TikTok, Telegram, and other tech companies are challenging the state's power.
|Social media crackdowns during Ukraine's war make the internet less global.
Since Russia's invasion of Ukraine in late February, people all over the world have been watching the war unfold in startling detail — at least in countries where social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, TikTok, and the messaging app Telegram are widely available.
"The way social media has brought the war into people's living rooms is quite astounding," says Joan Donovan, research director of Harvard University's Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy. Fighting and explosions occur almost in real-time, and video messages from embattled Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy have galvanized Western support.
But that isn't all. According to American University political scientist Thomas Zeitzoff, social media is changing the way wars are fought today.
The platforms have grown in importance as places to recruit fighters, organize action, spread news and propaganda, and – for social scientists – collect data on conflict as it unfolds.
As social media platforms grew in power, governments and politicians increased their efforts to use them — or to ban them, as in Russia's recent blocking of Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. At a first, the White House held a special briefing on the Ukraine conflict with TikTok stars like 18-year-old Ellie Zeiler, who has over 10 million followers.
The administration hopes to shape the messages of young influencers who are already important news and information sources for their audiences.
According to Donovan, whose Technology and Social Change Project team has been tracking the spread of disinformation in the conflict, the Ukraine war is shining a spotlight on social media's role as a political tool. "We're at a watershed moment in internet history, where the power of these tech companies is colliding with the power of the state." "This is actually going to change the internet forever," she claims.
Donovan and Zeitzoff were interviewed by Science News about the impact of social media on the conflict and vice versa. The conversations below have been edited for length and clarity.
SN: When did social media begin to play a role in conflict resolution?
Some would say the Zapatista uprising in Mexico in the 1990s was because the Zapatistas used the internet [to spread their political message]. However, I believe that the failed Green Revolution in Iran in 2007 and 2008 was one of the first, as was the Arab Spring in the early 2010s. There was this notion that social media would be a "liberation technology," allowing people to speak truth to power.
People began to question that notion as the Arab Spring gave way to the Arab Winter [and its resurgence of authoritarianism]. Yes, it makes it easier to get a large number of people out on the street to protest, but it also makes it easier for governments to track these people down.
SN: How do you see social media being used in the Ukrainian conflict, and what has changed since then?
Donovan: Some of the more well-known platforms, such as Facebook and Twitter, are not as influential as newer platforms, such as Telegram and TikTok. For example, prior to the Russian invasion, Ukrainian Facebook groups began to establish alternative communication channels, fearing that Facebook would be compromised. As a result, Telegram has become an extremely important space for gathering information and disseminating news.
Telegram has also become a hotspot for propaganda and misinformation, with newer tactics such as fake debunked videos emerging. These are videos that appear to be news debunks demonstrating that Ukraine is involved in media manipulation efforts, but they are actually manufactured by Russia to make Ukraine look bad.
Zeitzoff: I believe social media has made it easier for Ukrainians to communicate with their diaspora communities, whether in Canada, the United States, or across Europe. It also provides unprecedented battlefield views.
But I think the bigger picture is to consider what these new suites of technology allow, such as Volodymyr Zelenskyy holding live videos that essentially allow him to show proof of life while also putting pressure on European leaders.
SN: Is Ukraine winning the social media war despite Russia's large investments in disinformation?
Zeitzoff: Many Ukrainians were skeptical of Zelenskyy's ability to lead at the start of the conflict. But if you look back at his presidential campaign, you'll notice that he was doing Facebook videos in which he talked into the camera, in a very intimate style of campaigning.
So he was already familiar with social media. And I believe that has helped Ukraine communicate to Western audiences, essentially, "give me money, give me weapons." Another possibility is that if Russia's military were slightly better organized and had a better social media campaign, Ukraine would find it extremely difficult to hold.
And, in my opinion, Russia's propaganda has been sloppier. It's not as compelling a story. Ukraine already has underdog sympathies, and they've been very good at exploiting them. They demonstrate their battlefield victories while highlighting Russian atrocities.
Another thing is that social media has aided in the organization of foreign fighters and people who have volunteered to go to Ukraine.
SN: Misinformation and disinformation are abundant on social media. What is the outcome of this?
Donovan: Recontextualized media [on TikTok and elsewhere] is the reuse of content in a new context. It also frequently misrepresents the time and location of the content.
For example, we've seen repurposed video game footage used to depict the Ukraine war. While we [in the US] do not require real-time information to understand what is going on in Ukraine, we do require access to the truth. Recontextualized media interferes with our right to know the truth.
And we want to make sure that the information reaching people in Ukraine is as accurate, correct, and vetted as possible because they'll be making a life-or-death decision that day about going out in search of food or fleeing a specific area. As a result, those individuals require real-time, accurate information.
There's another story about how disinformation can destroy hope and morale. There is a lot of speculation among Ukrainians about when or if the US or NATO will send planes. And there were these videos going around claiming that the US had already sent planes with paratroopers jumping out.
People were passing these around until they got to a reputable news source and learned that NATO was still not sending planes. So it could be something as innocuous as a video that gives people who share it a lot of hope, and then it's all taken away.
What are we not seeing on social media?
Donovan: There's one missing piece: many social media algorithms are set to remove torturous or gory content. As a result, the platforms are suppressing the very violent and vicious aftermath of war simply by virtue of their design.
So, in order to get a full picture of what happened in Ukraine, people will have to watch those videos [from other news sources] and bear witness to the atrocity on a global scale.
SN: Where are we going with this?
Zeitzoff: The most significant change, in my opinion, is the decoupling of social media networks across great powers. So China has the Great Firewall [which censors the internet], and I believe Russia will do something similar. How does this affect the free flow of information?
Donovan: We're trying to figure out how information warfare works as a chess match between different actors. And what's amazing about the situation in Russia is that you have this enormous titan, the tech industry, pushing back on Russia by removing state media from their platforms. Then Russia responds by blocking Facebook and Instagram in Russia.
This is the first time we've seen these companies act in response to a request from another government. Nick Clegg, the president of global affairs at Meta, the parent company of Facebook, Instagram, and the messaging service WhatsApp, in particular, stated that they were complying with Ukrainian requests. That means they accept some responsibility for the content that is broadcast on their platforms. Whatever happens over the next month, I don't believe the internet will be as global as it once was.
T. Zeitzoff. How social media is changing conflict. Journal of Conflict Resolution, Vol. 61, October 2017, p. 1970. doi: 10.1177/0022002717721392.