Source: MIT Sloan

Nidaa Shahid

Since the dawn of the Internet era, the role of digital media platforms during crises, conflicts, and war-like situations has increased precipitously. In many conflicts around the world, from Ethiopia to Iraq to Palestine to Sri Lanka, online platforms have emerged as arenas where people highlight and condemn human rights abuses and demand international assistance. However, they also act as conduits for disseminating misinformation, orchestrating specific narratives that provoke aggression, coordinating covert and overt operations, and executing other nefarious designs. The ongoing Russia-Ukraine conflict seamlessly fits into this pattern.

Digital and social media platforms have transformed into a formidable information warfare battleground in the Russia-Ukraine conflict. Both countries are vigorously employing various such mediums to sway domestic and global opinions in their favor. These tactics, characterized by ingenuity, thrive on the increasing reliance of young people on digital media platforms as credible sources of information. According to a 2022 survey report, the number of young people using TikTok as a news-viewing platform surged from 800,000 in 2020 to over 3.9 million in 2022.

The multifaceted role of social and digital media during the Russia-Ukraine crisis serves as a pertinent example of how they can be used to disseminate misleading information, amplify national narratives, and engage international actors. In addition, the illustration of human-oriented images and messages has also gained popularity as a potent tool in this new age of digital information warfare.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) and other organizations have extensively documented how both Russian and Ukrainian authorities have skillfully employed platforms like Facebook, Twitter (now X), and other messaging apps to garner support for their respective agendas. This selective tailoring of messages resonates with pre-existing beliefs and emotions of target audiences, successfully cultivating a sense of unity and identity among the followers. On the flip side, such amplification of national narratives through these platforms can also exacerbate the polarization of public opinion and societal divisions.

Numerous analyses have shed light on how digital media is being used to propagate and manipulate information amidst the Russia-Ukraine conflict. A report by the Cairo Review, for example, highlights Russia’s strategic utilization of these digital platforms to disseminate narratives that distort facts, manipulate public sentiment, and undermine the credibility of Ukrainian authorities. According to the said report, such calculated use of disinformation effectively generates uncertainty and skepticism among online audiences, blurring the lines between authenticity and falsehood.

The Ukrainian state machinery, on the other hand, has adopted a more subtle and humane approach. For instance, in April 2022, a Ukrainian peace activist placed over a hundred baby strollers in the city of Lviv to symbolize the number of children killed in the conflict. The viral image garnered global sympathy within hours. Similarly, a young girl’s rendition of the song “Let it Go” from the movie Frozen became an instant symbol of Russian atrocities against Ukrainian children.

Interestingly, despite the fact that both sides have been using these online social media platforms for narrative dissemination, there still exists a discernible tendency within the Western media to label Russia’s use of social media as a disinformation campaign, while bestowing increased empathy on videos depicting Ukrainians’ struggles. This differential treatment is accentuated by the fact that Ukraine’s President, a former television personality, possesses the charisma for effective portrayal of both himself and his cause. This skillful leveraging of media visibility contrasts with the more reserved demeanor of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who arguably lacks the theatricality sought by media outlets. Thus, while the message is important, the messenger as well as their political clout is also of import.

Yet, the role of online media in this particular crisis has transcended propaganda. It has, one must stress, enabled the public to share critical information, organize humanitarian efforts, and offer solutions to challenges. This underscores the multifaceted nature of digital media platforms as conduits of manipulation as well as outlets for genuine empowerment.

The complex role of digital media platforms in disseminating disinformation, amplifying national narratives, engaging global stakeholders, fostering domestic innovation, and projecting soft power underscores its potency as a formidable contemporary tool in conflicts. Understanding the nuanced influence of digital platforms is paramount in interpreting not only the broader dynamics of the Russia-Ukraine conflict but also the future of the global information landscape.

Quantifying the impact of information campaigns during the fog of war remains a challenging task. However, the intertwined influence of social media, mainstream media, and narrative-framing serves as a good case study to understand the future of conflicts in the digital and social media age. The path ahead demands unwavering vigilance and fortitude not only on the physical battleground but also within the online realm, which holds sway over the hearts and minds of the global community.

While navigating this changing landscape of conflicts and crises, it is crucial to understand the double-edged nature of digital platforms, which not only serve as avenues of information-sharing and cooperation but also those of misinformation and manipulation. Empowering individuals with an understanding of the strengths and pitfalls of digital media platforms, particularly as sources of information, can pave the way for a more informed, responsible, and digitally-literate society. Fostering media literacy, promoting transparency, and advocating for responsible online content can lead to a future where digital platforms contribute to knowledge, understanding, and collaboration.

Nidaa Shahid is a Senior Researcher at Center for Aerospace and Security Studies, Lahore.