Illustration by Vincent Kilbride

War as a mediated catastrophe

Zelensky the social media influencer is framing the narrative of the Russian invasion
April 7, 2022

Most of us are lucky enough not to be on the frontlines in Kharkiv or Mariupol, and thus our understanding of Russia’s invasion and Ukraine’s response is necessarily through the lens of a TV camera or now, more often, the mobile phone. Media is an inescapable part of the war, with everyone from government officials to Ukrainian refugees shaping the global narrative, while Russia has moved back to the days of centralised media control, threatening lengthy prison sentences for anyone who steps outside the state’s preferred nomenclature of a “special military operation.” The predictable result of this media crackdown has been the closure of Russia’s few remaining independent media outlets, such as the fearless Novaya Gazeta,  and the departure of major international bureaus including that of the New York Times. 

Think back to the Arab Spring, that brief period from 2010-2012 where it looked as if a wave of democratic protest would transform the Middle East and North Africa forever. Protesters famously embraced social media to co-ordinate their efforts and communicate what was happening on the ground, while Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak sought to cut the country off from the internet to stop protest movements spreading. Triumphant headlines declared Facebook one of the winners from the Arab Spring, as it emerged as a key technology behind the revolution. There’s some truth to that narrative. The Arab Spring actually began in Tunisia, where protests in Sidi Bouzid triggered by the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi were broadcast on Facebook, the only video-hosting site the government headed by Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali had not blocked. Tunisia was generally a closed country for journalists, but demonstrators documented these protests and shared them with activists in the diaspora, who passed them to Al Jazeera and other international networks.

The role of social media at the beginning of the Arab Spring was to demonstrate to Tunisians that protest was possible, and then to demonstrate to others in the Arab world that a revolution against closed, dictatorial regimes could succeed. The cause ultimately proved fragile, as the groups that found shared purpose in ousting a dictator found little common ground on questions of their national future after the departure of those dictators. It’s easy to forget, now that Egypt is back under military control, that we naively believed that the internet might herald a radically different future for democracy around the world.

The media dynamics in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine are strikingly different. Russia, over the course of Putin’s presidency, has moved towards a closed media environment evocative of Mubarak’s or Ben Ali’s. Putin and his inner circle have concluded that television is the key medium through which Russian citizens understand reality, and by controlling the broadcast narrative, they have created an almost all-encompassing reality for many Russian citizens. But this reality is wholly unconvincing to anyone outside of its sphere of influence.

Here is where Ukraine’s Zelensky has proven a fascinating wild card. A successful actor and entertainer before becoming leader of Ukraine, one would presume Zelensky to be a polished master of broadcast communication. But his style of media use is quite different. Consider a video from Zelensky on 7th March, 12 days into the war. It is shot on his mobile phone and begins looking out of the window of his office onto a Kyiv street. He turns the camera on himself, unshaven, wearing his signature army-green t-shirt, and walks through a short hallway from the window to his desk, where there’s a quick cut to a tripod-mounted camera capturing him from traditional press conference distance.

These 20 seconds are a little moment of cinematic genius. Zelensky establishes a proof of life. He is alive in Kyiv in his office, unafraid, making the joke that during a war, every day is Monday. But it also establishes Zelensky as a creator, a maker of media, someone who is telling his own story—as so many others are doing on YouTube, TikTok and other participatory media platforms, from the soldiers documenting their Javelin missile strikes to the social media influencer who’s dyed her tongue blue and yellow. 

The video evokes Zelensky’s improbable rise to power. He was an actor who once played a history teacher who took the presidency of Ukraine after becoming a viral video star. The real Zelensky named his political party after his television show, Servant of the People, and ran for the presidency on more or less the same platform, using selfie videos to bypass traditional political dialogues. He’s continued the practice, releasing daily videos via Telegram.

Digital media in the Arab Spring was a way of evading traditional government censorship. It was a straightforward statement that people cannot be silenced, because they will find a way to tweet and livestream their movements. While the media was amateurish and often hard for viewers who lacked local context to watch, the global viewer was not the point: the target audience was fellow citizens who could take to the streets. But the international media got extremely skilled at knitting together pieces of livestreamed video and tweets from the ground into a single narrative that conveniently aligned with a larger western political narrative of democracy’s inescapable spread.

Something very different is going on when Zelensky records himself.

Trump may have been the first social media president, using Twitter to speak directly from his id. Zelensky is the first social media influencer to be president, carefully and thoughtfully constructing media for two key audiences. Telegram, a popular messaging network which remains unblocked in Russia, allows Zelensky, a native Russian speaker, to talk directly to the Russian people, as he did in an impassioned plea for them to rise up against Putin’s war. But Zelensky also knows these short, viral videos will be amplified, remixed, recontextualised and spread around the world. 

Early in the war, Zelensky and his cabinet appear clustered together in the dark outside the presidential building. Zelensky is here to dispel the rumour that he has fled Ukraine, like so many other post-Soviet leaders under attack. He announces: “the head of government is here. The head of the president’s office is here. Prime minister Shmyhal is here. Adviser Podolyak is here. The president is here. We’re all here. Our soldiers are here. Our citizens are here.” The Ukrainian word for here—tut—rings out like a chorus. It is a moment made for remixing and, within hours, the internet had taken up his invitation. I find the video in my Twitter stream, subtitled in English, set atop a gritty, atmospheric soundtrack that evokes a Wu-Tang Clan album. Soundscape in place, Zelensky and his advisers are not only leaders facing possible assault, they are gangsters, standing up for their turf against an implacable enemy who has not been able to shake them from the ground where they stand. 

Did Zelensky know he would be remixed as a hip-hop video? Probably not. Is he carefully constructing videos for transmission on Telegram or TikTok? Almost certainly yes. None of this will matter if Kyiv falls, if Zelensky is killed or if Ukraine becomes a Russian satellite. Social media, no matter how well produced, cannot stop missiles or halt tanks. But social media may be able to persuade international allies to provide Javelin missiles, which are surprisingly effective at stopping tanks.

Zelensky the influencer, like the Ukrainian babushka who offered sunflower seeds to Russian soldiers so that flowers may grow from their dead bodies, is framing a narrative of the war in which brave Ukrainians are standing up to an unjust invasion. We may remember this moment when an influencer president with less pure motives than Zelensky picks up his phone and authors his view of the future.