and Russia trying to keep its grip on it, like in the Soviet Union days. Before this invasion, Ukraine was getting closer to signing with NATO. Putin is trying to stop NATO from reaching Russian borders.

Social media helps Ukrainians to tell their story and save their country

While Russia has been spreading misinformation, social media has given Ukrainians the opportunity to set the record straight and garner support around the world. Although this isn’t the first war to use social media, the use of TikTok makes it easier to send real-time videos. TikTok content is more friendly to unedited content. Before social media, people who had any say in how war narratives were told were the news media and war correspondents. Now average citizens can bring their experience to the story.  William V. Pelfrey, Jr., Ph.D., professor in the Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs at Virginia Commonwealth University, said in the Forbes article “Is Russian’s Invasion of Ukraine The First Social Media War?” that “the devastation, victims experience, and the images of live combat will likely change our conceptualization of war. They say that history is written by the victors. The perpetrators of violence, in this case, Russia, will not be able to rewrite history when it is live-streamed.”

Ukrainians sharing what’s happening in their country online has made the world notice which has helped them get aid from different countries. The personal touch of the TikTok videos or tweets made by the average Ukrainian helps people abroad feel connected to what’s going on. Ukraine is seen as a victim in this war, and the world wants to help in any way it can.

Russia has probably noticed how social media has helped the Ukrainian cause because Russia recently has  “suspended live streams and new content from being uploaded to its platform in Russia, citing the country’s ‘fake news’ laws.” The BBC and other news outlets have left Russia, if they report any news that is deemed false about Russia they can serve time in jail. One of these “falsehoods” includes calling the events in the Ukraine “a war.” The Russian government prefers everyone called their Ukraine invasion a “special military operation.”

Social media as comic relief during war

After about 2 years of a pandemic, the seeming rise of violence worldwide, and a war in Europe is a terrifying addition. The Ukrainian War is the only war that has happened in Europe since World War II, and people on social media see similarities between this war and Word War II. This made a lot of people wonder if this means we will be having World War III. People took to Twitter, TikTok, Instagram, etc. to express this frustration through humor, making funny videos, posts, or memes. Even the official Twitter of the Ukrainian government has participated.

There are also TikToks where people are filming what’s happening in Ukraine, but with energetic and happy music. Some creators could be choosing specific music to help the videos go viral and get more attention, but it’s still quite disorienting.

Dark comedy during a war isn’t new, and one could argue that the meme is serving a similar function to the political cartoon. There are people out there that believe no one should be making jokes, especially if you aren’t directly affected. It trivializes the severity of the war. But humor serves as a coping mechanism for a lot of people. When a lot of people don’t have any individual power to stop the conflict, humor can be a positive way to relieve worry.

There is a possibility that the use of memes and funny tweets can be a way to deflect from the situation.

Social Media covers racism against Africans and refugees

A perspective that is not shown in the main news cycle is the racism that Africans have faced in Ukraine during the war. On the “BBC News Africa’s” Twitter page, they posted a short video made by a Nigerian student named Jessica talking about how she had to fend for herself when escaping the country. When she was trying to find a bus to leave the country, she was told to walk and that the buses were only for Ukrainians. She says she is traumatized by the events.  Black public figures and average citizens with social media accounts are calling out the mistreatment of Black refugees and Africans and sharing their frustration that even in war, in a different country “racism doesn’t take a day off.” Other experiences include being pushed down while trying to board a train because Ukrainian women were given preference and experiencing racial profiling while waiting to cross the border to Poland. Moldova and Romanian borders were more welcoming.

There have been many videos and tweets under the hashtag #AfricansinUkraine. Ukraine has been a destination for many African students for the last 20 years, especially in medical-related fields. It’s cheaper than going to school in the United States and other places in Europe.

Another observation is how the reporting reveals that there is racism in the news coverage. There are viral clips of reporters being disturbed that a “civilized” Christian, European country like Ukraine is experiencing this type of unrest. This implies that Black and Brown people are more prone to having wars and are more violent. The Civil war in Syria is around its 11th year, Russia was involved in this war as well, and there hasn’t been much support for them from the West. There are even articles out there warning Western governments to not ignore Ukraine as they did to Syria.

Some Americans are worried about their country’s involvement in the war. Many people of color are disappointed by President Biden’s quick response to what’s happening in Ukraine. Many Americans feel like the United States needs to take care of itself.

People of color, Black people specifically, are used to being the underdogs in society and are naturally distrustful of systems. Racism against Black people in North America and Europe shows to a Black person that a democratic government or capitalistic society doesn’t benefit them.

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