Ukraine War & Social Media: What’s Different?

Photo by Max Kukurudziak on Unsplash

For over a decade as a digital (cultural) anthropologist, I’ve studied the use of social media during various conflicts around the world. The first time we saw significant use of social media was Egypt and the Arab Spring, which resulted in authoritarian governments figuring out how to use social media to spy on, threaten and often arrest, citizens. Since then, social media has still been used by citizens to protest wars and conflicts. But the Ukraine war, unleashed by Putin for no reason, has seen some significant differences. Here’s what I’ve found.

The Sharing of Cultural Symbols

This is a first. Usually, citizens of a country under attack will share their cultural symbols in various ways through memes and hashtags, profile pictures and so on. But that is internal, to the citizens of the affected country. In the Ukraine war, however, we see the adoption of cultural symbols around the world, in other countries, by citizens expressing their support for Ukraine.

The use of the flag, while a national symbol, by citizens of other countries, is not unusual. But in the Ukraine war, we’ve seen other symbols used. For example, the sunflower and sunflower seeds. While we can’t know if the story is true, it seems to have stemmed from an elderly Ukrainian woman giving sunflower seeds to Russian soldier so when they die, something good will grow from their buried bodies. Or something like that. The sunflower is Ukraine’s national flower. A cultural symbol. Around the world, people started using the sunflower in memes, profile pictures and sending sunflower seeds to Ukraine.

Some people started wearing and sharing pictures of them wearing the flower crown, the vinok as it’s called. These are used in weddings and other cultural events. Flower crowns have a long history in various cultures, going back even before our agrarian societies came into being. The coat of arms has also been used in social media posts, for replacement of profile pics to uses in memes.

This rapid adoption of symbology beyond the national flag is new at this scale. When we share cultural symbols across multiple other cultures it is an important cue as to how various cultures see one another and a willingness to support another culture. This transcends typical political behaviours and goes deeper into sociocultural thinking, supporting the view of many citizens that they see the Ukrainian war as brutal and completely uncalled for. Which it is.

Russia has its cultural symbols as well, such as the dolls that fit within one another, called the matroyshka. These symbols have largely been rejected on social media and there is little expression of them across social media.

A Savvy Ukrainian Response

For his adoption and use of social media coupled with his deep understanding of the value of these tools and shaping a narrative, Ukrainian PM Zelensky has made brilliant use of social media. His response to the US government offering him extraction will likely go down in the history books; “I don’t need a ride, I need ammunition.” He became a global folk hero. He’s rallied his people and their use of social media to communicate to the world at a grass roots level at the degree seen in this war is also not one I’ve seen before.

Social Media, Platforms and News Media

The interplay between the traditional news media and social media is also a bit different this time. While talking heads of news media and journalists are in Ukraine, much of the video content of explosions and the aftermath of attacks has come via social media and news media have been happy to leverage that content as they can verify it or state it’s not verified. Thanks to social media posts of non-Ukrainians traveling into Ukraine to support the ground fighting, comedians like Canadian NAME, have enabled news media to provide deeper, more compelling stories.

All of this has enabled Ukraine to completely steal the narrative of Russia, which usually has a very savvy propaganda machine at work. The Russians lost the narrative this time and have lost the information war as a result.

And social media platforms from Twitter to Facebook, TikTok and Snap have all moved much quicker to censure Russia and attempt to manage the deluge of Russian bots, online scams and disinformation that Russia has used before.

Ukraine too has cleverly, and rightly, shaped the narrative through social media that is now increasing around the democratic nations that this is a fight for democracy, not just one country being brutalized by a bully.

All of this has come together in ways we’ve not seen social media used in wars and conflicts before. It is a hopeful sign for democracy but also that it may be a turning point for social media use in a positive way as well. Perhaps. Time will tell.

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Giles Crouch | Digital Anthropologist

Giles Crouch | Digital Anthropologist

Digital / Cultural Anthropologist | Featured in Wired, National Geographic & Forbes | Celt | Explorer | Intensely Curious