On February 24, almost immediately after Russia launched a large-scale military invasion of Ukraine, the embattled country’s official Twitter account posted a cartoon depicting Adolf Hitler caressing a childlike Vladimir Putin approvingly on the cheek. The tweet amassed over 1.8 million likes and 400K retweets. The account later replied to its tweet: “This is not a ‘meme’, but our and your reality right now.”
The @Ukraine account continued to send off a spree of tweets directed at Russia, often directly tagging the nation’s official Twitter account:
“Tag @Russia and tell them what you think about them”
“.@Russia = barbaric”
“hey people, let’s demand @Twitter to remove @Russia from here no place for an aggressor like Russia on Western social media platforms they should not be allowed to use these platforms to promote their image while brutally killing the Ukrainian people @TwitterSupport”
Beyond direct attacks at its oppressor, Ukraine has used its Twitter account to crowdfund for its army — raising over $56 million in crypto-asset donations thus far. It’s also shared infographics on how to spot Russian disinformation online, messages of hope and, yes, memes.
It’s a strategic tone the official Twitter account for the country of Ukraine has taken on, reminiscent of the technique major brands utilize on Twitter, a tactic that includes faking sentience, taking part in popular memes and shitposting to seem relatable or outlandish for the purpose of going viral or connecting with consumers. Even before the recent invasion, @Ukraine has posted funny memes in the past about its longstanding tension with Russia. The quote tweets and replies of Ukraine’s Twitter posts reveal a clear connection the account is establishing with internet users.
Dr. Jamie Cohen, an assistant professor at Queens College who teaches media studies, social media and digital activism, tells InsideHook Ukraine’s official Twitter account is not only using “brand account strategy” to appeal to the masses and garner support, but it’s also countering Putin’s propaganda.
“One thing we’ve known as a people is that Russia is good at propaganda. It’s something you’ve heard through your entire life,” Cohen explains. “To see a social media manager operate their meme page in the current vernacular, as in shitposting, in such an exquisite manner is showing that Russia hasn’t kept up with what the current context is of how to communicate on the internet.”
Russia’s propaganda machine has, for years, employed cyberattacks, disinformation campaigns and bots to dupe and destabilize its enemies. We know the nation is scarily advanced at weaponizing social media; however, they seem to have underestimated a major component of it: human connection.
“Russia has spent a lot of time destabilizing democracies across the world. So they do know how to use social media, but they know how to use it in a mechanical way,” says Cohen. “I think Ukraine’s account is a human way.”
Since the conflict began nearly two weeks ago, Ukrainians have staged a digital resistance against Russia, posting videos across TikTok, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram of themselves on the battlefront. One viral video showed a Ukrainian woman accosting Russian soldiers, telling them to carry sunflower seeds so sunflowers would grow when they die on the land. Others show Ukrainians preparing Molotov cocktails and sharing tutorials on how to drive tanks. Meanwhile, the official Ukraine Twitter account is reposting messages of support it has received from people and other countries around the world.
Social media has become a focal point of the ensuing Russian-Ukrainian conflict, and has opened, as The Washington Post argues, “a new dimension of modern war.” Ukraine and its people are using the internet to boost morale, rally global support and embarrass the Russians, “showing how the Internet has become not only a territory to fight over but a tool for real-world conquest.” And in this regard, Ukraine has already won.
“That’s why I think no matter what happens, and this conflict, unfortunately, is going to lead to many more lost lives, but no matter what happens, Russia’s already lost because of this,” says Cohen.
“They could still win strategically, or land-wise, or death-wise, or horror-wise, you name any of the ways they can win. But in the end, the ability to reach the audiences, and the immediacy of the accounts, especially the Ukraine account, has changed the worldview, even in terms of NATO and the EU and finances, because of the zeitgeist that comes from social media.”
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