War live
on TikTok

War live
on TikTok

A P!NG story about the battle on Social Media
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In the battle for the global attention and sympathy, Ukraine has won one battle after another, proving that the editorial society cannot be silenced.

No war is fought only with weapons. The war against Ukraine also has several secondary battlegrounds. Particularly remarkable for the editorial society are the battles on different social media fronts: For the support of other states and politicians, the favour of the economy, the sovereignty over the flow of information and ultimately the question of who can keep the morale of its soldiers and citizens high.

On all these fronts, Putin has decisively lost influence in recent days. Why? Three reasons that speak for a strengthened editorial society.

Tanks Live on TikTok: The Role of Ukrainian citizens.

"You should put sunflower seeds in your pockets so that they will grow on Ukrainian soil after you die." – This sentence will go down in the history of this war. It was said by a previously unknown Ukrainian woman who confronted Russian soldiers – but the whole world could hear it, via a viral video on social media.

Thousands of Ukrainians have already volunteered for service on the fronts, the queues in front of the recruitment offices are proverbial blockbusters. But most Ukrainian citizens are armed with nothing but their smartphones – a simple tool that is proving impressively effective.

 

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In the first hours of the invasion, the movement of Russian tanks can already be followed live on Google Maps, Ukrainians post footage of battles on TikTok and Reddit – while they are happening! – and document on Twitter which Russian helicopters have crashed and how one can defend oneself against tanks with cardboard boxes.

Ukrainians and supporters around the world share information on all channels about relief supplies and entry regulations for refugees, escape routes, translation assistance and call for donations. IT experts, programmers and copywriters are organizing themselves as a volunteer cyber army via Telegram. And a 19-year-old from Florida tweets live where the Russian oligarchs' planes are flying to.

More important than the content of some messages, however, is the fact that the speed at which posts travel around the world has increased dramatically. This increase in speed signifies nothing less than a turning point in history.

"When I was a reporter stationed in Iraq for the US Army in 2016, same-day information sharing was considered fast by Department of Defence standards," writes journalist Daniel Johnson. "What is happening in Ukraine is only possible on this scale if citizens and soldiers across the country have easy access to mobile phones, the internet and therefore social media apps. A large-scale modern war is being broadcast live to the world minute by minute, battle by battle, death by death."

Not only the speed, but also the variety of sources is new. While in the Arab Spring – the first live broadcast revolution – most of the information on the web spread fragmentarily and comparatively slowly via large social networks and established media, Ukrainians are resorting to all real-time messengers, small and large networks as well as other info apps. Never before has the global editorial society been able to get such a comprehensive picture of a war within such a short period of time.

A Muzzle for the Propaganda Machine: The Role of Social Media Platforms

No wonder, then, that Russia immediately tried to control the major social platforms – with moderate success. One by one, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and others announced in the past few days that they would by no means give up fact-checking Russian posts. On the contrary, they are all tightening their controls.

  • Twitter flags tweets with links to Russian state media and reduces the visibility of posts.
  • Facebook, Instagram and TikTok restrict access to the state channels Russia Today and Sputnik.
  • YouTube blocks state-sponsored advertising for Russian channels.
  • Google and Meta currently exclude Russian state media from selling ads on their platforms.  
  • All platforms are strengthening their controls against fake news.

Of course, the Russian government did not hesitate for long and retaliated by banning the platforms in Russia.

But this development is astonishing when one considers the seemingly endless debates of recent years: From Brexit to the US elections, Russia's propaganda empire seemed to be pulling the strings in the background yet unabashedly, while the major social media platforms talked down their responsibility. But the war of aggression against Ukraine is now forcing the platforms to take a clear stand. And this is having an effect: even a rich, influential and experienced cyberwar power like the government of Russia cannot omnipotently switch lies for truth.

Fake news are checked in real time by the global community, and sometimes even made absurd by Ukrainian citizens with smartphones. For example, the Russian military's claim not to attack civilian targets – while everyone on social media can see Russian bombs hitting the "Freedom Square" of Kharkiv, Ukraine's second biggest city.

Screenshot of a Twitter post.Screenshot of a Twitter post.
Screenshot: Twitter Public Policy (@Policy)

The most important platform – because it is the most widely used in Russia and Ukraine – is still holding back: Telegram, a company founded by the Russian brothers Durov. Telegram has threatened to close down war-related channels because fake news is spreading rapidly and unchecked. So far, however, they only threatened.

Many Ukrainians and Russians have therefore already switched to alternatives: Cloudflare recorded a massive increase in the use of Signal since shortly after midnight on 24 February – at the same time as the Russian invasion began. Signal is considered the most secure private messaging app by cyber security experts.

Whether Telegram will follow suit with stricter controls will become clear in the coming days. But the other big platforms seem to have realised that they cannot claim a monopoly on global communication and networking without taking responsibility for it at the same time.

As German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said in her speech to the UN General Assembly: "In a situation where war and peace are at stake, you have to decide whether you are on the side of the aggressor or on the side of families, of children hiding in underground shafts from bomb and missile attacks." The major social media platforms have now chosen sides.

From Comedian to Hero: The Role of the Ukrainian Government

The Russian government spread rumours at the beginning of the attack that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky had fled – and was immediately refuted by his video series directly from Kiev.

Vladimir Putin claimed that the Ukrainian government was led by "a gang of drug addicts and neo-Nazis" – on social networks everyone could make up their own minds.

One thing is certain: The Ukrainian government uses social media with a speed and virtuosity that makes Putin's pompous propaganda spectacle with its bizarrely large panels and rehearsed pseudo-debates appear old-fashioned.

Zelensky in particular has risen in record time from politically inexperienced comedian to war hero in social media. His experience and charisma as an actor and director clearly work to his advantage: he gave his first speech in a suit, but since then he has swapped his tie for a green military shirt. He shoots his videos in Ukrainian, Russian and English, with clear announcements in Twitter-suitable precision. Every day he gains hundreds of thousands of followers, and 4.40 million people now follow him on Twitter.

When the US offered him the chance to leave the country with their help, Zelensky replied: "I need ammunition, not a ride." It was this sentence that cemented his hero status for all Ukrainians.

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Video: Twitter Account of Ukraine's President Selenskyji (ZelenskyyUa)

But there is one thing in particular that is decisive: without truthfulness, Zelensky's production would be nothing. Because Zelensky actually stayed in Kiev and did not flee, because he actually stands by his soldiers and volunteer fighters, because Russia is actually the aggressor and Ukraine has to defend itself – only because Zelensky also does what he says and says what he does, his communication on social media works. He has bet on the two most important social media currencies and won: Authenticity and credibility. 

The Editorial Society Writes History

"History is written by the winners" is a well-known saying. And in times of information monopolies it certainly had its justification. In the editorial society, however, news or information monopolies no longer exist. Therefore, this sentence can no longer apply. It belongs to the past.
 
Never before have so many people had such immediate access to so much information, sources and channels. Never before has a war been documented so extensively. Even his own population cannot be completely cut off from the stream of news by Putin, as proven by the courageous anti-war demonstrators in Moscow who take to the streets despite threats of imprisonment and violence.

Whoever wins this war – the whole world can watch it live. Because the editorial society cannot be switched off. It is always-on.

About the author

Bernadette Mittermeier, Editor-in-Chief Ping LOOPING GROUP.

Bernadette Mittermeier is editor-in-chief of the newsletter P!NG. As Senior Editor at LOOPING GROUP, she is also responsible for the Science & Tech cluster as well as for the conception and implementation of books, podcast, live and serial formats. Previously, she worked as a freelance journalist, primarily for ZEIT Online and the Süddeutsche Zeitung.

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