In 1991, when the Soviet Union fell, Gorbachev’s resignation speech was live broadcasted by CNN and aired in over 150 countries, followed by a sit-down interview with the former Soviet leader. It was the first time that a news organization had broadcast a live interview with a world leader the same night he had resigned.
The final days of the fall of the Soviet Union were perhaps the first worldwide event in history where a global audience could follow the development minute by minute thanks to live TV broadcasting.
Of course, the scope of the coverage was limited, the transition was choreographed beforehand and nothing unexpected happened. So, absolutely opposite to what we are witnessing in Ukraine.
In the early 2010s the Arab Spring, a series of anti-government protests, unfolded across much of the Arab world. In the news, social media has been heralded as the driving force. This interpretation has been since corrected by several studies. The importance of social media was in communicating to the rest of the world what was happening on the ground during the uprisings.
The war in Ukraine is already being dubbed the world’s “first TikTok war”. I will get to that later. The point is the role of social media in Ukraine is something we will not be able to understand while it’s happening. Though, there are already hints and indications of how the war in Ukraine is changing European media and journalism.
More from The Fix: What works in fighting disinformation
A few years ago, Euractiv wrote that the Cold War was replaced with fake news and described how Moscow began with the propaganda war in the wake of the annexation of Crimea.
Experts knowledgeable about the situation said Russia’s goal was to cause disarray and confusion by undermining the political mainstream in Europe and beyond.
For years, USA and EU, the two biggest geopolitical blocs hit most by the propaganda endured blows in various forms from news outlets openly financed by Moscow to disinformation blogs, social media trolls and even bots.
Journalists, politicians, analysts, and societies at large discussed how to stand up to a relatively small force with a powerful weapon with the goal of creating chaos and distrust.
In Slovakia, where I live, an opinion poll in Januray 2022 found that 44 % of the respondents blamed the US and NATO for the growing tensions on the Russian-Ukrainian border and in the Baltics. Less than 35 % blamed Russia.
After Russia attacked Ukraine another opinion poll in February 2022 found that 62 % of the respondents blamed Russia, while 25 % still blamed the US.
In its latest Vulnerability Index (November 2021) that measures vulnerability towards foreign influence Globsec, the global think-tank based in Bratislava stated that the presence of disinformation in both the online and offline information space in the region correlates with the presence and influence of pro-Kremlin actors and narratives in the media.
The region means Bulgaria, Czechia, Hungary, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Romania, Serbia and Slovakia. The Index assesses five key dimensions: public attitudes, political landscape, public administration, information landscape, and civic and academic space, with a particular focus directed towards the Kremlin’s and Beijing’s activities.
In the Vulnerability Index, Slovakia scored the worse in public attitudes. The report concluded, pro-Russian attitudes and a general lack of awareness regarding Beijing’s influence constituted key points of societal vulnerability in the country resulting in a strong inclination to believe disinformation and conspiracy theories.
With the Russian invasion of Ukraine giving rise to disinformation, the Slovak cabinet and the parliament passed an amendment to the Cyber Security Act on Saturday, February 26th, allowing the National Security Authority to shut down sources of “malicious content.” The amendment has an expiry date and should remain in place only until the end of June 2022.
Slovakia wasn’t the first to act, similar moves have been taking place across Europe, and then a few days after on Wednesday, March 2nd Kremlin-backed media outlets RT and Sputnik got officially banned in the EU.
A day after, Gerulata Technologies, a technology company based in Bratislava specializing in tracking, analyzing and countering information threats, published a list of top pro-Russian information sources in Slovakia.
Gerulata wrote that in the first days of the Russian aggression in Ukraine, some of the most radical pro-Russian actors tried to defend or justify it – echoing Kremlin’s lies about a “limited special military operation” and “denazification of Ukraine”. The list of the actors was widely publicized.
Openly talking about all of these actors and crafting laws to counter the spreading of misinformation is perhaps the biggest change that the war in Ukraine has brought.
I might be (and surely am) biased here as I watched it form from its creation to its current status, but the story of Kyiv Independent is a good lesson for every other European media.
The Kyiv Independent is Ukraine’s English-language media outlet created in November 2021 by journalists who were fired from the Kyiv Post for defending editorial independence.
It was formed by the ex-staff of Kyiv Post which was shut down by its owner to take full control of the newsroom. The newly created outlet had instantly experienced journalists and crafted a very straightforward mission statement with values that are reader-first and will be member-funded.
The @KyivIndependent Twitter account has become an often-cited source of trusted news and information from Ukraine in Western media and serves as a news stream of what is happening on the war front and elsewhere in the country.
The follower count of the account went from 30,000 to 1.7 million in a matter of days.
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Gaining such global influence in just a couple of weeks was mostly possible thanks to starting the outlet with a clear vision and savvy (both seasoned and young) journalists eager to cover what’s happening in the country to the rest of the world.
The story of the rise of Kyiv Independent would surely be an interesting news media case study even without war in a given time. But due to the circumstances, it had to step up and we are experiencing in real-time a master class in building a trusted and influential news outlet in Eastern Europe that is heard far beyond the borders of Europe.
For the past few years, I have tried to keep an eye on journalism institutions, associations, collectives and organizations in Europe claiming to help European journalists or European journalism.
One reason is that my home country, Slovakia hasn’t had a functional independent institution helping journalists and journalism since it became an independent country in 1993. Former communist-led journalist syndicate just changed its motto but the same people remained at the helm.
Another reason was that as a young journalist I was looking for opportunities to learn, take part in a workshop, attend a journalism conference and thought that the best way to find the right opportunity would be to follow such organisations.
Today, we are experiencing something unprecedented in Europe, and what other time for these organisations to step up than now.
It’s a mixed bag. Some sent out a couple of Tweets with statements, some didn’t even bother. I am hesitant to call names as it is early days and this column is not published right away. The ones I have seen to step up, such as IPI are global networks.
There are many humanitarian campaigns aimed at helping Ukraine going on but only a couple are aimed at Ukrainian media. The biggest one is not coordinated or created by any Europe-wide journalist organisation.
It’s a campaign run by a consortium of The Fix, Are We Europe, Jnomics and Media Development Foundation, as well as multiple media partners from across Europe (see image below).
One reason I thought of was that most functioning journalist organisations operate in Western Europe and aren’t simply calibrated to quickly turn around and react instantly.
Either way, I believe the current situation has shown we (as in journalists in Europe) need to rethink what for do we have these organisations if they are not the first to help in situations like these.
Please, be sure to call me out on this part. I will be more than happy to add a list of organisations that are helping out.
Press Gazzette reported more than 50 UK journalists are currently inside Ukraine – with every major news organisation committing staff to cover the unfolding conflict.
In the early days of the invasion, Poynter published a commentary on how US-based media outlets are covering the war. One number stood out to me – according to the head of CNN International, Mike McCarthy, the network had 75 people in Ukraine, including drivers and local interpreters.
Those are stunningly high numbers and no wonder US-based and UK-based outlets are leading the reporting on Ukraine in Europe and globally.
For INMA, Greg Piechota looked at the spike in demand for news and called it “pandemic peak-like traffic”. In Poland, where over a million Ukrainian refugees left the traffic to news is already double the pandemic levels.
All the big newsrooms like NY Times, The Guardian, Washington Post, BBC News, Financial Times and others are running daily live blogs on the war in Ukraine. So are of course big European non-English outlets.
Looking through App Store and Google Play rankings across Europe in the News category the above-mentioned English language news apps have been trending up during the last two weeks. News apps have been trending up also in USA.
It’s just another sign that for deep coverage of European events many Europeans are turning to US and UK outlets. Of course, English language news sites with subscription businesses see Europe as the next big pool of educated audiences who speak English and are increasingly willing to pay for quality news.
Pumping more and more resources into covering European news makes sense, mostly when publishers in Europe usually don’t see them as competition.
More from The Fix: How to TikTok: first steps for media companies
The New Yorker was among the first big outlets to go deep on the “TikTok war” description of what’s happening in Ukraine and how is it going viral online.
Coming back to the point I made in the beginning regarding the Arab Spring and the use of social media, the war in Ukraine is going to be historic in the sense of how it is being depicted via viral videos, especially on TikTok.
While the use of social media during Arab Spring was relatively basic, twelve years later we are living in peak social media ages where short viral vertical videos are spreading like wildfire online.
Today, it’s not just professional creators who have the skill to create videos that go viral but there are many many tools aimed at the general public giving anyone easy tools to produce a viral video in a matter of seconds.
I loved the final lines in the New Yorker article: “social media is an imperfect chronicler of wartime. In some cases, it may also be the most reliable source we have.”
In other words, there is no going back and whether someone feels too old for TikTok or has a problem with its Chinese origins, newsrooms need to understand it and be there.
Being called out on Twitter by Ukraine’s digital minister, Mykhailo Fedorov, before the war in Ukraine started would barely make it to local news.
Now, an ‘information insurgency’ as Politico put it, or rather ‘Twitter insurgency’ as I like to call it, by Ukrainian officials are proving to be a very effective tool. With the whole world watching a well-aimed Tweet can make a difference (like the time it resulted in Elon Musk sending Starlink internet terminals to Ukraine).
In media, many know how powerful is Twitter and that’s why they use it. Maybe you didn’t know, but in most of Europe Twitter is a very minor social network.
Slovakia is not an exception. But in recent days, I have seen it used more activity. I wonder how this is going to affect the userbase as Twitter is being mentioned like the tool Ukraine politicians got their way with big companies.
Also, I have already mentioned how Kyiv Independent’s use of Twitter has made them a valuable source often quoted by major newspapers globally.
Despite all of its shortcomings, the micro-blogging social network has the reach and the influence if used right to call out to the world.
I still find it a missed opportunity when fellow journalists don’t use it (we can talk about the other extreme of using Twitter too much some other time). If this is you, maybe give it a chance.
More from The Fix: How to TikTok: first steps for media companies
After TikTok, Telegram is probably the second biggest “winner” of the current situation.
Telegram has more than 550 million monthly users globally and is the most popular messaging app in Ukraine.
The Guardian points out that the service’s much-hyped encryption and its ability to disseminate messages to groups of up to 200,000 – the limit on Facebook-owned WhatsApp is 256 members – has seen it dubbed the “app of choice” for terrorists.
Users are drawn to it because of its hyped encryption which gets regularly disputed by Signal messaging app creator Moxie Marlinspike.
Still, users are choosing Telegram over Signal and for many in Ukraine and Russia, it serves as their main source of news.
Signal has been also very popular in Ukraine and is believed to be the most secure messaging app. Or “the least unsecure messaging service” as Elon Musk put it in a recent exchange with Marlinspike on Twitter.
Both Telegram and Signal have seen big spikes in new users and will probably continue to grow.
Some media outlets are already using Telegram groups to deliver news to their readers and I suppose it’s just a matter of time your newsroom is going to experiment with Telegram as well.
More from The Fix: How Telegram is enabling member-only community spaces
Media outlets in Russia have to call the war against Ukraine a “special military operation.” Journalists who try to resist face harsh consequences Deutsche Welle wrote.
The piece is pointing out that in Russia fewer independent media outlets operate every day and with the plan to tighten control over the internet, the public may have even less real news.
Some have even called Russia taking a page out of the North-Korean playbook where access to independent news is only via USB drives thrown over the fences.
News outlets such as Meduza operating in exile outside Russia can and do bring essential reporting on what is happening in the country but cannot produce it on a scale necessary for a country that populous.
Many Russians are already kept from independent news and have been fed propaganda for decades.
Still, it’s different to have more than 100 million people on the continent without credible and factual information than 10 million as in Hungary. Unlike Russia, Hungary is part of EU and NATO and there are certain limits to how far can it go in rooting out independent news.
I know it is hard to think about it at the moment, but what is Russia doing in Ukraine can only slide by within the Federation thanks to the massive propaganda apparatus.
So, it’s also time to give independent Russian news outlets our support.
One thing is for sure, the war in Ukraine is flooding Europe with heartfelt, but also disastrous stories of millions of humans.
I have worked in media for a while now and journalists have almost every year found ways to tell new stories of people from World War II.
I imagine the next generation in Europe is going to be formed and brought up on stories of the war in Ukraine and its consequences.
The cover of the 4 March edition of Guardian Weekly. Illustration: Sergiy Maidukov/The Guardian
Hi! I'm David Tvrdon, a tech & media journalist and podcaster with a marketing background (and degree). Every week I send out the FWIW by David Tvrdon newsletter on tech, media, audio and journalism.