How Ukraine is winning the social media war

Screenshot of a Ukrainian social media campaign

Ukraine’s plea for more French Caesar howitzers – in a humorous romantic video

After almost eight months, the war in Ukraine is at stake. Ukrainian counter-offensives continue to advance while Russian forces continue to exert pressure elsewhere.

But on the internet it’s a very one-sided affair.

“This is a meme nation,” says Olena, a Kiev entrepreneur who leads teams of social media volunteers.

“If this was a meme war, we would win.”

Olena is not her real name. Due to the sensitive nature of the work she and her teams are doing on behalf of Ukraine’s Defense Ministry, she has asked to remain anonymous.

Its teams work around the clock, responding within hours to news from around the country and producing powerful videos, often with soundtracks, for the ministry’s audiences at home and abroad.

Just as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky tailors speeches to foreign parliaments to reflect local history, culture and sensibilities, Olena’s five-strong international team targets his messages.

A June video thanking Britain for its military support included music by Gustav Holst and The Clash with insights into Shakespeare, David Bowie, Lewis Hamilton and a montage of British anti-tank weapons in action.

More recently, French President Emmanuel Macron’s decision to supply Caesar self-propelled guns has been welcomed a video that explained, “Romantic gestures take many forms”.

Images of red roses, chocolates, the Paris skyline followed by the guns in action were set – perhaps inevitably – to the sound of Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin’s breathless Je T’aime Moi Non Plus.

With allusions to a Macron-Zelensky bromance, it was suggestive and thoroughly tongue-in-cheek.

Olena says one of her favorite “thank you” videos praised Sweden for being good value for money in Ukraine: $20,000 (£17,900) Carl Gustav missile launchers capable of knocking out Russian T-90 tanks worth $4.5 million.

The melody? You guessed it: Abbas money, money, money.

Defense of Ukraine - video tweet thanking Sweden

Defense of Ukraine – video tweet thanking Sweden

Thanks to the team’s efforts, the Department of Defense Twitter feed now has 1.5 million followers around the world. Some of the videos have been viewed more than a million times.

Her most successful video, released in August after several mysterious attacks on Russian targets in annexed Crimea, has garnered 2.2 million views. It mocked Russians for vacationing in the peninsula and was set on the Bananarama song Cruel Summer.

“The main idea is to speak to the international audience and show that Ukraine is actually capable of winning,” she says. “Because nobody wants to invest in losers.”

But another team of Olena is conducting more subversive work aimed at revealing Russian losses and to demoralize the invaders of Ukraine.

Targeted at Russian audience

With a plethora of videos showing backlashes by the Russian military posted to social media platforms, the team has no shortage of material. But they’ve learned through trial and error what works and what doesn’t.

“We started exhibiting dead Russian corpses,” says Olena. “And then we realized that it didn’t actually work. It just united them against us.”

The team then tried to appeal to the consciences of Russian soldiers by showing pictures of dead Ukrainian civilians. Again it seemed to fall on deaf ears.

“We realized that they were actually proud of it. They didn’t condemn it at all,” she says. “We realized that we have to be much more sophisticated about this.”

Screenshot from a Ukrainian video

Ukrainian videos warn the Russians of further major losses

Now the volunteers are investigating Russian social media platforms to push buttons and probe vulnerabilities in specific parts of the country.

“If you do it in Saratov, you need to know what’s going on in Saratov,” says Olena. “If you do it in Nizhny Novgorod, you have to know what’s going on in Nizhny Novgorod.”

It is extremely difficult to gauge the impact of this work, but the recent partial mobilization of Vladimir Putin has provided volunteers with plenty of material to work with.

“We were waiting for the mobilization,” says Olena. “We knew it would be very demoralizing for them.”

The richest source of material can be found at the news service Telegram. Olena calls it “the Wild Wild West”.

The volunteers who provide Department of Defense materials are just a small part of a vast, vibrant, fiercely patriotic, and fiercely irreverent community that responds to events on the ground, sometimes with amazing speed.

On 10/8/22, tank trucks burn on the Kerch Bridge

The Ukrainians quickly took advantage of the dramatic attack on the Russian Kerch Bridge in information warfare

Numerous Telegram channels attract a large number of followers.

One called “Ukrainian Offensive” has 96,485 followers. Its slogan is “fighting on the civilian meme front of information warfare since 2014”.

It offers a wealth of military updates, outright trolling over Moscow, and the occasional dig at Western media coverage (including the BBC).

Like most other channels, it doesn’t shy away from showing sorrow, including footage of dead or dying Russian soldiers.

The latest explosion on Russia’s Kerch Bridge, which connects Russia to occupied Crimea, has been triggered a tidal wave of videos, jokes and memes how the Ukrainian internet army celebrated wildly.

But the country didn’t become a nation of digital ninjas overnight. Eight years of war in the eastern Donbass region has given people plenty of time to hone their skills, from countering disinformation to spreading humorous content meant to boost morale.

More on information warfare:

The current social media environment, says Ihor Solovey, head of the Center for Strategic Communications and Information Security of Ukraine, reflects a rare convergence of official and popular sentiments.

“We are witnessing perhaps for the first time in history civil society trusting and helping the state,” he told me.

“The armed forces do their own thing while society creates content, memes, creative works of its own. Because everyone feels responsible for their own future.”

What, if anything, is Russia throwing back at Ukraine?

Oddly enough, given Russia’s reputation for troll farms and shady scammers with alleged Kremlin ties, the answer seems to be: not much.

Earlier this month, two well-known Russian pranksters managed to trick Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba into believing he was speaking to a former US ambassador to Moscow, Michael McFaul.

Excerpts were broadcast in Russian state media in which Mr Kuleba appeared to admit that Ukraine was responsible for the recent attacks in Crimea and Russia – although the prank was played before the Kerch Bridge explosion on October 8.

But if Russia has a similarly inventive internet army, Olena says she’s seen little sign of it.

“The Russians didn’t manage to come up with anything interesting,” she says. “No humor, no beauty. Not even pain. No compassion.”

Hacker mural on the streets of Kyiv

A mural of a hacker has appeared on the streets of Kyiv