[Editor’s note: Anton Protsiuk is a contributor at The Fix. He is from Ukraine and is currently based in the country.]
Since Russia launched a deadly war in Ukraine last week, international observers have noted the unexpected strength of Ukraine’s resistance – Russia’s president Vladimir Putin apparently hoped for a quick victory, but failed to secure one.
While the Ukrainian military has been the key reason for Ukraine’s unexpectedly strong defence, the country has also been successfully leveraging the power of social platforms. Popular messengers like Telegram and Viber play a big role, as do Facebook and Twitter.
Scores of Ukrainians get news about air raid sirens from social platforms and report the movement of Russian armoured vehicles through Telegram bots, while the country’s vice premier uses Twitter as “a cannon to shame the world’s biggest tech companies.”
Social platforms have become an important source of information for Ukrainian citizens during the military conflict. For example, state agencies use their Facebook, Instagram and Telegram accounts to communicate information like civil defence sirens and the schedules of evacuation trains that transport people to Western Ukraine and to the borders with neighbouring countries.
Like other regional authorities, Kyiv city administration has an official channel on Telegram. As of March 3rd, the channel has over 440,000 subscribers (an almost 2000% increase since the invasion started a week before). The latest message about air raid sirens got over a million views in a few hours.
Big social platforms’ advantage is that they might work more efficiently and be less vulnerable to cyber attacks than Ukrainian-operated services, such as official websites of government institutions. (As The New York Times reports, just before the invasion Microsoft worked with the Ukrainian government to prevent a large cyberattack aimed at Ukraine’s state institutions).
More from The Fix: Five ways news organisations can help Ukrainian media
For many Ukrainians, Telegram isn’t only a source of vital information, it’s also an opportunity to provide information to authorities.
The Ukrainian government uses a number of Telegram bots that help collect information more efficiently. The most famous one is called “STOP Russian war”, which allows Ukrainians to report specifics of the movement of Russian troops.
Other Telegram bots gather information about signs on the roads that could be used to help the Russian troop movement. Apart from nationwide bots, some regional police authorities also have communication channels via Telegram and other messengers.
While Twitter is popular among Western journalists and politicians, it’s not a widely used social network in Ukraine. The platform isn’t even on the top-25 most popular websites in the country.
At the same time, Twitter has been an effective way for Ukraine’s government to communicate with the international community. A few days ago, Ukraine launched a call for cryptocurrency donations to resist the Russian invasion, raising over $20 million in a few days.
Ukrainian authorities are also using Twitter to call out the largest tech companies like Google and Meta, compelling them to restrict access to Russian users or help fight Russian propaganda.
Much of these efforts have been spearheaded by the Ministry of Digital Transformation, an institution established in 2019 by current Ukraine’s president Zelenskyy and headed by Mykhailo Fedorov, who is also First Vice Prime Minister.
Most famously, Fedorov successfully persuaded Elon Musk to send a supply of Starlink stations to help Ukraine’s internet infrastructure.
The exchange between Mykhailo Fedorov and Elon Musk attracted worldwide attention. Two days later, Fedorov tweeted that Starlink arrived in Ukraine.
Apart from Musk, as Washington Post reports, “Fedorov has pressed about 50 companies for aid while his staff has worked behind the scenes with a network of Ukrainian expats and regulators from other countries to get the companies to act.”
Experts like Ian Garner have noted that Russian propaganda hasn’t yet been particularly successful this time because the Russian government pushes an “impersonal narrative” and hasn’t bothered to efficiently explain the invasion of Ukraine to ordinary people.
Part of the reason might be Ukraine’s activity aimed at Russians, particularly on Russian social networks – it highlights the atrocities caused by Russia targeting civilians in Ukraine, as well as the casualties of Russian troops.
On Wednesday, March 2nd, the Russian Ministry of Defence officially admitted 498 soldiers of the Russian army were killed since what Russia calls a “special military operation” began on February 24th. (Ukraine claims Russian army casualties to be over ten times higher than Russia admits.)
Ukrainian volunteers, with help of government agencies like the Ministry of Digital Transformation and the Ministry of Internal Affairs, have been working to convey the information about Russian casualties to ordinary Russians.
For example, Ukraine’s Ministry of Internal Affairs launched a website called “200rf.com” with information about Russian soldiers that were captured or killed in Ukraine – such as videos of PoWs’ interrogations. Its Telegram channel had almost 600,000 subscribers as of March 2nd.
“Info army” volunteers have been working to spread the information on Russian social networks VK and Odnoklassniki, particularly by finding accounts of Russian soldiers (and their relatives) and messaging them.
While it’s too early to make a final call on whether these efforts will be successful, the dominance of anti-war narratives on Russian social media is much more pronounced now than it used to be in 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea.
More from The Fix: Ukraine’s media under Russian invasion: how publishers can help
Photo by B. Gerdžiūnas/LRT