Ukraine: How social media and trolling has became a factor in conflict

Ukrainians were seen parading dozens of wrecked Russian tanks and armoured vehicles on the streets of Kyiv in one of the latest of a series of social media posts to troll or mock Russia.

Crowds of people took to the streets in Kyiv at the weekend where a display of burnt-out Russian military vehicles lined the road with footage posted online on the official page of the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine.

The post came with the comment: "In February, Russians were planning a parade in downtown Kyiv.

"Six months into the large-scale war the shameful display of rusty Russian metal is a reminder to all dictators how their plans may be ruined by a free and courageous nation."

The exhibition of destroyed tanks and other Russian military vehicles, posted on Twitter by Ukraine's Ministry of Defense on Saturday, was filmed from above in aerial footage also posted on social media.

Ukrainians have been parading around the lineup of the wreckage, displayed like an exhibition of war trophies, with many, including children, climbing on the burnt-out vehicles or stopping to take pictures and pose for photographs next to them.

Ukraine is arguably the first time a major conflict in modern times has made use of social media to such a significant extent in the portrayal of the war and the propaganda around it.

It means many of the events in the last six months have been played out on online, gaining worldwide coverage – like no conflict before it.

The way both countries share their side of the story on social media is the same, although Ukraine has resorted to using the platforms to troll Russia and the Russian forces – while also posting as a way of rallying support.

While there are academic debates that point to the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s, which occurred at the time of rapid growth of the internet and online news, as perhaps the first time such a conflict was featured across the internet, there was nothing like the sheer volume of social media posts that have flooded the online platforms during the Ukraine conflict.

Many Ukrainians have been able to stream real-time scenes from the battlefield and unlike other conflicts, such as in the Middle East and the Arab Spring of 2011, the Ukrainian government has not suppressed its citizens’ use of social media and, rather, actively encouraged it.

The Ukrainian Ministry of Defence, for instance, has posted a series of memes and videos to troll Russia and portray the country as the proud underdog up against the might of a dictatorial oppressor.

Some reports, however, suggest that the social media output from Russia itself during this conflict has not been as prolific because Moscow has played down the extent of the war, referring to it only as a special military operation, while Ukraine has generated much support from across the world via social media.

There have been some posts online showing Russian troops enjoying light-hearted moments, particularly on the Russian rival to YouTube known as RuTube, with one post by Russia's Ministry of Defence showing 'Artists of the Song and Dance Ensemble of the Central Military District' performing for the troops of the 'special military operation' but nothing on the scale of the outpouring from Ukraine.

Ciaran Martin, the former CEO of the National Cyber Security Centre, also told Forces News in early August that cyber warfare has not played as large a part in military terms as it was initially imagined it might.

He said that Russia started its invasion by successfully targeting Ukrainian satellite communications which weakened defensive ground forces from Ukraine's perspective but he said there was also a secondary misinformation campaign to undermine the opposition online.

He said this included taking down websites, spreading misinformation, and seeking to undermine each side's leadership and their ability to manage their way of life.

He said this aspect of the use of internet technology has been an important part of the war in Ukraine on both sides of the conflict.

While it may be difficult to say who has the advantage in the war in Ukraine, with even military experts unsure of which side could define victory at this stage of the conflict, Ukrainians seem to be dominating the battle for hearts and minds on social media in a host of posts online that appear to be trolling or mocking Russia, often with a darkly humorous edge, garnering support for the Ukrainian cause all over the world.

Other posts, featured on social media as Ukraine prepared to mark its Independence Day on 24 August, simply appear to show Ukrainian forces keeping their spirits up in the face of adversity as they are shown in light-hearted moments amid the horrors of war, singing folk songs or poking fun at the enemy in scenes reminiscent of the gallows humour of the First and Second World Wars when allied forces would make fun of their foes.

The parade of destroyed Russian tanks was an act of defiance to mock the invading Russian forces, amid claims by Ukraine that Russia had planned a victory parade in time for the Independence Day of Ukraine, which annually marks Ukraine's declaration of independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.

Footage of the parade featured among the latest raft of social media posts, many from the official accounts of the Ukrainian defence and armed forces, which come as some military experts suggest there is no clear winning side between Russia and Ukraine.

General Philip Breedlove, the former Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR) of NATO, has told Forces News how he was unsure "how you call a win" for either side, with a Russian military "embarrassed" by Ukraine and a defending nation reduced, in part, to rubble.

Ukraine, however, now appears to perhaps be at least 'winning the internet' when it comes to trolling the Russian forces online, as social media posts, often dripping in dark humour, pour out of the country.

Ukrainians have already made a name for themselves in mocking, defiant stands against their invaders, including a group of Ukrainian border guards who told the Russian military to "go f*** yourself" as they defended Snake Island in the Black Sea in February in the early stages of the Russian invasion.

Ukraine later sank the Russian warship Moskva which was responsible for the attack on Snake Island, in a missile strike.

In one social media post, Ukraine's Ministry of Defence mocks Russia with a photograph of what it suggests is a Russian tourist who appears to be giving away the position of Russian air defence positions.

The comment with the picture reads: "Maybe we are being too hard on Russian tourists… Sometimes they can be really helpful.

"Like this man taking pictures at Russian air defense positions near Yevpatoria, in occupied Crimea. Thank you and keep up the good work!" the tweet added.

In referencing Russian tourists, the Ukrainian MOD is alluding to footage that went viral earlier this month showing Russian tourists running in fear as an explosion sent a mushroom cloud into the air during a suspected attack on a Russian air base.

Ukraine's MOD posted another video on Twitter in the wake of that explosion to troll Russia, with the comment: "Unless they want an unpleasantly hot summer break, we advise our valued Russian guests not to visit Ukrainian Crimea.

"Because no amount of sunscreen will protect them from the hazardous effects of smoking in unauthorised areas."

The video featured suggested destinations for holidays this summer, including Palm Jumeirah in Dubai, Antalya resorts in Turkey and renowned holiday spots in Cuba, but warned those who might choose Crimea that it would be a "big mistake" – and leads into the footage of Russian tourists fleeing the explosions.

The video ends by saying: "Time to head home."

Another social media post at first appears to be a light-hearted singalong by soldiers to keep their spirits up as they play musical instruments amid destroyed Russian equipment. The video, however, shows Ukrainian forces performing as the folk group Svyatovyd, led by colonel Ihor Bykovskyi, singing a folk song that was written to mock the invasion.

Watch: Ukraine soldiers sing the patriotic folk song 'Bayraktar'.

Ukraine's MOD, explaining the song on YouTube, says: "Thanks to the apt text, which is full of black humour and music that is easy to remember, this song has gained popularity in Ukraine and around the world."

The soldiers sing the patriotic folk song 'Bayraktar', dedicated to the Turkish Baykar Bayraktar TB2 combat drone that has been heavily deployed against Russian forces in Ukraine, and which mocks Russian troops and the invasion.

The song, written by Ukrainian soldier Taras Borovok, has become a popular tune in Ukraine following its release during the invasion in March 2022.

These videos form a pattern of what has become an established culture of Russian forces being trolled on social media by Ukrainian forces.

Earlier this year, Ukrainian army officer Anatoly Stefan, who regularly posted videos on TikTok as @Alexhook2302, went viral in a series of posts in which he was seen trolling Russian troops with dance routines on the battlefield to the sound of Nirvana and AC/DC among other tunes.

Alex Hook's TikTok account, however, no longer appears to be online, the reasons for which remain unclear at this stage.

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