Social media reveals and distorts the reality of war in Ukraine

“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine isn’t the first war to take place during the era of social media, but perhaps no other conflict has ever seen the online and real worlds so intensely intertwined.

Since the earliest moments when Russian troops advanced over Ukraine’s borders, local citizens have documented their experiences in intimate detail on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and TikTok — providing the world a window into the triumphant and harrowing moments of their lives under siege. Digital tools have also provided practical support. Online observers used Google Maps to track the Russian army’s movements, and an American urban warfare expert shared tips on Twitter for Ukrainians defending their cities. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has made frequent use of social media to boost morale at home and urge other nations to support his country’s cause.

Social media platforms have also been plagued by a flood of misinformation shared by both individual users and organized groups intending to distort the facts on the ground. The Russian government has engaged in an elaborate, and largely ineffective, campaign to undermine Ukraine’s resistance. Ukraine’s official accounts have also shared dubious information, though at a much smaller and less coordinated level than the Russians.

Big Tech companies have taken aggressive steps to combat disinformation from official Russian sources. Russian state-controlled news networks RT and Sputnik have been blocked in Europe on Facebook, Instagram, TikTok and YouTube. Russia has retaliated by blocking access to Facebook and Twitter and passing a new law that threatens with prison time anyone promoting what authorities consider to be “fake news” about the war. That law compelled TikTok, along with several Western news networks, to suspend its service within Russia.

Why there’s debate

There’s little question that social media is having a real effect on the war, but most experts say its impact is too complex to be viewed as either purely helpful or harmful.

Many credit social media for helping to establish a clear narrative of the conflict, establishing Russia as the unquestioned aggressor despite Moscow’s efforts to manipulate the truth. They also argue that the constant stream of first-person accounts from ordinary Ukrainians has humanized their struggle in a way that traditional news media often fails to do. Though social media’s effects are difficult to quantify, some political experts say Ukraine’s dominance in the war over public perception may have played a significant role in convincing Western governments to offer substantial material support to Ukraine and issue punishing sanctions against Russia.

For all of social media’s benefits, disinformation researchers worry that the “fog of war” being created by the flow of false information and out-of-context moments makes it all but impossible to track facts on the ground. There are also concerns that social media algorithms, which tend to reward posts that elicit a strong emotional response, will warp users’ understanding of the conflict. Others argue that it’s a disservice to the Ukrainian people for outside observers to repackage their real-life tragedies and triumphs into content competing to become the next viral post.



Social media has helped Ukraine dominate Russia in the information war

“Russia’s war for Ukraine’s territory is being waged with tanks and artillery, but the battle for the world’s hearts and minds is being fought largely on social media — and there, at least, Vladimir Putin is losing.” — Stephen L. Carter, Bloomberg

The intimacy of social media helps the world understand the human stakes of war

“As an American living in the 21st century, I’ve had the privilege to have not (yet) experienced a land war in my own backyard. It’s something that’s unfathomable to anyone who hasn’t; the videos and images coming out of Ukraine, from the people on the ground, offer the tiniest fraction of understanding what that might look like.” — Samantha Cole, Vice

Social media has been key in rallying global support behind Ukraine

“Social media didn’t cause any of this resistance. But it amplified these stories quickly and at scale, overwhelming what analysts say has been a shockingly inept information strategy from the Russians. And with every viral TikTok about the situation unfolding … support for the resistance grows.” — Casey Newton, Verge

Social media can cover the conflict with a breadth the news media can’t

“Social media is an imperfect chronicler of wartime. In some cases, it may also be the most reliable source we have.” — Kyle Chayka, New Yorker

No other medium allows people to get access to so much information so quickly

“This kind of proliferation of media is not new, but there’s something compelling about learning about worldwide events this way, almost as if social media has trained our brains to gather our own sources. Say what you will about short attention spans in the internet age, there is some benefit to being rewired to gather intelligence from multiple sources to make sense of what’s going on.” — Angela Watercutter, Wired

The war may permanently change how Big Tech treats dangerous actors

“By taking action against the Kremlin, tech companies have adopted policies that could become the de facto norm for future conflicts. These decisions could fundamentally change the companies’ relationships with governments that are being forced, in real time, to acknowledge the power that social media wields in a time of war.” — Mark Scott and Rebecca Kern, Politico


It’s impossible to separate fact from fiction online

“The intensity and immediacy of social media are creating a new kind of fog of war, in which information and disinformation are continuously entangled with each other — clarifying and confusing in almost equal measure.” — Craig Timberg and Drew Harwell, Washington Post

Millions of individual moments don’t add up to make an accurate account of the war

“Social media is a little like pointillism — a collection of tiny dots that, taken together, reveal a broader picture. But, over the long term, war defies such a portrayal.” — Mathew Ingram, Columbia Journalism Review

Unreliable tech companies have too much power over important archives of the war

“We find ourselves in a precarious, highly dependent dance with the tech titans: a policy change, an enforcement modification, a poorly trained moderator, an imprecise detection algorithm, an inadequate appeals mechanism can all lead to the erasure of material.” — Amre Metwally, Slate

Ukrainians are real people, not sources of content

“American social platforms have given us unprecedented access to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but have also flattened it all into viral sameness, demanding more content, more reactions, more views, more replies.” — Tech commentator Ryan Broderick

Truth is often distorted for the sake of narratives

“For the first few days of the conflict, it felt as if the desire to figure out the truth on the ground had evaporated. What replaced it was a fantastical vision that turned a brutal, terrifying and bloody invasion into the Ukrainian version of the film ‘Braveheart.’” — Jay Caspian Kang, New York Times

Online support of Ukraine may evaporate once the novelty wears off

“Despite the power of social media, users have short attention spans. Look no further than the initial support Western Twitter users threw behind protesters during the Arab Spring in the early 2010s before eventually losing interest and tuning out. … If Western users do turn away from the conflict, support for Ukraine could dry up — along with its chances of beating down Putin and staying independent of Russia.” — Daniel Howley, Yahoo Finance

The impulse to participate, rather than just observe, can be harmful

“The internet, for those trying to follow what’s happening in conflict zones without being there themselves, can be a deeply unpleasant place to linger. It can feel as though you are obligated to stay there or risk ignorance or complicity. … And yet, demands that individuals with little to no connection to a crisis ‘speak on it’ often end up with people sharing unhelpful or harmful information and opinions.” — Rebecca Jennings, Vox

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Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Chris McGrath/Getty Images