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Ukraine has upper hand in infowar battle, but Russia eyes a long game

15 20 30

The words “I need anti-tank ammunition, not a ride,” and “Russian warship, go f*ck yourself” are likely to go down in history as some of the most memorable phrases from the Russian war on Ukraine in the winter of 2022.

The first was uttered by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky just a day into the Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24 in response to a US offer to help him leave the country. The second was the defiant response of a Ukrainian border guard stationed at Zmiinyi, or Snake Island, in the Black Sea, on the first day of the war, after he and his fellow guards were ordered to surrender.

Both became part of Ukraine’s effective framing of a “David vs. Goliath” narrative in the conflict, underscoring the country’s swift efforts since the first days of the conflict to win the information war, as its citizens, officials, and diplomats battled for hearts and minds and proactively engaged with world governments, companies, and individuals on social media channels.

Over a month into the conflict, and the largest land invasion in Europe since World War II, this narrative has been built with tales of heroic resistance (some of questionable origin such as “The Ghost of Kyiv” meme), national identity, captivating imagery, effective messaging, and ongoing communications led by Zelensky, a young actor-turned-president who became an unlikely but dazzling (for many) wartime leader, observers say.

On Twitter, Zelensky posts nearly every day on his discussions with world leaders, noting whether the nation in question agreed to send weapons or provide humanitarian aid, or just expressed solidarity. The Ukrainian president also broadcasts daily addresses to his people in speeches and briefings designed to boost morale and reaffirm unity in the face of the Russian military assault.

Instead of posting dry diplomatic missives, the official Ukraine Twitter account publishes viral, sometimes humorous content and memes, with photos, explanatory videos, and captions optimized for maximum engagement. Ukrainian ambassadors, public officials, journalists, activists, and many others post their own content on social media, including images of abandoned or destroyed Russian tanks and other equipment; on-the-ground accounts of Russian attacks and apparent war crimes such as the killing of civilians, rape and looting; harrowing stories of escape from Ukrainians who have been displaced or become refugees; and tales of dissenting Russian voices.

Kyiv’s digital activities, led by the country’s 31-year-old Vice Prime Minister and Minister of Digital Transformation Mykhailo Fedorov, have also focused with notable success on pushing companies and global corporations to suspend or restrict operations in Russia or pull activities completely to protest the war. Close to 500 companies have already done so including tech giants like Google, Facebook, Twitter and Apple.

“As a budding democracy, Ukraine’s narrative has echoed in the democratic world, with its terminology, the messaging, the shared values. They are the underdog here,” said Col. (Res.) Miri Eisin, a veteran of the Israeli intelligence community who is a military security expert and a lecturer on narratives and media as a dimension of security and warfare at Reichmann University (formerly the IDC) in Herzliya.

Ukrainians “democratically kicked out a pro-Russian president, they democratically elected in and supported a president before this one, so they are in a process. Overall, the democratic world is looking at that and saying, ‘Look, with everything that’s happened in the world in the last decades — of the despots and revolutions, and democracies losing their strength in places like Turkey, and Russia for that matter, look at good ol’ Ukraine. They’re not succumbing,'” Eisin told The Times of Israel in a phone interview.

“Overwhelmingly, democracies are with the underdog… And that is something that has been around since certainly the end of World War II, and overwhelmingly since the dissolution of the Soviet Union,” she said.

Dr. Yaniv Levyatan, an information warfare expert at the University of Haifa, told The Times of Israel that Ukraine has effectively “gained superiority in the information war, managing to deny Russia victory on this front.”

“Zelensky has become a huge star with his coherent messaging, his leadership, his ability to keep up morale, and convincing the world that this war is their war too,” said Levyatan.

The information warfare expert said there was “no doubt” that Ukraine’s digital offensive has contributed significantly to Western governments’ willingness to provide aid and weapons and slap economic sanctions of unprecedented scale on Russian government officials, industries, and individuals.

“I think that the most successful part of their activity has been forcing tech giants to choose, and to align with one side over the other,” said Dr. Ilan Manor, a lecturer at the Department of Communications at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and a member of Oxford University’s Digital Diplomacy Research Group. “It’s not easy to force Facebook to do anything, let alone exit Russia.”

Manor told The Times of Israel that he........

© The Times of Israel

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