In modern war and politics, the information space is one of the most crucial parts of the battlefield. This is not about mere propaganda. If your ideas get out and win out, that determines everything from whether soldiers, civilians and onlookers around the world will join your cause to what people believe about the very truth of what’s occurring on the ground. And, if your ideas don’t win out, you can lose the war before it even begins.
In the arena of information warfare, there was arguably no one more feared over the last decade than Vladimir Putin. Russia’s information warriors ran wild for years, hacking democracies by intervening in more than 30 national elections from Hungary and Poland to Brexit and the 2016 U.S. presidential race. They elevated conspiracy theories that ranged from Q-Anon to coronavirus vaccine lies and provided justification for Russian military action everywhere from Georgia to Syria.
Yet, when it came time for one of Putin’s most ambitious and important operations of all, the invasion of Ukraine, Russia failed at the information side of the fight as much as it failed at its plan for a quick seizure of Kyiv. And the stakes could not have been higher. While Putin’s forces may be able to turn around their military prospects by sending more missiles, tanks and troops to overwhelm Ukraine’s cities, they have no such opportunity on the information war side. Contrary to claims that it is somehow too early to call, Ukraine isn’t just winning the battle for hearts and minds online, it has already won. And now it’s too late for Russia to change the narrative.
How Ukraine has been so successful at turning the tables on the supposed Russian masters of information war is crucial to understanding the situation so far in Ukraine and what happens next. It is also a lesson for any other nation, politician, corporation or activist at how to win what I and others call #LikeWar, the hacking of social networks not through malware but through the effective weaponization of social media for clicks, likes and shares.
In the online world, there is no single pathway to victory, and a tactic for sure defeat is to just push out one single message by one single messenger. Instead, you want to “flood the zone” with multiple messages, driven viral by an ever-growing network of audience members, who are transformed from target into supporters and then fellow combatants.
At this task, Ukraine — both through official government channels and through a global coalition of supporters participating with them in the online front — has been masterful at driving forward 10 essential persuasion messaging themes. Each of these themes had scores of underlying narratives and examples, pushed out by wider networks that scaled from the hundreds to the millions.
1) Not waiting to debunk: Pre-bunking
In the past, Russia drove the conversation, initiating operations at the time and storyline of its choosing. Its messaging struck at audiences with no pushback, and its physical operations were often aligned with pre-planned incidents and fake provocations used to justify Russian military action as well as confuse both local and international observers about what exactly was happening. In the 2014 attack on Ukraine that presaged this current war, for example, Russia pushed out made-up stories of various atrocities, such as Ukrainian soldiers crucifying a 3-year-old boy. Such viral lies were used both to stoke anger among Russian-speaking citizens and then to justify Russia’s intervention to seize Crimea and create the separatist Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic.
This time, Russia’s adversaries didn’t just try to debunk its claims after the fact (which usually doesn’t work) but had a strategy to “pre-bunk” Russia. A multifaceted network built through both deliberate planning and informal coordination — which included Ukrainian government agencies’ and individual leaders’ social media accounts; the accounts of agencies and leaders from NATO states, especially the Baltics and the Brits; and a multi-agency effort within the Biden administration, bringing together the Pentagon, State Department and Intelligence Community; and was bolstered by a broad online coalition of democracy activists and OSINT (open-source intelligence) trackers, who also weighed in to preempt the Russians — got ahead of Putin’s goal to justify his long-planned invasion as an emergency response to supposed Ukrainian offenses and atrocities. Instead, this coalition meticulously documented and ensured awareness of Russia’s actual monthslong build-up of forces. They did so in both formal ways, such as placing into public view satellite photos of huge Russian military deployments, as well as in personal ways, such as up-close snapshots of literal trainloads of Russian tanks amassing near the border. Both were eye-grabbing in their own manner, showing the scale and the detail of the Russian plans.
Also key was the direct debunking of various Russian-planned provocations in the last days and hours leading up to the assault. For instance, online sleuths detected that the time shown on Russian leaders’ wristwatches inadvertently revealed that Putin’s “emergency” meetings were actually pre-taped, while open-source investigators found that the three people Russia claimed had been killed in a Ukrainian-set car bomb actually had already undergone a post-mortem cranial autopsy, meaning the Russians had staged the scene using bodies from a morgue.
Overall, this pre-bunking set the narrative of what Russia was planning, to invade a smaller sovereign state, and took away Russia’s ability to muddy the waters and claim that they were somehow the victim or a rescuer.
2) Highlighting heroism
Once the war began, the strategy then pivoted to a wider series of themes. Among the most important early stories were the tales of Ukrainian Davids standing up to fight against the odds versus the Russian Goliath. This was essential both to rally Ukrainians in the early hours of fighting and to create the next needed message to the West: that Putin’s gambit had failed and that Ukraine was worthy of backing.
Probably the most successful was the so-called #ghostofkiev, the fighter pilot reported to have shot down multiple Russian jets, becoming the first “ace” of the war. (His historic parallel is Edward O’Hare, for whom Chicago’s airport is named. The first U.S. ace of World War II was made into a national hero as a morale building effort at the lowest point of the war for America.) While the reality is most likely a mix of truth and exaggeration (Russian jets were definitely shot down, but whether it was six by one pilot is still in dispute), the effect of the story was what ultimately mattered. For good or bad, virality trumps veracity in online war.
3) Stacking the cards in just the right way
Such stories of heroism align with the idea of card-stacking, selectively emphasizing certain facts to shape a specific view of the overall story. In pulling out and then driving viral singular examples of its early wins, Ukraine was able to shape the early narrative of the entire war. For instance, while the map showed Russian forces seizing large areas of Ukraine at a pace comparable to the early stages of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the online world instead focused on small unit actions, like the early defeat of the Russian attack on Hostomel airport, involving just a few hundred soldiers.
As with the pre-bunking, these examples ranged from the official and clinical, such as video of a successful drone strike pushed out by the Defense Ministry to the more personalized, such as a Ukrainian soldier’s video of himself walking about in the wake of a firefight, with the unmistakable swagger of a victor. Demonstrating the power of narrative, the video of his win had some 2.7 million views, overshadowing the fact that the town he defended has since been taken by the Russians. People believed Ukraine was winning and that is what mattered.
4) Mythologizing martyrs
In addition to extolling its heroes winning against the odds, Ukraine also made sure to spread the tales of those lost in the early fighting. The story of sacrifice adds nobility to a cause and also evokes a combination of empathy and anger.
In this war, the classic stories of soldiers battling to the end took online form. One of the most viral was the audio recording from the outnumbered defenders of Zmiinyi, or “Snake Island,” telling the Russians to “Go Fuck Yourself” when asked to surrender. “They will be awarded the title of Hero of Ukraine posthumously,” Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy announced. As with the “Ghost of Kiev,” their story likely ran ahead of the truth (there are reports that they were ultimately captured rather than killed). Regardless, the phrase has now joined other iconic responses in military history, and it’s even been placed on everything from Ukrainian highway signs to T-shirts.
But just as Taylor Swift (the Marie von Clausewitz of information warfare strategy) once advised in a Wall Street Journal essay, the key to not just winning but keeping online hearts and minds is to feed your audience a steady cascade of the related but new. So too has Ukraine pushed out a constant series of online posts about invariably young soldiers who died in some heroic manner, such as sacrificing themselves to blow up a bridge.
5) Showing a Man of the People
Before the war, Zelenskyy was little known outside of the region, while inside Ukraine, polls found him and his party with just 23 percent support. Essentially, he was the least unpopular of a set of deeply unpopular Ukrainian leaders, amid distrust of the government in general. These political dynamics may have tempted Putin to think just a slight push would topple the regime.
The former performer has done so with acts of personal bravery and deft use of messaging. A key has been how he has played simultaneously to multiple audiences: One is the Ukrainian people and soldiers, with Zelenskyy providing the all too rare example of a leader who is right there with them, sharing the very same risks literally in the streets and trenches.
The selfies of the youthful Zelenskyy in the field also stand in stark messaging contrast to the elderly Putin in his cold palace, literally distanced from even his own advisers by absurdly long tables. Yet, Zelenskyy’s “man of the people” messaging is also important to Ukraine’s essential strategic need to influence the audience of the West and its leaders. When he responded with pithy, meme-able remarks like “I need ammunition, not a ride” to American offers to evacuate him from Kyiv at the start of the war, or clapped back on Twitter at Italian leaders, he was hitting both emotive and political needs. Again, every act in a #LikeWar is about connecting the online show to a real-world goal. Zelenskyy demonstrating that that he was personally in the fight was the best way for him to accelerate the aid that Ukraine needed to stay in the fight.
6) Amplifying civilian harm
The justness of the Ukrainian cause has also been bolstered by a steady flow of messaging about the grievous harm the fighting has caused to regular civilians. Russia claims its motivation for invading is to rescue civilians from the supposed atrocities and repression of a Neo-Nazi regime (somehow led by a Jew, but set that aside).
This storyline has instead been countered by images and messages of Russian attacks on the people it is supposedly riding to the aid of. Notable are examples of Russian strikes that don’t just resonate visually but also are clearly and inarguably civilian in nature, such as a Russian missile hitting a playground or a shopping mall. These images and tales are usually captured first by someone on the scene, but then elevated outwards by key nodes in the network, such as official accounts drawing attention to them. Indeed, there have been so many images and videos shared of clear-cut war crimes, such as shelling of ambulances or the killing of children fleeing, that even the International Committee of the Red Cross has subtweeted Russia.
7) Magnifying civilian resistance
Yet, the civilian role is not just to play the victim. Like so many wars, the fight in Ukraine is about political legitimacy. So, it proved hugely important for Ukraine to show not just its soldiers, but its citizens fighting back for their nation. In the narrative of popular resistance, stark contrasts prove the most powerful. The most iconic so far has been the YouTube video of an elderly Ukrainian woman hectoring armed Russian soldiers, “Put sunflower seeds in your pocket so they grow when you die.” Like everything else, it became a meme within hours.
Yet, extending beyond the most famous of these online tales of Ukrainian civilians standing up to Russian soldiers are literally thousands of other examples. They extend from videos of citizens blocking Russian tanks to images of Molotov cocktails with bottle labels saying “Putin is a dickhead.” Perhaps the most brave, though, are the images coming from Russian-occupied territory, showing that the supposedly rescued Ukrainians actually want to be freed from their new captors.
8) Encouraging others to jump on your bandwagon
All this information messaging is really about motivation. And, as any marketer or parent knows, one of the most effective emotions to trigger is the urge to join something that is popular, also known as “bandwagoning.” The small country under attack has become a cause that is popular and growing, and one that you can join in too. The contributions that you can provide range from directly enlisting in the fight (reportedly, over 16,000 foreign fighters, including 3,000 from the U.S., have volunteered to join Ukraine’s forces, many of them veterans of the Iraq and Afghan wars) to providing money and even cryptocurrency.
This stratagem also works in reverse, making your opponent toxic. And, no celebrity, let alone nation, has ever been more effective than Ukraine at calling out corporate brands to name and shame them into acting morally. If there is such a thing as “cancel culture,” the Ukrainians can claim to have honed it in war.
9) Humanizing your side (and let slip the cats of war)
There is an irony that in the online world, where so much of what you present is planned and curated, down to the right lighting for Instagram, authenticity is actually the coin of the realm. The more you can show yourself to be “real,” the more likely your message will win out.
Recognizing this, the Ukrainians have made constant efforts to humanize their side and build empathy. Showing off the-up-close-and-personal reinforces the important sense that these people thousands of miles away, who we’ve never met, are just like us and thus merit our care and support.
This is where the cat can be one of the most powerful weapons of information warfare. Selfies of civilians showing off their “brave” cat in a bomb shelter, soldiers posing with cute kittens or shooting a rifle with “Comrade Kytikat” nestled on top of them invariably draw eyes. One of the more viral posts was an image of a far-right Ukrainian militia unit member holding a cat named “Mikael,” posted with the (likely false, but amusing) claim that this “panther of Kharkiv” helped to expose the location of enemy snipers.
10) Making use of mockery
War is serious business, but it has always involved dark humor, like a counter-sniper cat. And, as humor is one the key emotions that people delight in sharing online, it can also be weaponized.
Russia’s hope for a quick win, both against Ukraine, but also the West in its potential response, depended on over-awing a dispirited foe. Mockery inverts that. By making the attacker the butt of jokes, they become small and the idea of accepting them as the victor becomes absurd.
Ukrainians displaying and mocking woefully ill-prepared Russian soldiers and captured POWs are examples of this. It didn’t just reinforce the above narratives of their wins in human terms but also showed off an enemy that isn’t actually so fearsome.
Displaying your killed or captured opponents (a violation of the Geneva Conventions some believe) has a long tradition in war. But Ukraine took it to new levels by not just sharing trophy tweets, TikToks and YouTube videos of frightened Russian prisoners of war, literally viewed millions of times, but announcing that it was letting the enemy soldiers call their mothers back home in Russia. It’s simultaneously an offer of aid and empathy and a snarky insult.
But Is It Working?
By all measures, the combination of these efforts have been a stunning success inside Ukraine. This is proven most by the very fact that the Ukrainian state and society didn’t collapse the way Russia hoped would happen in the first few days of fighting. Indeed, besides the rapid swing in Zelenskyy’s polling, surveys also show that now 70 percent of Ukrainians believe that their military is the side that will win the war, despite the real combat power disadvantage and territory losses.
This disparity makes the fronts of the information war essential for Ukraine. No matter the attitudes and bravery of its people, Ukraine only has a chance if it enlists the outside world in its fight. And here, the Ukrainian efforts are winning. Nations as far away as Australia and as surprising as Germany have promised military aid to Ukraine, and once unthinkable levels of financial sanctions have been put into place to squeeze the Russian economy. Indeed, when even Switzerland agrees to join sanctions against you (something it wouldn’t even do to Hitler), you have lost the narrative fight.
In the U.S., one could almost get whiplash by how rapidly things have changed from when former President Donald Trump complimented Putin as a “genius” and former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reportedly screamed at a journalist “Do you think Americans care about Ukraine?” Trump has started complimenting Zelenskyy as “brave,” and Pompeo took to tweeting about how supporting Ukraine was the key to stopping Putin. Even Fox News, whose most popular host Tucker Carlson was a prominent early backer of Putin’s side, has recently published stories like “Russian President Vladimir Putin has features of a psychopath” and aired segments such as “Ukrainian civilians volunteer to fight for democracy.” This shift is reflected among the public more broadly, too: Between the beginning and end of February, polling shows that the percentage of Americans who said the U.S. should take Ukraine’s side went from less than the percentage who said the U.S. should remain neutral to more than double it, driven in large part by a 42-point swing in Republican opinion.
Yet, the audience that might matter the most to whether the war ends is inside Russia. Here, the information situation is different than the battles we have seen Ukraine win so vividly. The Putin regime has spent years building up both direct and indirect control of the media, and it uses everything from arrests to “accidental” deaths of activists to reinforce censorship. Indeed, at the start of the war, Putin’s information-shaping was so effective that many Russians did not even know they were at war. The relative popularity of social media platforms also matters. For as much as #SupportUkraine has trended on Twitter and Instagram, the most popular social network for Russians is VK.
But the longer the war goes on, the harder this becomes to sustain. Casualties are difficult to keep quiet and undercut a message of an easy win. Indeed, the fact that Russia’s government has just implemented new laws that threaten 15 years in prison for spreading “fake information” about the military or the war in Ukraine is a sign that the Putin regime fears it is losing this fight.
An essential mission of Ukraine’s information war is to try to further pierce this information bubble, an effort that is already underway. Reportedly, Ukraine’s interior ministry has been reaching out on VK to parents of Russian prisoners of war to let them know that their son is alive but that they should “Go out and protest, overthrow your government before we bury all in Ukrainian soil.” Similarly, in the absence of any Russian government death notices, a “Look For Your Own” website was also created to allow parents of Russian soldiers to submit their DNA information to find out whether their son had been killed in combat in Ukraine. Even that site’s address, 200rf.com, is loaded with meaning. It is a reference to “Cargo 200,” the Russian military term for flying home the bodies of dead soldiers. It is a brutal but potent example of what Ukraine warns is to come on the battlefield and, more importantly, of how Ukraine wants Russia to know it.
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