Ukraine Is the First War of the Modern-Day Web

From a Washington Post column by Molly Roberts headlined “Ukraine is a war of modern-day Web”:

For millions of Americans, Ukraine is the first war of the modern-day Web.

Let’s say the Civil War was the first photography war; World War II the first war of radio. That Vietnam was the first TV war is practically axiomatic: Dispatches of the massacre in My Lai streamed into American living rooms. The weapon of narrative control was wrested out of the state’s hands, and viewers started to associate combat less with glory than with gore.

Some say the first Internet war was in Kosovo. If you had one of the hulking machines that passed for computers in those days, you could plug in, dial up and reach the front lines without any intermediary. You could receive an email from an Albanian businessman, or hop into a chat room with a besieged college kid in Belgrade. Others contend that the War on Terror was the real original Internet war. After all, it was the first where our own newspapers were widely online, too — bloody dispatches at the ready with only a click and a bit of buffering.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, though, is a war of the epoch of platforms — the truly digital age, when social media has become essential to social life, and when we don’t use the Web only to take in information but also to spit it out.

The Arab Spring, of course, spawned the new reality in which the citizenry turns conflict into content. But as essential as Twitter, Facebook and the rest were to those uprisings, most of the speech still came from people physically on the scene, with the rest of us reading and watching. Ukraine feels different to many of us, especially younger people in the West.

There’s an unsavory racial element to our attachment to this crisis: A CBS reporter recently gaffed that Ukraine is more “civilized” than other Internet-era war zones — such as Syria or Iraq or Afghanistan or Yemen — which is a reason the clash there has captivated some in the West.

But also responsible for the way we’re treating today’s events is an evolution in how we use the Internet. Always inclined now toward interactivity, we’re participating rather than merely observing what’s happening thousands of miles away. We’re spreading memes made in Kyiv or Kharkiv throughout the timelines of Brooklynites, with the aid of algorithms crafted in Silicon Valley. Sometimes, we’re forging rallying cries of our own.

Consider the obsession with Paddington Bear, whom Ukrainian President (and former comic actor) Volodymyr Zelensky voiced in the Ukrainian dub of the movie. The cuddly creature and unlikely hero is known in the eponymous films for delivering a “hard stare” to bullies. Now, an image with this trademark expression earns the caption culled from a recent speech by Zelensky: “As you attack, it will be our faces you see, not our backs.”

That’s not the only line lookers-on have adopted as an expression of their own distant defiance. “Russian warship, go f— yourself,” soldiers defending a coastal island declared as they refused to surrender, just before bombardment. Now, the retort has become ubiquitous as an ornament on the Instagram stories of Westerners.

Oh, and don’t forget the babushkas. The women who chased away armed separatists in Kramatorsk, or donned the colors of the Ukrainian flag on the Moscow subway, or offered seeds to Russian soldiers so that “sunflowers grow when they die,” have all been celebrated by the foreign masses — a fandom forming around them abroad as we create out of their individual tales a single grandmotherly avatar of bravery.

Zelensky’s almost caricatural charisma, obviously, encourages us to cheer for the good guys. His speeches seem as if they could have been written by a 21st-century Shakespeare — emotional and electrifying, but now eminently clippable and shareable, too. His government’s facility with the lingua franca of the Internet doesn’t hurt either. See, for example, the official Ukraine Twitter account.

“This is not a ‘meme,’ but our and your reality right now,” it posted alongside a cartoon of Adolf Hitler patting Putin on the cheek as Russia invaded on Thursday. On Saturday, the same page took the time to explain to a random user why the official Twitter account of New Jersey is among the 24 it follows: “Cauz they’re cool,” Ukraine replied, just days after it was invaded. This combination of sincerity and oddity is just what it takes for a nation under serious threat to navigate the often silly space of social media.

But what happens if the tale turns toward tragedy? We in North America and Western Europe have never actually been the combatants here. We’re gleefully hitting “send” on tweets while the true soldiers gravely launch javelins. Our pseudo-participation, whether or not our hearts are in the right place, has been a sick sort of fun. But when the fun stops, we can log off, just as we do any time we’re tired of staring at our screens. Meanwhile, in Ukraine, the war will go on. There’s no closing the laptop on real life.

Molly Roberts writes about technology and society for The Post’s Opinions section.

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