The war in social media – realism, propaganda and disinformation

February 24, 2021 has gone down in history as one of the darkest dates of the 21st century. It was on this day that Russia invaded Ukraine under the banner of demilitarization and denazification of a country that in no way provoked military intervention. At the time of writing these lines, the war for our eastern border, from which I am only a few tens of kilometers away, has been going on for more than two months. What changed during this period? First of all, we believed that we Poles could be a truly wonderful nation whenever the situation called for it. In addition to providing humanitarian, financial and military aid, we have achieved something absolutely unprecedented. Since that tragic date, we have welcomed less than 3 million refugees, even though we were in no way prepared for it. By welcoming those fleeing war on our own roofs and offering them the most necessary things, including food, clothing, but also closeness and a kind word, we have passed the test of humanity in an exemplary way. For that, we can all thank ourselves at this point.

In this document, I would like to examine how the war is reported not in mass media, but in social media. This is where confirmed information and disinformation or propaganda first appear. It is thanks to social media that the war is reported as brutally and realistically as ever before. Of course, we know that Russia’s aggression against Ukraine is not the only war currently taking place in the world. I remember very well when, as a child, I watched television reports from Afghanistan or Iraq, and since then a lot of bad things have happened in Syria, not to mention the still unstable situation between Israel and Palestine. The events in Ukraine, thanks to their proximity and the possibility of following them on social networks, are a completely different experience for someone who observes them. Since I’ve been alive, war has never been so close, unfortunately literally.

Realism

Let’s start with what is particularly important in the reports from the front, whose authors are not the media, but the soldiers and civilians who have just found themselves at the center of events. As I mentioned before, it is through their material posted on social media that we see the war as it really is. Both on Twitter, on TikToku or Facebook, it is easy to find videos where sirens are heard calling on the inhabitants of the city to go immediately to the shelter. Sometimes it only ends in fear. Unfortunately, in many cases, the following shots already show the damage caused by shelling or rocket attacks, sounds of explosions, clouds of black smoke nearby. This is how war is seen by those who live their lives right next to you, close at hand.

Even more brutal are the accounts of soldiers, where we observe anti-aircraft defense actions, direct attacks on enemy vehicles or looting. In addition to the spectacular explosions and accompanying shouts of joy, we also see much suffering from the victims – not only those killed or physically injured, but also those who survived the trauma standing right next to such tragic events. In my lifetime, I have never seen anything so brutal as the gunfire after the attack on the Kramatorsk station, which was filled with helpless people. Films of residents of Mariupol or areas from which the Russian army withdrew as a result of a regrouping break the heart in two. It would seem that someone who has already seen the true picture of war with their own eyes will do their best to prevent it from happening again. Unfortunately, as we see with our own eyes, it doesn’t always work that way.

Propaganda

The circumstances of the war prove that social media can also become an effective tool for disseminating propaganda. As you know, what accrues to society, but also to the soldiers who participate in combat, is of great importance for maintaining morale. More than one armed conflict in the history of the world has proven that an army with low morale fights noticeably more than motivated to fight for every inch of the earth. Likewise, in the case of society, support for hostilities, or lack thereof, depends on how they are presented and what exactly comes to the attention of the general public. The war on the territory of Ukraine has proven that belligerents must also clash on the Internet, especially on social networks.

The governmental institutions of Ukraine and Russia tend to present the current events in such a way as to gain as many supporters as possible from all over the world. Both sides are very keen to gain support not only from their own citizens, but from around the world. Convincing the public of the correctness of one side or the other seems to be one of the most important aspects of a war, perhaps determining how it will end. It turns out that materials distributed in this way gain huge ranges. Anyone trying to observe social media has probably seen a video of destroying enemy equipment with distinctive background music. Entries from Russian embassies in which attempts were made to explain the causes of the war were also widely quoted. Naturallyboth parties have gone to great lengths to ensure that only the positive message on one side and the negative message on the other reach those who are interested. Well, that’s how war propaganda works, which, like it or not, has had to adapt to operate in a whole new era. The era of social media.

Disinformation

Let’s go back for a moment to the date of February 24, the first day of the war. Although in Polish tradition this day, in 2022, was to be celebrated as Shrove Thursday, it was an exceptionally bitter celebration. Hardly anyone thought about how many donuts or other sweets they had already eaten, most likely most of them didn’t feel like it and limited themselves to this one, token treat. Poles eagerly followed the news on radio, television and the Internet, wanting to know what was going on at any given moment and desperately searching for an answer to the most important question of the moment: are we safe?

Social anxiety is the perfect breeding ground for the spread of misinformation. From day one of the war, social media was awash with reports that allegedly fuel would soon run out at gas stations. How did it end? Anyone who tried to refuel that day in the afternoon and evening found out. Many stations ran out of fuel not because there were supply problems, but because people under the influence of misinformation started stocking up in case of future availability problems. Some gas station owners decided to take advantage of the situation, artificially raising prices, hoping for a quick profit. And all this is only due to misinformation.

The following days brought even more vacuumed messages. Many Twitter and Facebook users wrote about hellish scenes supposedly taking place in Przemyśl. How was the reality? According to official police announcements, apart from a few isolated incidents, the reception of the refugees went smoothly. Unfortunately, from this point on, the disinformation became even more powerful. In social media, brand new accounts are created in an avalanche, which spread messages aimed at scaring Poles and abandoning their support for Ukraine. The phenomenon escalated to such an extent that the third level of alert in cyberspace was announced nationwide – CHARLIE-CRP, and Polish government institutions began an intense fight against fake news and disinformation.

It’s all up to us

Although, as I mentioned, hostilities are taking place in many places around the world, it is precisely the situation in Ukraine that I have addressed in particular. The rest, probably like most of us. It’s very hard to come to terms with what’s going on, especially when, even lazily browsing through social media, you get never-before-seen footage that bears witness to the ongoing massacre. The documents published by the people of Ukraine and the soldiers fighting there open their eyes to the war in a completely different way, certainly deeper and closer than anything I have seen so far.

How should we behave in this situation? I will not reveal by writing this we should just help as much as we can. In fact, over the past two months, we’ve proven that we can. We can also effectively combat propaganda and misinformation on social media. Like? In other words, by verifying sources and not duplicating unverified information. Just that and so much.

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