top of page
  • Yara Kyrychenko

Scrolling Through War: How Social Media Empower Ukrainians to Stand Together Against Adversity


A "Support Ukraine" sticker (with a QR code and Ukrainian flag) on a blue jacket.
Photo credit: Yara Kyrychenko.

For some, the war only exists thousands of miles away; for others, it’s at their doorstep. Some have seen it creep up slowly in the anti-tank hedgehogs scattered around cities, and the phone apps that signal when a missile approaches. Some have had to suddenly leave everything behind and see all they worked for destroyed. Some were not as fortunate. Some have fled abroad as refugees and built Ukrainian diasporas, while others returned and enlisted in the army. Some have fought on the front lines and been injured, some have trained the troops, some have hacked Russian websites, and some developed missile alert apps. Some have endured the occupation, forced to give up their citizenship to save their lives. The war has many avatars. They meet on social media.


There is no single experience of war. Since Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, a constellation of perspectives has emerged around the conflict. Social media amplify that diversity by showing how much of it is present even within your social network. Yet they also create spaces where people of the same group can interact unobstructed, bonding over similar experiences and fears. Real-life groups are limited by geography and time. Social media lift those limits by allowing for asynchronous interactions that span continents. For war-torn Ukraine, this means that people on the front lines in the East and South can share their stories with relatives and strangers across Ukraine and abroad. Conversely, those living in the occupied territories where Russia is blocking Ukrainian television can keep their fingers on the country’s pulse through social media—provided they have a device with internet access.

A grandmother peering at Facebook on a smartphone through her glasses.
My grandmother opening Facebook, one of her favourite pastimes. Photo credit: Yara Kyrychenko.

There is a Ukrainian New Year’s tradition of watching the president address the nation in the minutes leading up to midnight. Over the three decades since Ukraine’s independence, the address has become a place for the nation to reflect on the year that has passed, to come together to celebrate success, and to acknowledge setbacks. This year, a family in the recently de-occupied southern city of Kherson was watching the presidential address over WhatsApp with their relatives in the still-occupied territories. A video of the entire family crying—as Zelensky states Ukraine will liberate and rebuild—quickly went viral across platforms. It captured something so powerful and deeply emotional that watching it makes many cry, even months later. The sense of unity despite barriers, the tender cherishing of the national tradition, and the human connection—all distilled into one TikTok. Posts like these evoke similar feelings of solidarity in countless Ukrainians, even though each has seen a different face of the war.


Scholars of communication and social psychology theorise that interactions within a group on social media promote the convergence of identities and in-group solidarity. Unlike traditional media where every experience of war is highly curated, social media allow anyone to share anything, producing more content, which increases the chances that a post will strike a chord. Moreover, the structure of social media allows for communication that is simultaneously deeply personal and public. On platforms like Facebook and Twitter, a person might share something for their friends or relatives that nevertheless would be accessible to complete strangers. Expressions of the national struggle that would otherwise have been private reach millions. A Ukrainian woman giving a Russian soldier sunflower seeds so that flowers would bloom when he dies on Ukrainian soil. A Ukrainian farmer stealing a Russian tank with a tractor. A Ukrainian border guard on Snake Island flipping off a Russian warship. A blond Ukrainian kid singing a patriotic song. These moments echo solidarity and resistance from a first-person account, making them more powerful than traditional media rooted in impersonal reporting.

"The sense of unity despite barriers, the tender cherishing of the national tradition, and the human connection—all distilled into one TikTok."

Another important part of the social media experience of war is the networks maintained irrespective of geographical distance. Over a year after the invasion, more than eight million Ukrainians are refugees and another five million are internally displaced. That is about 30% of Ukraine’s population. Imagine every third person you know disappearing almost overnight. Luckily, you don’t have to—and neither do the Ukrainian people. The relationships maintained through Instagram and WhatsApp, the periodic checking-in on old Facebook friends, the Discord game nights with once-classmates now scattered across time zones—old life is preserved through modern technology. And a new life is built in diasporic communities over Facebook groups and Telegram channels.

The back of a protestor's head with long blond hair and a yellow and blue flower crown, holding a smartphone with the Twitter app open, in Times Square.
A Ukrainian protester tweeting in Times Square during the early weeks of the invasion. Photo credit: Yara Kyrychenko.

These networks have enabled many individuals to both reach out for help, and provide it. A missile fell on my high school teacher’s house in the early days of the invasion. Her husband was inside, and he did not survive. She posted on Facebook while the school’s principal organised a fund-raising campaign, and many school alumni and strangers donated. Even though nothing will ever be the same for her, she was able to lean on this support network for financial and psychological help. With over £12 billion donated to Ukrainian humanitarian causes since the invasion, individuals and organisations have used social media to successfully assemble volunteers and collect and distribute donations to war victims like my teacher.


But, to be read or watched, a social media post must stand out from the rest of the feed. Social media operate partially as an attention economy, driving creators and politicians to use more provocative content to get heard. At least in the US, this means that tweets with outrageous or negative words tend to get more retweets. The rise of social media has coincided with rising levels of political polarisation in advanced democracies, prompting some scholars predominantly studying the US to suggest that social media might drive polarisation. Needless to say, polarisation between Ukrainians and Russians has increased dramatically since the start of the war. Ukrainians now feel drastically more negative toward Russia and more positive toward Ukraine than they did a year ago. This is different from the US, where people tend to feel more negative toward the other party but not necessarily more positive toward their own. Consequently, unlike the well-researched negative bias of US social media, positive posts about solidarity with other Ukrainians tend to gain more engagement than hostile posts about Russians on Ukrainian Facebook and Twitter. Of course, this does not mean that Ukrainian social media are problem-free. Hate speech, disinformation, and conspiracy theories thrive on both sides of the conflict and across platforms. But the Ukrainian experience reminds us that social media can be used for good, pro-social causes, even in the direst of situations. Just like there is no single experience of war, the experiences and effects of social media are diverse and complex, and researchers are just starting to disentangle them.

 

Yara Kyrychenko [2022] is a PhD student at the Cambridge Social Decision-Making Lab using data science and psychology to study polarisation, misinformation, and identity on social media. She grew up in Kyiv, Ukraine.

Comments


bottom of page