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Modern war and media narratives

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Ukraine has fought back against Russia harder than anyone expected. But it’s also focused on winning a second war far away from the battlefield: the information and propaganda war.

Kiev has succeeded in amplifying distrust and opposition to the Kremlin inside Russia and around the world by pursuing a highly tech-savvy media messaging campaign, led in part by digital marketing wizard Mykhailo Federov. Working at Ukraine’s Ministry of Digital Transformation, Federov has helped pressure large tech companies like Meta and Apple to leave Russia, and has also built a massive Ukrainian “IT Army” that works to counter Russian narratives and support and amplify what Federov calls Ukraine’s “brand.”

While most Russians have been hearing an entirely different anti-Ukrainian narrative reported by Kremlin-supported news outlets, non-Russian audiences have mainly been hearing about the atrocities committed by Russian troops, the bravery of Ukraine’s defenders and how horribly the war is going for Moscow. Facts aside, this is a strong example of how Ukraine has sapped Russian troop morale and Vladimir Putin’s shock value by undermining the narrative of his military’s actions and governmental decisions at every step.

This has been made all the more effective by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s decision to remain behind and lead the country during wartime instead of leaving. It’s a brave decision that many wouldn’t have the balls for, for sure, but it’s now been elevated to the role of unparalleled mythical grandeur by Western corporate media. It’s become iconic. Ukraine’s messaging campaigns and Western amplification have taken Zelenskyy’s actions from the realm of an honorable stand to the category of otherworldly, almost messianic, heroism.

To be sure, years of tensions between NATO and Russia combined with an American corporate media that’s already refined a portrayal of Vladimir Putin as supernaturally evil and malicious, certainly smoothed the way for Ukraine’s messaging operations to flourish. Indeed, it’s apparent that part of Ukraine’s stunning media impact is the enthusiasm and hunger for taking Ukraine’s side in the conflict that already predominated in Western nations.

But that still doesn’t discount just how impressively Ukraine has demonstrated the power of effective and rapid media messaging during wartime. Ukraine’s Ministry of Culture even has a broad effort designed to dominate social media and legions of volunteers helping out, in addition to Federov’s armies of remotely-linked digital soldiers and cyber warriors. Ukraine flags are all over profiles from people who’ve never been near a warzone but are certain they know exactly what’s going on on the ground. Any discussion of complexity immediately results in accusations of being pro-Russian.

As soon as the war broke out, the made-for-media moments started popping up: the Ukrainian heroes of Snake Island who said “Russian warship fuck off,” before being killed. The brave young Ukrainian soldiers leaving their families to fight on the frontlines, the humanization and sympathy for the women and children fleeing the conflict into Poland. Snake Island’s forces turned out to have been taken prisoner, not killed, but the propaganda value stuck. The thing about propaganda is that its precise truth is besides the point: the emotional impact and narrative of the propaganda, its visceral and central message, is what matters.

Ukraine understands what tabloid media and Western media has already embraced for decades. The clicks on a false headline and the energy that generates have a far greater impact than the drawback of a small correction issued a few days later somewhere on the bottom of a website. You need that first big hit, that emotional whipsaw. You need the power of storytelling, something which Russia has been sorely lacking even domestically. Although many Russians have been whipped into war fever by repetitive Kremlin-backed messaging about the danger of Ukraine, it doesn’t have the same impact.

Why is that?

While Putin has stressed the hypocrisy of Western media who are tearful about Ukraine but ignored the murder of 14,000 pro-Russian individuals in Donbas, his addresses and words have lacked the power of Zelenskyy. He sounds like an angry manager ranting off a list of reasons why employees must be fired. He looks like a frustrated and unhinged old man trapped in a suit and isolated from his advisors. He sounds like somebody you’d want to get away from and avoid, not somebody you would want to fight for.

Even if Putin was being boosted by the majority of the world’s media or was being truthful in his various circuitous justifications for the war, his words wouldn’t be having the same impact that Zelenskyy’s does. It’s not just because Russia’s a much larger country and military than Ukraine and lacks the underdog status. It’s because Putin’s government has a poor understanding of media messaging and narrative control. The Kremlin’s leadership is still playing by 20th century rules in a 21st century information warzone, as Federov himself has said. Russian messaging is still quite effective at home, but it’s not having much of a footprint worldwide, unlike Ukraine.

Zelenskyy looks and sounds the opposite to Putin, and that’s made all the difference in the media war. He looks and sounds like somebody you’d want to follow. He is the underdog, the hero and the noble leader. Maybe all of this is absolutely true, but the point is that with worse presentation and packaging that could still be lost in the fog of war. There’s a reason that the Ukraine conflict has resonated so deeply with many people, and it’s not just because of how awful it is or how cool Zelenskyy’s words are.  And this is crucial to recognize:

Ukraine hasn’t just won the information war, it’s won the image war. French President Emmanuel Macron recently showed up to work unshaven and decked out in a hoodie with a paratrooper logo, clearly trying to emulate Zelenskyy’s iconic ready-to-go wartime appearance that’s become so ingrained in Western media consumers. Zelenskyy has become a living legend. Ukraine has become iconic.

The American and European media is eating it up, repeating Zelenskyy word-for-word and praising him as a Churchillian hero.  Some, such as my former university Professor Waller Newell are even saying Zelenskyy is reestablishing the heroic tradition of manliness for the modern West, and is a return to the ancient Aristotelian ideal of masculinity.

Image is deeply powerful, and Ukraine understands that to an extent many didn’t realize prior to the war. Its messaging and self-depiction (or “brand” as Federov calls it) has been consistent and focused on similar themes: the eternal David fighting off Goliath, the warmhearted family man repelling a detached dictator, the honest citizens of a small nation repelling the faceless, drunken hordes of the foreign invaders. It has also effectively highlighted Russia’s war crimes, shaming corporations and politicians into solidarity.

Some of Russia’s fiercest fighters are Chechens under the command of Putin ally Ramzan Kadyrov. They’ve also been producing a lot of the best propaganda of the war for Russia, but it’s still basically them just looking threatening and not actually doing anything. Ukraine has showcased Russian attacks on its civilians spread far and wide by Western journalists, shown its troops in combat, taking out Russian tanks and retaking areas held by Russia.

Ukraine’s video production hasn’t always been 1080p considering its coming from civilians under attack and soldiers on the frontlines, but its videos have always had the core emotional impact that’s needed for material to hit home with an audience beyond a superficial level.

Ukraine has also dominated social media with viral clips, partly because Russia’s been kicked off Western social media and pro-Russian views or clips are generally censored or removed as disinformation. The power of narrative is not only who has truth on its side, it’s who has the more widely-shared narrative arc. While Russia has shown its own narrative to be largely stale and unbelievable for Western consumers, there’s a reason it still has such a hold over Russian patriots.

An interesting exercise for media and social media consumers to do is to think about if you were a 25-year-old Russian man in 2014. You have an uncle in Ukraine and have been to Odessa once on holiday. Most people you met spoke Russian and it was a fun time.

But now Ukraine says it’s sick of its corrupt pro-Russian leader Viktor Yanukovych and is in the streets protesting. It’s February of 2014 and things are already out of control. Protesters get killed during demonstrations in Kiev’s Maidan, in what’s later proven to be a false flag attack organized by Ukraine’s far right and pro-NATO forces. Your own news sources back this up, and you believe it. It makes sense, because you know that the West has already expanded NATO much more than they agreed to after the end of World War Two.

Now Yanukovych is out of Ukraine and has fled to Rostov in Russia. The government changes hands and conflicts keep flaring up across Ukraine between those who support Russia and those who support NATO. You turn on the news in May and the broadcaster tells you how pro-Russian protesters in Odessa were trapped inside the old opera house and intentionally burned to death. Those who jumped out were beaten by onlookers. You also see video that appears to prove it.

Your friends at work and at school talk about it and you see more disturbing videos from the east of Ukraine. You’ve never had an issue with the country, but you start seeing horrible reports of pro-Russian people in the Donbass having their villages shelled by Ukrainian forces and militias. You see targeted assassinations of pro-Russian officials and images of Ukrainian neo-Nazi militias. What the hell is this?

You start thinking of nightmare images from World War Two, (the Great Patriotic War) where your grandfather died at age 23 fighting off the Nazis. You feel emotionally invested in this conflict now. Ukraine needs to be taken away from these people, you’re sure of it!

Then the tensions get worse. You never cared much about politics and you know Putin is corrupt and fanatical, but when he takes over Crimea it makes sense to you. It was formerly part of Russia anyway, right? The outrage from the Americans and EU sounds crazy to you. Aren’t these the people who just invaded Iraq and Libya? What moral high ground do they have to interfere in Russia’s business and sanction its government?

The years grind on and it’s 2022. Russia seems to be doing better, but you sometimes still hear rumblings about how NATO is expanding and trying to station missiles at the edge of Russia, maybe even biological weapons facilities. It’s creepy and angers you. When Luhansk and Donetsk in the Donbas declare independence and Putin recognizes it you message your friends and you all cheer.

When the invasion starts you’re cheering them on, and even considering joining the army. Somebody needs to fix the situation, why not you? You sew an orange ribbon of St. George in a “Z” shape on your favorite jacket. You know who’s right and it’s simple: Russia is right.

As we can see from the above exercise, the power of modern war and media narratives is significant. It’s not just what you’re exposed to at any one time. After all, our hypothetical Russian may have had exposure to Western social media and news at various times. But his predisposition to believe his own side and the seeds which had been planted made the rest of the story fit.

How would a Russian who believes Ukrainian Nazis burned Russians alive in 2014 and shelled schoolkids in Donbas every day for years now believe these people are fighting to defend democracy?

How would a Ukrainian who watched Russia shoot down Flight MH17 and execute political opponents in Ukraine for decades under the Soviet Union now believe Russia cares about protecting civilians in Donbas?

Narratives are powerful because they are comprised of many pieces which fit together into a complete structure. They often contain elements of truth and untruth. One narrative can certainly be more true than another narrative.

But the point here is to take a critical look at overly black-and-white storylines which you are being told, particularly when human suffering is being used as as the proof that a specific political or historical view is true.

Russia doesn’t have the right to take over Ukraine because people were killed in Donbas.

The West doesn’t have the right to starve Russians with sanctions because Putin is a war criminal.

We’re not living in a fairy tale. This war is real and the millions of Ukrainian refugees are real. But we can never afford to forget the narratives that are built to lead us to certain black-and-white conclusions.

Even if we choose to largely believe in one narrative or another, it’s crucial as members of a better world that we start being more conscious about the stories we are told and why we are told them.

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