Ukraine has managed to dominate social media in the first days since the Russian invasion, in an intensification of the information war with Moscow that Kiev appears to be winning so far, analysts say.
Even as President Volodymyr Zelensky remains bunkered in Kiev amid heavy bombing and the fear of assassination, his government has launched an all-out attack on social media to win supporters to their cause.
Zelensky’s daily video speeches, usually published with English subtitles, have become viral sensations, while Defense and Foreign Affairs ministries tout Ukraine’s military resistance in hip graphics.
Meanwhile, Ukrainians have posted videos showing the success of their troops that have become viral trends, including a Ukrainian missile shooting down a Russian helicopter and a Ukrainian farmer dragging looted Russian military hardware on his tractor.
Homemade videos of Ukrainians sobbing amid the ruins of their cities after Russia ramped up its bombings have also gripped people around the world.
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More unverifiable viral claims include the so-called “spirit of Kiev”, a flying ace who allegedly shot down a dozen Russian warplanes, or the Kiev woman who allegedly took out a Russian drone carrying a jar of pickled cucumbers.
“In the first phase of the conflict, Ukrainians are clearly at the forefront of information in international opinion,” said Baptiste Robert, founder of Predicta Lab, a French company fighting disinformation.
“The most impressive thing is that it’s organic,” he said. “There is a real desire of the Ukrainians to document this war. If something happens, they pick up their phone.”
‘Adjust and try again’
Robert said most of the pro-Ukraine videos doing the rounds on Twitter are real, but there have been claims that have turned out to be exaggerated.
In the early stages of the war, Kiev heroically greeted 13 border guards who they say died defending a small island in the Black Sea after cursing Russian troops over the radio.
In fact, they all survived, as the Ukrainian authorities later admitted. The Ukrainian embassy in Paris denies any deliberate attempt to deceive, saying “we don’t do fake news”.
Russia, accused of spreading disinformation in the 2016 US election to take stock in favor of Donald Trump, is seen as a past master of such tactics.
But here the balance is weighed against Moscow. The initial phase of the war was not only deeply unpopular in the West, but was far from successful for the Kremlin, according to independent observers.
“I see them (the Russians) adapt, adapt and try again” on the information front, said Emily Harding, deputy director and senior fellow in the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“But it will take some time before everything runs smoothly.”
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She said she expected Russia to “bring a lot of disinformation into the ecosystem about how the war is progressing, showing that Ukrainian troops would surrender”.
‘Many Russians buy the story’
However, Russia doesn’t seem very concerned about public opinion outside the country, with efforts aimed at maintaining domestic support behind President Vladimir Putin.
To that end, Russia has in recent days shut down the last media bastions for free speech in the country, blocking Facebook and restricting access to Twitter.
“It’s true that they (the Ukrainians) win, but in the end, the audience Putin cares about most is what his own people think about him,” said Darren Linvill, principal investigator at Clemson’s Media forensics lab. University in the United States.
“I think a lot of Russians believe the story.”
He added: “For any story that is pro-Ukrainian, such as stories of Russian soldiers surrendering without fighting and Ukrainian heroes being praised for their bravery, you see the same thing in Russia, in the conversation between nationalists, for their own side. †
With Ukrainian resistance forcing Moscow into a much longer war than the Kremlin intended, a new phase in the information war is likely to begin.
If more Ukrainian cities fall into the hands of Russian troops, “a new information war will arise between those areas that are still resisting and the counter-information being imposed by the Russians,” Robert said.