In an age where large swathes of political debates and developments unfold on social media, platforms such as VKontakte (VK) – the Russian equivalent of Facebook, TikTok, and Telegram are invaluable in examining how ordinary Russians feel about their country’s invasion of Ukraine.
Well over one year into the full-scale invasion, researchers rely on limited channels and resources to bypass Russia’s isolation, heavy monitoring, and censorship. From infantry soldiers to citizens with friends and family on the frontline, social media platforms continue to give an intimate look into the perspectives of people who would otherwise be inaccessible.
The percentage of Russians who have access to social media is not a representative sample of the population as a whole. Connectivity and technology vary throughout the region and the use of VPNs further plays a significant role in accessing content outside of Russia.
Nevertheless, online platforms give crucial context to the perceptions which have allowed the war to develop and continue. They also provide an opportunity to examine the true extent of the Russian media’s reach and whether the narratives found inside their small screens differ from what is projected on their big ones.
Scrolling through strife
In a time of conflict, social media acts as both a diary and a scorekeeper – recording intimate thoughts and cataloguing political, social, ideological, and personal debate.
The use of ‘burner’ accounts – anonymous profiles which are often temporary – to access popular wartime channels on Telegram and scroll through profiles on VK and TikTok are on the front line of social media intelligence (SOCINT) work.
Since the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion, open source defence investigators include posts, conversations and other data extrapolated from these platforms into daily intelligence reports. Consistent interaction with similar material shapes the algorithm on TikTok and VK, so that the suggested content on an open-source analyst’s newsfeed mirrors the content viewed by the people they follow.
This fundamental approach to social media engagement gives researchers better insight into the information that ordinary Russian citizens are continually interacting with regarding Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Or lack thereof. Many VK Users make a conscious choice to use their digital presence in a way that blocks out the realities of war. A strong layer of distraction, dissociation, and apathy blankets the platform, thickening the fog of war and blurring Russian opinions and perceptions of the conflict further.
These traits in Russia’s digital society are helped along by the very nature of online forums that are already used as a form of escapism in day-to-day non-conflict situations. It stands to reason that a platform such as VK, owned by the son of a well-known Kremlin official, facilitates this form of apathy and diverts attention from a messy and polarizing conflict.
When a new user registers to use VK, the ‘suggested content’ is highly unlikely to be current events. Instead, the usual fashion trends, culinary topics, travel ideas, and pictures of animals give the new user the ready option of a bubble-wrapped existence.
The two-way feedback loop between algorithmic user engagement implies this is the content the average VK user seeks to interact with. In her recent book Russia’s War Jade McGlynn attributes the dissociative apathy and depoliticization seen across Russian social media profiles to a consistent cycle of unresolved trauma which comes from a pattern throughout Russian history of severe crimes going unpunished and perpetrators staying in power.
Added to this is the highly corrosive nature of fear. With draconian crackdowns for the most passive of protests, McGlynn notes that many Russians express a hopeless bitterness as they keep their heads down and go about their days, attempting to ignore current events.
Vilification, othering, and deflection
Delving into the online presence of Russians who actively support and justify the war yields results which alienate and vilify Ukraine and its leadership. Many channels across Telegram and TikTok – several with strong indications of Wagner affiliation – put out ‘information’ videos, links and sources that demonstrate a clear inability to view Ukraine through a postcolonial lens.
Interweaving footage of Ukrainian fighters with Nazi imagery is peppered throughout the footage found on Russian Telegram and TikTok, along with videos supposedly showing Nazi paraphernalia left in deserted Ukrainian bunkers.
Ukrainian troops are also shown shouting or edited from every possible angle to be framed in a threatening light. Footage of Ukrainian children from occupied territories are shared throughout TikTok and Vk. The videos show them singing in celebration of these ‘annexations’, thanking the Russian army for saving them from the horrors of the ‘dirty Ukrainian army’.
By way of contrast, there are videos edited and spliced together profiling and portraying the benevolent Russian soldiers, there to carry out an unsavoury but necessary task and filled with imagery reminiscent of Mother Russia.
Examples include helping a little girl pick up her school supplies or greeting a babushka waving a Soviet flag. This imagery has gone viral within Russia, boosting morale, and reinforcing a sense of purpose for the invasion.
Although this helps assuage the loved ones of soldiers on the frontline, the most effective narratives observed in SOCINT that help justify the invasion of Ukraine in pro-Russian spaces are the ones preying on perceived weaknesses and past historical mistakes – a longstanding tactic from the Soviet era.
One TikTok video lacking any credible source claimed Ukraine’s first lady Olena Zelenska spent more than 40,000 euros in Paris during her visit appealing for aid. Multiple versions of the April 2023 US intelligence leak, often edited, circulate in prevalent wartime Telegram chats to serve as proof of US and NATO involvement and stoke the fervour of Russophobia and the ‘us vs them’ mindset which has been so crucial in the Kremlin’s justification of the invasion.
The same narrative finds its way onto VK to justify exactly why the ‘special military operation’ is taking so long: ‘We are going about it slowly and carefully. Would you rather we carpet bombed like the US does?’
The bottom line is popular support
The power of this rhetoric is that it diffuses from posts in Russian chatrooms, newsfeed, and comment sections into international forums of media and debate. Bolstered by out-of-context clips of international media, they become effective in spreading misconceptions which appeal to ‘softer’ political views about Russia, and encourage ‘Ukraine fatigue’ at the onset of Kyiv’s Spring offensive.