The Russians are unexpectedly losing the battle on social media. But defeating Putin on the ground is another matter
So is the conflict in Ukraine – as some of the world’s media seem to think, the “TikTok war” – or, more generically, “the first social media war”? As Russian tanks rolled into the country, videos of frightened people huddling together, explosions blasting through urban streets and missiles streaking across Ukrainian skies suddenly replaced TikTok’s usual fare of memes, jokes, fitness and dance videos. “Ukrainian social media influencers,” reported Reuters, “uploaded bleak scenes of themselves wrapped in blankets in underground bunkers and army tanks rolling down residential streets, juxtaposed against photos of blooming flowers and laughing friends at restaurants that honoured more peaceful memories of their home towns. They urged their followers to pray for Ukraine, donate to support the Ukrainian military and demanded Russian users in particular to join anti-war efforts.” TikTok users across the country began livestreaming the war and the buildup of Russian forces, denying Vlad the Invader the ability to dominate the narrative about what was happening.
All of which is impressive. It was a light (sometimes the only light last week) shining in the darkness. What we were seeing, wrote Chris Stokel-Walker on Vice, was the “meme-ification of the Ukraine invasion”. In a networked world, this is supposedly a big deal because memes can be used to dominate the information space – now believed to be an important element of any conflict. The strange thing is that, up to now, we thought that the Russians were the Olympic champions of this stuff.