How Zelensky and Putin Are Using Online Media in the Ukraine War

From a Wall Street Journal story by Sam Schechner and Stacy Meichtry headlined “How Zelensky and Putin Are Using Online Media in the War for Ukraine”:

In Europe’s first full-scale ground war in a generation, the two sides are trying to marshal modern media to their advantage—and the world is responding.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, in invading neighboring Ukraine, has wielded the Kremlin’s vast communications apparatus and an army of online trolls to portray the Russian military as a peacekeeping force deployed to protect Russian-speaking Ukrainians.

On Saturday, Russia’s communications regulator ordered the removal of reports from Russian media that describe Moscow’s attack on Ukraine as an “assault, invasion or declaration of war,” or face being fined or blocked. The regulator has in recent days also ordered blockage of Meta Platforms Inc. social-media service Facebook in the country, and Twitter Inc. has reported that it is being restricted there.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who has a smaller military, has moved to outflank Mr. Putin online. Ukraine ordered its phone carriers to shut down network access to phones from Russia and Belarus—making it so invading forces can’t get online and post their own videos or send their own messages.

Ukrainian officials took to Facebook urging locals to remove road signs and disorient Russian troops. Since Friday, the country’s cybersecurity service has created and publicized multiple automated bots on the chat and social media app Telegram for citizens to report Russian troop movements and road marker tags.

When Russian media reported that Mr. Zelensky had called on his forces to lay down their weapons, the Ukrainian leader responded on Saturday morning with a video showing him on the street near the presidential headquarters in Kyiv, saying the reports were fake and urging Ukrainians to keep fighting. The Ukrainian-language video drew 3.2 million views on Facebook, and a similar post on Telegram was seen 3.8 million times.

Ukrainian officials also wielded social media to launch recruitment drives for foreigners and local hackers to join the fight. Supporters overseas have clicked to donate millions of dollars in cryptocurrencies to the Ukrainian military via addresses the country posted on Twitter.

Mykhailo Fedorov, Ukraine’s vice prime-minister for digital transformation, on Saturday made an appeal on Twitter to SpaceX founder Elon Musk to offer the country internet-connection terminals using the company’s Starlink satellites. Mr. Fedorov said Russia was trying to occupy Ukraine “while you try to colonize Mars.”

Hours later, Mr. Musk replied that the satellite service was now activein Ukraine. “More terminals en route,” he wrote.

“Thanx, appreciate it,” Ukraine’s main government account tweeted back.

The war in Ukraine isn’t the first conflict to play out in the age of social media. In the traditional martial playbook, adversaries attempt to silence opponents’ access to mass media or take control of broadcasting towers to control what the populace can see of the conflict.

What distinguishes Ukraine is how the logic of conflict has in many cases shifted from locking down communications to flooding the world—and your opposition—with your message.

During the 2011 Arab Spring activists used Facebook, Twitter and other platforms to organize and sustain uprisings that toppled governments. Since then, some governments like Iran’s took to blocking services or shutting down the internet when they faced threats—but found such moves could backfire.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan turned social media to his advantage when he faced a coup attempt in 2016. Mr. Erdogan unleashed a torrent of posts to urge his supporters into the streets. It was a message coup plotters couldn’t easily silence and were unprepared to counter online, and the plot failed.

Mr. Putin made a major move in the current media battle over Ukraine when he delivered a combative address on Feb. 21 from the Kremlin. The nearly hourlong recitation of decades worth of historical grievances dominated TV broadcasts world-wide with rhetoric that challenged the post-Cold War international order dominated by the West and that painted Ukraine as a launchpad for the U.S. to attack Russia.

Mr. Zelensky continued posting videos as the invasion began Thursday, wearing a coat and tie as he issued calls for peace. By that afternoon following Russia’s invasion, Mr. Zelensky appeared on social media standing before a lectern in a military-green T-shirt in a video post that was seen 2.3 million times on Telegram and played more than 350,000 times on Facebook.

Since then Mr. Zelensky has been prolific, publishing more than a dozen videos in military garb, including two out on the streets of Kyiv and reposts with English subtitles to reach a foreign audience, as well as over 80 posts to Twitter, where he currently has 3.5 million followers—up from half a million on the eve of the invasion. At one point, Mr. Zelensky took issue with a speech Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi delivered before lawmakers in Rome saying the Ukrainian leader wasn’t available for a scheduled phone call.

“Today at 10:30 a.m. at the entrances to Chernihiv, Hostomel and Melitopol there were heavy fighting. People died. Next time I’ll try to move the war schedule to talk to #MarioDraghi at a specific time. Meanwhile, Ukraine continues to fight for its people,” Mr. Zelensky wrote on Twitter.

The next day, Messrs. Zelensky and Draghi managed to talk by phone, and Mr. Draghi backed a Western plan heavily advocated by Kyiv to knock a number of Russian banks off the Swift network, a global payment system that connects international banks and facilitates cross-border financial transfers. Mr. Draghi had initially opposed that option.

“An extraordinary result was reached in relations with Italy,” Mr. Zelensky later said in an online video.

Speak Your Mind