Ukraine – changing how we bear witness to war

A panel discussion examining the role of the traditional war correspondent, Ukrainian and Russian uses of social media, and the underlying motivations behind the war took place online Monday, 11 April 2022, as part of a special edition of the Trinity Long Room Hub’s ‘Behind the Headlines’ series in partnership with the Schuler Democracy Forum.

Opening the event, Professor Eve Patten, Director of the Trinity Long Room Hub, noted the humanitarian catastrophe, untold suffering, and grief, and a ‘moral crisis as we confront what seems to be not the twilight but the complete darkness of European democracy’.

The discussion was moderated by Mark Little, the Schuler Democracy Forum Media Fellow and CEO of Kinzen. Mark introduced the ‘multiplicity of ways’ Ukraine ‘has changed the way in which we perceive conflict, the way we remember history’ and will ‘change the way we look at the future’. He explained the augmented role of social media – from its value to those on the ground to the dangers of the collapse of context – and discussed the gaps between realities and perceptions.

Mark Little commented:

The first draft of history – which used to be associated with journalism – is now in the hands of people using Telegram and TikTok and Twitter.’

The work of the traditional war correspondent was examined by RTÉ journalist Paul Cunningham. Paul reflected on his experience of reporting from the border between Ukraine and Poland in March 2022, as well as his coverage from Kyiv during the 2014 Maidan revolution, and from other conflict zones, including Bosnia and Kosovo. He talked about risks taken by local and foreign journalists, provided insight into pressures and workload, and discussed the impact of everything happening online in real-time. Paul warned that the absence of journalists, internet, and supplies would make the story harder to tell as Russian forces moved from north to east.

Paul Cunningham said:

We don’t need to wait for people to cross the border. We already know part of their story by the time they arrive.

Dr Tanya Lokot, Associate Professor in Digital Media and Society at Dublin City University, focused on grassroots communications. She detailed the conscious efforts of ordinary Ukrainian social media users to coordinate action and debunk misinformation. She examined the rise of online diplomacy, the sharing of personal stories and testimonies, the processing of grief, the use of dark humour, and the role of language. Tanya stressed that these were not new tactics but things ‘people have been doing and thinking about doing’ since the war started eight years ago with the occupation of Crimea and parts of Eastern Ukraine.

Ukraine social media users increasingly understand they also have a role to play in how information spreads, which kind of information spreads, and what kind of frames are used around the world and in Ukraine to talk about Russia’s invasion.

 

Ciaran O’Connor, Analyst at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, shared his research on Russian state-backed disinformation online. He discussed the evolving use of narratives as pretext, why TikTok has become a ‘highly valuable tool for the Kremlin’, and the use of Twitter and Facebook as online ‘disinformation machines’ to ‘dispute, deflect, and deny any responsibility’. Ciaran noted the existence of ‘whole ecosystems of pro-Russian supporting content and communities online’ and explained how disinformation aims to ‘obscure and obfuscate the facts.’

Ciaran O’Connor said:

The goal is to shift public opinion, but in this case not towards a reality where everything neatly makes sense from a Russia perspective. Instead, the aim is usually mass confusion.

Dr Orysia Kulick, Assistant Professor at the University of Manitoba and former Trinity Long Room Hub Early Career Research Fellow, scrutinised Russian motivations for the war against Ukraine. She warned that approaching this question ‘from a world systems, geopolitical, internationalist perspective … loses the texture of what is happening on the ground.’ Orysia discussed the significance of the involvement of paramilitaries loyal to Chechen warlord Ramzan Kadyrov in the first wave of assaults on Ukraine. Reflecting on the news of the horrific atrocities and massacres committed in Bucha, Irpin, and other towns around Kyiv, she explained how the tactics employed by the Russian military ‘tell us something about the motivations behind this war, the power structures and hierarchies shaping its conduct, and its own institutional history’. Orysia stressed the importance of ‘thinking about Ukraine on its own terms’ and shifting the ‘locus of analysis – to the relationship of Russia and Ukraine, to internal factors in Russia that explain how a war of aggression on this scale was conceived and planned, that explain why this war has substantial support in Russia.’

Dr Orysia Kulick said:

By situating this war in boxes and categories we already have, we’re missing the opportunity to think about how we bear witness to war and what the underlying motivations behind this war are.

*Image: Stand with Ukraine against Russian Invasion – Vancouver Anti-War Rally, Feb 26th, 2022, Creative Commons 2.0 Generic