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The Implications of Social Media On the Ukraine Crisis

By Sarah Druhan


Photo: The Washington Post – Source


As the tragic situation in Ukraine evolves, Russia continues its violent attempted invasion, prompting a rare emergency meeting of the United Nations General Assembly as Russia continues its airstrikes focused largely on Ukraine’s capital Kyiv. Unfortunately for the many citizens of Ukraine that have been forced to evacuate their homes, take up arms to defend against the Russian army, or who even have lost their lives to the full-scale invasion, nobody in the world can guess right now how this situation will develop. While many have begun comparing this crisis to the events of the World Wars that shook the European continent over half a century ago, there are some notable factors that grimly mark it as a true conflict of the modern age—one of them being how views of this act of war have been both presented and impacted by social media.


Volydymyr Zelenskyy, Ukrainian statesman who has served as president of the country since 2019, made headlines when he informed President Biden that he would not accept the American offer to evacuate him from the war zone. The politician has committed to remaining in Ukraine and staying strong for his people, pressuring American forces for ammunition instead of evacuation and calling for immediate swearing in of Ukraine to the United Nations. Zelenskyy’s speech to the United Nations on the sixth day of Russian attacks, in which he pledged loyalty to his country and stressed the need for European-Ukrainian unity, received a unanimous standing ovation. These actions caused a wave of response on social media and around the world: Zelenskyy is currently being hailed as a “modern-day Winston Churchill” in news publications, and being touted as a hopeful for the Nobel Peace Prize on Twitter.


Unsurprisingly, though, many other social media takes of the Zelenskyy situation have been deemed in bad taste. Mostly American Twitter users have created memes, fancams, and thirst traps centering around the president as he tries to defend his country from the ongoing destruction. Twitter accounts have even teamed up to fan cast Jeremy Renner as the Ukrainian president in the “Avengers”-style movie that they are already planning about the crisis. While these kinds of ideas claim to be coming from a good place, they have already received heavy backlash for ‘Hollywood’-izing a horrific tragedy as news of more attacks and more deaths pour in from Ukraine. In this “[capitalization] off of war”, many on Twitter called these trending posts to be the “most pathetic and tasteless thing you could possibly be thinking about right now”.


These kinds of Tweets and social media posts about the situation in Ukraine have been cited as clear markers of privilege from people who live far from the war zone and choose to find cheap entertainment in the situation. Mugs and T-shirts with Zelenskyy’s face on them have cropped up in overwhelming numbers in Etsy shops and online advertisements, but it’s almost guaranteed that the vast majority of these profits will not actually go to the struggling nation that Zelenskyy oversees. Inundations of posts of this vein threaten to suffocate any actual ways to help Ukraine on social media, or any posts trying to get word out about the situation as it develops all too quickly. Online America often tends to cast itself as the ‘main character’ in world events, fictionalizing and diminishing tragedies even as it claims to be offering support. Perhaps the most damningly literal of these examples can be seen in photos on Twitter in which Zelenskyy’s face has been Photoshopped on top of Captain America’s, the fictional figure’s shield edited to be in the colors of the Ukrainian flag even as it bears the star reminiscent of those on the American one.


As always, though, social media in these current times is ever a double-edged sword. The internet has allowed news of the crisis to reach the rest of the globe at a speed that it obviously never could have fifteen or twenty years ago, having the ability to both keep world governments updated and Ukrainians around the world updated on the situation in their cities and in their families. There have certainly been links and ways to directly help these Ukrainian refugees spreading around the web like wildfire. And Zelenskyy himself has remained relentlessly active on social media, becoming a symbol of hope to Ukrainians through his visible dedication to the city of Kyiv and the country at large in these calamitous times. “The president is here,” Zelenskyy told the people of Ukraine in a video that he filmed of himself, standing in the streets of Kyiv, and posted to Twitter. “We’re all here. Our soldiers are here. Our citizens are here. We are all here defending our independence, our country. And it will stay that way.” The accessibility and visibility of social media has been a deeply effective way for Zelenskyy to both act as support to his citizens under attack and to stand as a defiant force against Putin and the invading country of Russia. It’s something that he seems aware can completely reshape global attitudes toward atrocities, and possibly even fuel hope toward their outcomes.


It’s important to remember on social media how easy it can be to trivialize tragedies, or unintentionally use global events as fodder for entertainment. Despite all this, social media remains one of the most relevant aspects of modern culture, and can still act as an incredibly powerful tool in how this crisis is reacted to and in quickly accruing help. Regardless, the lives of Ukrainian citizens must be prioritized now more than ever as the world looks on to see what this worrying situation will come to.