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The first Internet war: the Russian-Ukrainian conflict

If for millennia wars have been fought in the “traditional” way, today the dynamics of armed conflicts have changed. There is no war and there is no resistance if behind it there is not a good and solid propaganda able to withstand the blows inflicted by the enemies. The rhetoric and the communicative persuasion are the most lethal weapons in any conflict, since ever. In fact, communication and information play a fundamental role in the construction of a political identity, just as disinformation helps to discredit the enemy by obtaining a greater number of consensus.

History does not change and conflicts do not cease. What has changed, however, is the way of communicating to influence the masses. A 1930s-style political propaganda would never be effective in a current military scenario, as societies change and with them, so does the way to influence them. Technological evolution has played a fundamental role in the creation of new online platforms that allow users to communicate instantaneously and globally, so much so that they can be lethal in a delicate situation such as a conflict. Exactly as in the case of the war between Ukraine and Russia, defined by a large part of public opinion as “the first Internet war”.

To the untrained eye, social media may seem similar and interchangeable, but it is not so: each online platform has its own specific characteristics that distinguish it from the others. In a conflict, in order to get good communication results, it is important to know these differences to make the most of the channel and get the messages you want to convey in the best way.

The approach of Ukraine’s political leader, Zelensky, and Russia’s political leader, Putin, is antithetical.

The former shows himself to the world, making himself visible on his own accounts through amateur videos, exploiting the full potential of social media and conveying a sense of closeness and involvement in the fight against the invader; the latter tends to hide, or rather, to show himself only in official and institutional contexts, distant from reality, from the people and from his own collaborators. Zelensky exploits social channels such as Facebook and Instagram to document and show the horrors of the war, as if he were a journalist. Putin, on the other hand, blacks out domains related to the conflict in Ukraine, denying his people the opportunity to document and learn about what is happening beyond their national borders. According to Will Media, more than 900 domains have been blacked out since the beginning of the war, more than half of which are news-only.

Even if a traditional communication like the Russian one – via official channels – can seem more constructed, in reality even behind the amateur videos of the Ukrainian president there is a good dose of study by experts in the field. The only difference is the purpose: Zelensky wants to excite and touch the sensibility of the West, Putin wants to show himself strong and imperturbable, as the (supreme) leader of a nation that does not lower its head and does not yield.

Even if we can consider social networks as simple communication channels, in reality they are also virtual spaces in which users from all over the world express their opinion exercising a communicative force without equal. If in the past public opinion had an almost marginal importance, today users are able to influence the dynamics of “power”, for example the economic one. There are many brands that, due to pressure from public opinion, celebrities and others, have chosen to temporarily stop selling their products in Russia, especially in the world of luxury. And the Russian influencers, as a response to the restrictions, have given birth to a new trend of “destruction” of products that are symbols of the Western economy (such as Apple or Chanel). The increasing number of creators and influencers who use their profiles to spread correct information about the conflict is then opposed to the influencers “hired” by Russian politics, with the aim of supporting the occupation campaign.

In short, new ways of communicating and new ways of protesting: the war we are witnessing today in Europe is (also) fought with posts, as well as in the gruesome and anachronistic ways sadly described by the images coming from the war territories.


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