TikTok and Twitter stars document Russia’s war in Ukraine

A snowy sidewalk littered with bloodied bodies. A beleaguered president wandering the streets of a country under attack. Missile stream. Sirens screaming. Teenagers make homemade bombs. And dead soldiers, so many, lying slumped in the fields and collapsed in smoking tanks.

Russia‘s invasion of Ukraine has spawned a steady stream of online content, a deluge of audio-visual content that has thwarted Moscow’s disinformation campaign, spurred world leaders to action and contributed, as they have in other recent conflicts in Syria and Ethiopia, to change the way we see and understand war.

The bombings and violence in cities like Mariupol, Kharkiv and Kyiv present a cast of newly minted stars – social media stars who rely on satire, courage and insider sensitivity to document the horrors for a global audience.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has become the most famous and tireless online presence with his captivating daily updates through the Telegram instant messaging platform. But there are many others, including meIlia Ponomarenkoa journalist who has attracted more than a million Twitter followers for his stories of military operations, and Vitali Klitschkomayor of kyiv and former heavyweight champion boxer who delivers dispatches after the bombings.

They offer a fast-paced stream of consciousness in a morality piece where ancient brutality meets raw, digitized immediacy. They are influencers amid the ruins, challenging voices echoing from battlefields and bunkers.

Zelensky’s recent description of the relentless Russian siege of Mariupol as “a crime against humanity… unfolding before the eyes of the entire planet in real time” captured what separated the Ukrainian conflict from many past wars: instant documentation.

In February, even as Russia denied it was planning an attack, hints of the upcoming siege surfaced on TikTok, where users posted hundreds of videos showing Russian military vehicles massing along the border Ukrainian.

On Telegram, Twitter and Instagram, Ukrainians raised funds for refugees, organized the exit of civilians from hard-hit areas and chronicled horrors, such as the March 10 bombing of a maternity hospital in Mariupol, where women bloodied pregnant women were evacuated on stretchers. .

The Vietnam War was often referred to as the “first televised war”, a technological advancement from the two World Wars decades earlier that had been recorded primarily through printed words and photographs. At the start of this century, the conflict in Iraq was still largely filtered to the outside world through journalists and documentary film crews.

The 2011 Arab Spring was widely considered the first revolutionary movement launched on social media. But the apps then used to spread the uprisings – namely Twitter and Facebook – have evolved significantly in the years since, while new platforms more focused on video sharing have flourished. At the same time, the capabilities of the typical cell phone have grown to the point that anyone can become an author.

Jane Lytvynenko, senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy, said instant communication “has a direct effect on how Western countries respond to the February 24 invasion, and the reason it has this effect is because ordinary people see what is happening en masse.

She compared the Ukraine War to the Soviet-era artificial famine imposed by Moscow on Ukraine in the 1930s, which killed more than 4 million people. “The facts of the genocidal famine have not been communicated to Western audiences,” she said. “And so Ukraine was left to fend for itself.”

This is not the case today. While it is not always easy to separate fact from fiction on social media, there is no doubt that the power and moral clarity of the many voices emerging from a once peaceful nation of 44 million inhabitants have made the crisis impossible to avoid. Some critics have argued that social media feeds of white Europeans trapped in the conflict have drawn more attention than similar documentation of atrocities from Syria or African countries.

The drama of those in turmoil – as it has been since Homer’s “Iliad” – is compelling. Consider Klitschko, the boxer-turned-mayor, and the videos of him visiting the sites of deadly strikes. Pacing a rubble-filled kyiv street in March, he pointed his mobile phone camera at a destroyed building, a bombed-out city bus and the crater where the ordnance hit. ” These images [are] the truth,” he said in English. “This is what Putin’s war looks like.”

Ponomarenko, a Kyiv Independent reporter who was embedded with Ukrainian forces, reported on the fighting with a mixture of pain and fear. “One, two, three, four Russian tanks have been shot down,” he said in a recent clip as he surveyed the smoking wreckage of militarized vehicles. “I call that a good day.”

On TikTok, the young people have amassed huge followers for their straightforward explanations of what happens during the war and their documentation of daily life in underground bomb shelters. A recent viral video showed a civilian carefully moving a landmine from a highway, a cigarette clinging to his lips.

And then there’s Zelensky, a former comic actor elected president in 2019 who is equal parts Jon Stewart and Winston Churchill. He seems to embody the spirit of the nation: exhausted, but still on his feet and relentless in his demands that the West do more to help Ukraine in what he has presented as a clear choice between good and evil.

His selfie-style videos lend a “social media authenticity that’s pretty unimpeachable,” said Ukraine-born filmmaker Eugene Kotlyarenko.

“We live in an extremely media-sensitive time where people are very tuned in to cues of authenticity,” Kotlyarenko said. “Zelensky seems really serious and a bit vulnerable but at the same time strong.”

The president’s dispatches, which he posts every few hours on Telegram, are part of a larger world of Ukrainian content that has helped counter Russia’s widespread disinformation campaign, experts say.