How Ukrainians have used social media to humiliate the Russians and rally the world

Hundreds of people take shelter inside a subway station as explosions are heard in downtown Kharkiv, Ukraine, on Feb. 24. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)

Ukrainians and their supporters have used social media to bruise, belittle and humiliate the Russians, seeking to boost citizens' spirits and sap invaders' morale during the most Internet-accessible war in history.

A flood of real-time videos across Facebook, Telegram, TikTok and Twitter has blunted Kremlin propaganda and rallied the world to Ukraine's side as it fights to defend its democracy from a military behemoth.

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It has also potentially saved lives: Ukrainians have raced to disseminate defensive strategies, plot escape routes and document the brutality of a raging clash. Some expect that the phone footage recorded in recent days could play a critical role in investigating war crimes after the combat ends.

Russia has long been fabled as the Internet's most wily mischief-maker, and the nation's propaganda machine has for years used social and state-backed media to deceive and disempower its enemies.

But Ukraine has in many ways begun to beat Russia at its own game, using constant, colorful communication to foment a digital resistance and expose its aggression on a global stage.

The tactics reveal how social media has opened a new dimension of modern war, showing how the Internet has become not only a territory to fight over but a tactic for real-world conquest.

It has also helped Ukrainians feel they can contribute to the fight. Solomiia Shalaiska, a Kyiv-based motion designer, said she felt helpless until she started posting pro-Ukraine rally images on an Instagram page she previously used for art and design.

One image - a David-and-Goliath-style map of both countries titled "Realize the Scale of Ukrainian Heroism" - has been "liked" more than 100,000 times in the last day. Shalaiska said she has joined the nation's nascent "IT army" of volunteer hackers and hell-raisers, who have worked to counter Russian psychological operations by overwhelming their websites and flooding their intelligence officers with spam. (Shalaiska said she has helped mostly by spreading information and reporting bots.)

"It's very important to [strengthen] the national spirit in Ukraine, that's why people are doing memes and encouraging images," she said in an Instagram message. People "should have sources where they can find not only Russian propaganda."

The videos helped mobilize antiwar sentiment in the earliest hours of the invasion, when a woman was recorded admonishing Russian soldiers to carry seeds "so at least sunflowers will grow here when you die." In another Facebook photo, a funeral wreath with Russian President Vladimir Putin's name on it was captioned: "In Ukraine, the Russian army is greeted with flowers."

In the days since, videos have helped transform local stories of bravery into viral legends - and exposed a war Russia has fought to keep concealed. Ukrainians have posted videos of themselves thwarting tanks, guarding villages, making molotov cocktails and using them to turn Russian vehicles into fireballs.

As Russia's troubled blitz has smashed against a defiant resistance, some Ukrainian fighters have tactically trolled the enemy. In one video, a camouflaged soldier talks into the camera at his Russian opponents while screwing a silencer onto a rifle. "Dudes, you are f---ed," he says with a smirk. "We have tanks. We've got everything. . . . Why don't you f---ing surrender while you still have the chance?"

Ukrainians have also used social media to spur on fellow civilian defenders. Kira Rudik, a member of Parliament, posted a photo of herself barefoot and holding a Kalashnikov rifle to Instagram and Twitter, saying, "Our #women will protect our soil the same way as our #men." The Ukrainian rock star Andriy Khlyvnyuk and a former Miss Ukraine, Anastasiia Lenna, also posted photos of themselves with guns in hand.

The posts have highlighted Russia's most embarrassing tactical and logistical errors, puncturing the nation's carefully crafted image of military supremacy with videos of grungy vehicles and an inexperienced fighting force.

In one video, a Ukrainian man ridicules Russian soldiers stranded after their tank ran out of fuel. In another, a tractor driver appears to tow a Russian armored personnel carrier down the road.

Other posts have become potent tools for strategy and intimidation, helping Ukrainians share videos and intelligence about the code signs of Russian saboteurs, the charred husks of Russian military vehicles and the looted bodies of dead enemy troops.

Ukrainians have also shared online tactical guides on how to dodge sniper fire, block roadways and make explosive molotov cocktails, sometimes alongside memes saying the Russians will find them "very delicious."

When John Spencer, head of urban warfare studies at the U.S. Military Academy's Modern War Institute, on Saturday tweeted a guide for how "civilian resistors" could strike fear in the hearts of attacking Russians, Ukrainian users translated it almost immediately, sharing it across Telegram and making digital fliers.

Spencer, a 25-year military veteran who said the tweet has been viewed more than 10 million times, said he'd been inspired by photos of Ukrainian grandmothers volunteering to take up arms.

"This is kind of the new way of warfare," he said. "There's no more going away to war. We're all with Ukraine right now."

The videos have captured the daily absurdities and turmoil of a country stormed by force, with Ukrainians sharing videos of themselves singing the national anthem and chanting in protest outside an outpost in the Russian-occupied city of Berdyansk. A day earlier, a man was recorded removing an explosive mine by hand while puffing a cigarette.

But they have also helped expose the urgency and inhumanity of an urban slaughter. Early Monday, minutes after cluster bombs plunged into a neighborhood in Ukraine's second-biggest city, Kharkiv, people nearby used social media to document the grisly aftermath.

Ukraine's underdog defense is nevertheless staring down a stark reality: that a fierce onslaught of troops and tanks, regrouping after early losses, continues to charge toward the capital. The glory of the scrappy resistance, less than a week into the invasion, could turn at any moment, and no amount of online victory will change that fact.

But the information they've surfaced could help define how the world remembers the conflict. During a United Nations meeting Monday, Ukrainian Ambassador Sergiy Kyslytsya read from what he said was a screenshot of a killed Russian soldier's phone: "We are bombing all of the cities together, even targeting civilians. We were told that they would welcome us."

Peter W. Singer, a security expert and author of the book "LikeWar," said social media has proved to be an effective tool in helping sway public perceptions. Ordinary Ukrainians, he said, have used it to show how similar their lives are to those of people watching them around the world. And their national leaders have used it to broadcast themselves among the people and in the fight.

"You can't disentangle the information side of the war from the physical battlefield side or from the geopolitical diplomacy side" anymore, he said. "They all matter."

Ukrainian citizens' social media prowess has been reflected by their government, which on Friday tweeted a photo of its tank-destroying missile launchers with a flexing-bicep emoji and a note: "Welcome to hell."

Ukraine's road management agency has also urged citizens on Facebook to dismantle road signs and build barricades of burning tires to disorient the Russians. One post's photo showed a road sign altered to say, "Go f--- yourselves."

Ukrainians "will resist on every street, every road," one post Saturday said. "Let them be afraid to even look in the direction of our cities!" (Some road signs now read, "Good luck.")

In Kharkiv, the governor used Telegram to coach residents to "stay at home and hide during the complete destruction of the Russian enemy in the city." A local Telegram channel urged its 400,000 subscribers to "carefully film" and share video of passing Russian troops so Ukrainian fighters could hunt them down.

Other local Ukrainian leaders used social media to announce their surrender: Gennady Matsegora, the pro-Russian mayor of Kupyansk, said in a video message on the city council's Facebook page that he had voluntarily acceded to a takeover after the Russian military advanced.

Ukraine's Interior Ministry has used the Internet to foment dissent back in Russia, posting photos and videos of killed or captured Russian soldiers on a website and Telegram account and directing their family members to call on Putin to end his "illegal and despicable order," as a Ukrainian official explained on YouTube. The sister of one injured sniper-unit commander told the Guardian she was shocked to learn he was even at war.

"We have captured around 200 Russian soldiers, some around 19 years old. Not trained at all. Badly equipped," Ukrainian Maj. Gen. Borys Kremenetsky told reporters Saturday. "We allow them to call their parents. Parents completely surprised."

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, a former TV actor, has posted videos nearly every day to his 1.1 million-subscriber Telegram channel, allowing him to quickly undermine the kinds of false-flag operations and phony rumors that Russia has often weaponized against its opponents.

After Russian media suggested that he'd fled the country, Zelensky shared a video of himself and his top officials together in central Kyiv: "We're all here. Our soldiers are here. Our citizens are here. . . . And it will stay that way." In another selfie video posted Saturday, he swatted down reports that he'd called for a surrender by saying: "We won't lay down our arms. We will defend our state."

Ukraine's defense minister, Oleksii Reznikov, has shown similar pluck through daily Facebook posts, calling on viewers to share images of Russia's assault ("You are our weapon"), posting selfies with Zelensky ("Bullying Ukrainians is useless") and offering amnesty and cash to invaders who surrender (and saying "there will be no mercy" for those who don't).

The Kremlin, in a likely attempt to block Russians from the reality of a vicious war, has restricted access to Facebook and Twitter, prohibited journalists from citing anyone other than official government sources, and banned the use of accurate descriptive words, such as "invasion" and "war."

Russia's state-backed propagandists have since the invasion told citizens only that the country is conducting a small "special military operation" in eastern Ukraine. On Friday, Putin urged citizens of the country he attacked to overthrow their government's "gang of drug addicts and neo-Nazis," which he blamed for provoking the conflict.

Russia has benefited from its own form of social media intimidation: The Chechnyan leader Ramzan Kadyrov, a Putin backer long accused of human rights abuses, shared a video Sunday of an armed convoy with the 285,000 followers of his TikTok account.

But Ukraine's transparency has helped fuel an international protest movement, even among Russians. The Russian tennis player Andrey Rublev wrote "No War Please" on a camera lens at a championship tournament in Dubai. And Danila Kozlovsky, a Russian film star, posted an Instagram photo telling Putin, "Only you can stop this terrible disaster."

Experts outside Ukraine's borders have taken notice. "For all the fears over the last nearly 10 years about the Russian hybrid/information warfare capabilities and troll armies, they have completely lost the information war over this invasion of Ukraine," tweeted Dmitri Alperovitch, a cybersecurity researcher and chairman of the cybersecurity think tank Silverado Policy Accelerator.

The raw candor and emotion of Ukraine's resistance are already paying off. In a video call from Kyiv late Thursday with European Union leaders, Zelensky pleaded for their help and said it may be the last time they saw him alive. Some, moved to tears, told The Washington Post they'd responded by pushing forward aggressive measures designed to punish the Russian regime.

U.S. lawmakers hope it's making an impact. Ukrainians' recording of the war, Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, said Sunday on CNN, should drive home to Putin that he has "badly miscalculated how hard the people of Ukraine would fight and the nature of the world's response."

There is a risk in overstepping the truth in pursuit of a mythically good tale. After Zelensky said 13 guards on Snake Island, an outpost in the Black Sea, had "died heroically" after radioing a passing Russian warship to "go f--- yourself," the viral story was heralded as a rallying cry for the history books.

By Saturday, Ukraine's State Border Guard Service had announced, via Facebook post, that the guards may actually still be alive and imprisoned by Russian forces. The mythos, nevertheless, endures: The message, the Kyiv Post tweeted, has been seen in lights over a Ukrainian highway.

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