Ukraine and the art of viral war

5 March 2022

2:15 PM

5 March 2022

2:15 PM

The sky is dull and gray, the sun obscured by clouds. The camera pans down past some desolate Soviet housing blocks. Some wintry, apocalyptic trees line a road. It could be Kyiv, it could be Bucharest, it could be any city where the residents liberally pepper their words with the -sky suffix.

Suddenly, a flash of metal across the sky, a fighter plane roars into shot, then out again. The caption proudly declares, “This is the Ghost of Kyiv, the bravest fighter pilot in the Ukrainian Air Force. He has downed six Russian planes just today.” You don’t know that much about Ukrainian fighter pilots, but placed among a million other viral clips of heroic Ukrainians fighting against Goliath, you think it seems believable enough. You retweet it. You send it down group texts. You feel a little more revved-up against the Russian invaders.

This interaction is not uncommon. It’s happened millions, or more likely, billions of times in the short week since Russia declared war on Ukraine. From the villager holding an anti-tank mine while smoking a cigarette to the grandmother handing out sunflower seeds to a conscripted teenager, this war has been memed faster and harder than any other in the social media age.

It’s by no means the first war to play out on social media, but it’s certainly the most uneven one. On Western social platforms there’s a never-ending assembly line of content perfectly engineered to create sympathy and support for Ukraine. Compared to even the most recent social media conflict between Israel and Gaza last year, the current war feels totally one-sided. And that’s for good reason. There’s genuine sympathy for the Ukrainian people, and everything on social media plays to this totally reasonable Western bias. Ukraine, as perhaps the most Western country to suffer invasion since World War Two, has absolutely decimated the global PR war. Sure, they’ve been helped hugely by the almost cartoonishly evil nature of their attacker, but they have nevertheless created a universe of content that serves their interests.

In the age of digital warfare, even the most valiant of causes can falter without the mass of public support behind them. Whether the world likes it or not, in 2022, ideas are born and spread on social media. The age-old myths of war are globalized and supercharged as weapons against the enemy. When people believe in your cause so strongly that they start not to care if the Ghost of Kyiv really is the world’s best fighter pilot, then you’ve struck gold. The battle for Ukraine is fought on the streets of Kharkiv and Odessa, but in a conflict where the West has the ability to move the needle, viral tweets are another weapon in the arsenal.

At this point in the conflict it’s not clear how much the plucky Ukrainian viral narrative is borne out by reality. The thirteen soldiers on Snake Island who were reported dead after telling a Russian warship, “go fuck yourself” turned out to have been captured. I don’t know if the man who stared down a Russian tank is still alive or if the soldier with the sunflower seeds is in captivity. In a way it doesn’t really matter. Every emotion Ukraine can illicit from the West is another bullet in their magazine. Every share of content of dubious origin is keeping their struggle on the agenda. When faced with an enemy as evil as it is incompetent, nothing should be off limits.

The post Ukraine and the art of viral war appeared first on The Spectator World.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Show comments