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What are the implications of Ukraine's civilian resistance going viral?

The war on Ukraine explained: Hear from our experts
Magda Long and Daniela Richterova

PhD Research and Senior Lecturer in Intelligence Studies, Department of War Studies

10 March 2022

Putin’s assault on Ukraine was quickly dubbed the first “social media” or “internet” war. New technologies – smartphones, drones, and satellite imagery – combined with access to social media, have enabled NGOs, activists, journalists, private companies and amateur open-source intelligence (OSINT) analysts to observe Russian military progress.

It has also enabled ongoing atrocities committed by the invading Russian forces to be documented in real-time. Russian military movements are now available via videos on TikTok or public satellite platforms

Some have taken this a step further, using their privately-owned technology and capabilities, to help defend Ukraine. Most notably, Elon Musk donated Starlink satellite dishes to Ukraine in an attempt to aid the country sustain its internet access if more traditional means are cut off. The group of hackers known as Anonymous have deployed their standard cyber playbook against the Russian Federation – allegedly hacking their Ministry of Defence database and multiple state TV channels. Moreover, Bellingcat – an OSINT and fact-checking organisation known for long-term tracking of Russian operations and war crimes in Syria – teamed up with partners to map, document, and verify significant incidents and movements of Russian military forces. Their efforts not only give a powerful visual representation of facts on the ground, but also painstakingly examine the veracity of reported incidents.

Over the past decade, social media and OSINT have played an increasingly prominent role in warfare. The most recent example of this has been the Syrian civil war. It was highly documented on social media, with OSINT used to help track chemical weapons attacks, while foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq relied heavily on online propaganda and social media platforms for recruitment.

However, this is the first time we are witnessing a conglomerate of actors using these tools to carry out a civilian resistance campaign at this scale. Stories of Ukrainians taking up arms, joining newly-established civilian defence units, as well as those of non-violent resistance have been widely shared. We have seen real-time footage of civilians blocking roads with cranes and sandbags, attempting to stop tanks with their own bodies, and attempting to block Russian advance to Zaporizhzhia, Europe’s largest nuclear power plant.

These images create a powerful and appealing resistance narrative. What we are witnessing in Ukraine may well be dubbed as the first online resistance campaign of our time. Although none of these tactics are new, for the first time, we are seeing this multifaceted resistance develop in real time, online. Its viral nature comes with a host of benefits as well as potential pitfalls.

What are the benefits?

Firstly, photos and videos detailing Ukrainian resistance have contributed to a fast-growing virtual pool of OSINT data. This is being used by governments, NGOs, the media, and amateur analysts to assess the nature and strength of the unfolding resistance as well as of the Russian military effort. Moreover, coupled with other OSINT sources, resistance footage can help verify what is being reported.

Secondly, social media enables better coordination between resistance actors and is a force multiplier. In an effort to confuse the invading Russia troops, the Ukrainian roads authority, Ukravtodor, asked citizens via Facebook to help take down street signs across the country. Some even turned to more covert work aimed at spy and saboteur catching. After an open call by the Ukrainian government for citizens to take up arms, and contribute to making weapons, a Lviv-based brewery ceased its beer production in favour of making Molotov cocktails. The Ukrainian General Staff of the Armed Forces also took to social media to share the most effective ways of deploying Molotov cocktail against the enemy. This kind of real-time tactical coordination in wartime using social media platforms is unprecedented.

Thirdly, the viral nature of these resistance efforts coupled with the government’s call for volunteer fighters, has arguably accelerated an influx of foreign fighters arriving in Ukraine. Social media is playing a key role in the Ukrainian government’s recruitment efforts for its newly-established International Legion of Territorial Defense of Ukraine. Out of the reportedly tens of thousands of foreigner nationals or Ukrainians living abroad now joining the fight, many are also sharing real-time tips via social media on what to bring and the best routes to travel to Ukraine.

What are the potential pitfalls?

There is some danger associated with uploading resistance efforts in real-time, given this might aid Russia counter-resistance efforts. Tweeting about how best to reach Ukraine to join the resistance exposes transit networks to infiltration by pro-Russian actors. In a similar vein, concerns have been raised about Elon Musk’s Starlink dishes, which could potentially be used by Russia to target citizens and government facilities hooked to private satellite communication.

Moreover, not all resistance footage or comms may be genuine. For the average viewer, it remains difficult to discern genuine footage from mis- or disinformation. Not to mention that some of this information may very well be deceptive, strategically placed by pro-Russian or indeed pro-Ukrainian actors to manipulate audiences into false conclusions, or to bring fear to some and hope to others. For instance, the story of the Ghost of Kyiv pilot, who was reportedly destroying multiple Russian planes in combat, turned out to be based on footage from a combat flight simulator. Although Russian and Ukrainian online propaganda efforts differ greatly, both control the narrative.

It is yet too early to assess how much this virtual campaign is impacting the real, analogue, resistance efforts. Nevertheless, the past two weeks have shown that although wars and resistance campaigns very much continue to be fought on the ground, an unprecedented number of actors now use the virtual space to boost morale, sustain and coordinate resistance efforts in real time. The upcoming months will provide further insight into the benefits and traps associated with waging such viral resistance campaigns.

In this story

Daniela Richterova

Daniela Richterova

Senior Lecturer in Intelligence Studies

Magda Long

Magda Long

PhD Candidate

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