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Social media and Ukraine’s invasion | #socialmedia | #hacking | #aihp

Ukrainians fleeing the invasion of their country are being given care packages by the Government when they arrive in Ireland.

Among the essentials are phone chargers and SIM cards, supplied with support from the private sector.

The provision of IT and telecommunications equipment as part of Ireland’s humanitarian effort is a reminder of the massive role technology plays in all our lives.

It is vital that Ukrainians fleeing the war are able to stay in contact with those left behind and with loved ones who have fled to other parts of the world.

Many of those who remain in the conflict zones are using technology to document the invasion of their country.

Volunteers reading on their smartphones in the Veteran House building in Ternopil, Ukraine

The war is being watched by millions of people around the world through posts on platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and TikTok.

Social media has played a big role in past conflicts like the Arab Spring and the war in Syria, but experts say that what is happening in Ukraine right now is on a scale never seen before.

Dr Tanya Lokot is an Associate Professor in Digital Media and Society at the School of Communications in Dublin City University. She is also from Ukraine.

“The intensity of what we are seeing now on social media is unlike anything we’ve seen before. It’s not just citizen video of the destruction, there is also a concerted effort by governments and civil society to make all sorts of claims and to inform the public of what is going on,” Dr Lokot said.

Both sides understand the power of social media and governments use a variety of platforms to push information and disinformation.

But it is the documented experiences of ordinary people on the ground that have resonated with many social media users.

A young Ukrainian woman who uses the handle @Valerisssh has more than 600,000 followers on TikTok and a recent video has had almost 40 million views.

In the posts, she documents life in a bomb shelter where she lives with her parents and her dog.

In one video, she can be seen running while air raid sirens ring out across the city.

Using music and emojis, she shows her followers around her cramped living conditions and explores the buildings in her city that have been destroyed by Russian rockets.

Three weeks ago, prior to the invasion of Ukraine, TikTok posts from @Valerisssh mainly consisted of videos of her posing with friends, sipping drinks and miming pop songs.

“We are seeing new vocabularies and grammars on platforms that were not around five years ago. Users are sharing the events that are going on around them using the tools, genres and formats that they are used to,” according to Dr Lokot.

“For people following beauty bloggers and Instagrammers it is very jarring, but I think it is natural because you have young people telling stories that are very real to them,” she said.

“It brings the horrors of war closer to home for people who are far away and for younger people who would not normally engage with traditional news media.”

“It’s not just hard facts, it’s personal stories from the ground and that really helps to fill the information space and not leave a vacuum that can be filled by disinformation,” Dr Lokot said.

Earlier this month, a small group of Ukrainians living in Ireland staged protests at the Dublin headquarters of Meta, the parent company of Facebook, and outside the headquarters of Google.

They called on the tech giants to remove Russian state-backed accounts in order to stop the spread of disinformation.

“War starts in the mind and Russia has been spreading warmongering propaganda for years if not decades and big platforms enable this,” said Artem Nedostup, a Ukranian man who took part in the protests.

Ukrainians protesting outside Meta in Dublin on 2 March

Meta and Google said they were taking action by restricting access to outlets, demoting content and labelling posts but protesters said it was not enough to stop the spread of disinformation.

Russia has continued to impose restrictions on social media throughout the Ukraine invasion.

Yesterday, the country’s communications and media regulator said it was blocking access to Instagram because the platform was spreading what it described as “calls to commit violent acts against Russian citizens, including military personnel”.

It came after Meta, the parent company of Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp, said in a statement that it had “made allowances for forms of political expression that would normally violate our rules on violent speech, such as ‘death to the Russian invaders’.”

“We still won’t allow credible calls for violence against Russian civilians,” a Meta spokesperson said in a statement.

Russian prosecutors branded Meta an “extremist organisation” and claimed the company was using its platforms to incite “mass riots accompanied by violence”.

Last week, Russian President Vladimir Putin outlawed the spreading of “fake information” about the war, an offence punishable by up to 15 years in prison.

Russian President Vladimir Putin

The information crackdown by Moscow means that the potential power of social media in Russia has been blunted.

Russians will not be inspired to rise up in great numbers and protest against the war if they are only seeing state-sponsored propaganda about the conflict.

“I think globally, social media will continue to be an important source of information ensuring that the world’s attention remains focused on Ukraine,” according to Dr Lokot.

“Social media is part of the puzzle along with what’s happening on the ground and diplomatic efforts,” she said.

In recent years, we have seen the rise of the term ‘influencers’ – celebrities or experts who use their massive online following to promote bands and sell products.

There is no denying the enormous marketing strength of social media when it comes to spreading messages and communicating with vast audiences.

It has become another source of conflict in the current war. A powerful tool that some have tried to harness and others have tried to stifle.

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