In Ukraine, civilians shape narrative of the war

The images stream by like a dystopian slide show: Ukrainian farmers pulling abandoned Russian tanks from black soil. Bodies and buildings shredded in airstrikes. A young woman who jokes that bunker food is the pinnacle of fine dining. The stricken faces of refugees.

The scenes are shared online by ordinary Ukrainians who, like civilians in other conflicts of the digital age, provide visceral glimpses of life under siege, especially in areas that are inaccessible to journalists and aid workers. The first sense of the horrors in Bucha, the Kyiv suburb Russian forces withdrew from last week, came via shaky footage recorded as civilians emerged from hiding with the return of Ukrainian troops.

Such accounts, international observers say, have helped shape the Western public’s understanding of the Russian invasion as a nightmarish war of attrition, with Moscow facing setbacks against a tough resistance. That narrative draws outrage, which in turn pressures allies to supply Ukraine with weapons that could tip the scale militarily, or at least strengthen Kyiv’s negotiating hand in peace talks.

“We first saw it in the war in Syria, and in 2014 in Gaza, and we’re seeing it in Ukraine right now. The power dynamic has shifted,” said Olga Boichak, a lecturer in digital cultures at the University of Sydney in Australia. “In a way, militaries have lost that dominance in framing the war, and right now the civilians are largely determining how these events will go down in history.”

Civilians have always played a role in documenting conflicts and humanitarian crises, but the advent of social media brought unprecedented speed and reach. In the past decade, military and media analysts say, “citizen witnessing” has evolved into a powerful force because of its ability to break through public apathy, fact-check official propaganda and create a digital trove of evidence for potential war crimes investigations.

However, the analysts added, there are also limitations, including difficulties in verifying the material and figuring out whether these slivers from the front lines are representative of a broader conflict.

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It’s easy for complexities to get lost in the emotional reactions to seeing the war through disjointed images of its human toll, said Rita Konaev of the Center for Security and Emerging Technology at Georgetown University.

“The fog of war, the selectivity in reporting, the incentive to present certain information and hide other information — all of these factors matter, and I think that’s where the public perception kind of gets away from the details,” Konaev said.

Still, Konaev said, even with the caveats, it’s extraordinary to watch what she calls “the people’s history” of the war being written from the ground, in real time, through thousands of social media posts.

“We’ve always lived with this assumption in many previous disasters and wars that if people only knew, they would do something, they would help,” Konaev said. “Well, we can never say we didn’t know about this.”

Media scholars are monitoring Ukraine civilian witnessing as they study ethical considerations about privacy and security, as well as about how the content is displayed online and its vulnerability to government exploitation. To what extent do filters and music on social media posts distort the witnessing? How to handle instances where amateur footage potentially violates international law by, for example, filming prisoners of war or using them for propaganda purposes?

Stuart Allan, a journalism professor at Cardiff University in Wales who has written extensively about civilian contributions to crisis reporting, said the trend repositions the journalist as mediator, verifying and fleshing out raw witness accounts.

“In the absence of an overarching narrative that pulls this material together and makes sense of it, places it in context, attends to what is correct and what is misleading, you get this scattershot array of different bits and pieces,” Allan said. “It’s up to you to watch enough of this material that you get your own personal impression over a period of time.”

Civilian video and posts are also closely monitored by a dogged community of scientific investigators who comb through posts, which they regard as “OSINT,” or open-source intelligence, in search of details about munitions, Russian troop movements, and human rights abuses.

“We’re all going through the Bucha travesty now and seeing street video being correlated with overhead commercial imagery by time and by place to at least try to put the lie to the Russian narrative,” said Robert Cardillo, a former director of the U.S. National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency who is now a senior executive at Planet, a commercial outfit involved in the OSINT work on Ukraine.

During the Obama era, Cardillo served as a high-ranking intelligence official who for years conducted the president’s daily briefing. One August day in 2013, Cardillo recalled, he was sitting in Liberty Crossing, the U.S. intelligence compound in Virginia, when he saw a TV report showing YouTube footage of Syrian civilians convulsing in what was later confirmed as a deadly gas attack on the outskirts of Damascus.

“There I was in the center of the U.S. intelligence community and my first indication, my first warning, was that YouTube input and those Twitter feeds,” Cardillo said.

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Allan, the media analyst, said the idea of “citizen journalism” was popularized in the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami in Southeast Asia, where survivors documented the devastation in flooded areas through then-nascent social media sites. Allan and other analysts have since embraced the term “citizen witnessing,” which encompasses footage that comes from people simply “being in the wrong place at the right time,” as Allan puts it, as well as deliberate attempts to document hostilities.

The practice drew more attention when it became a crucial way for civilians to share their stories during the Arab Spring rebellions and spinoff wars in Libya and Syria. One Syrian activist group, Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently, won a 2015 press freedom award from the Committee to Protect Journalists for documenting the abuses of Islamic State militants who took over the city.

These days, citizen witnessing is again evolving with the war in Ukraine, where gritty battlefield footage competes with witness accounts that are slickly edited, complete with music and subtitles, for the TikTok treatment. Jokes and memes are sprinkled among stomach-churning images on Telegram channels that are visited by millions of people around the world looking for unfiltered updates.

Allan and other analysts say Western racial and cultural biases are a big part of why Ukrainians have drawn an outpouring of sympathy in a way that civilians in, say, Yemen or Afghanistan, have not. Another reason for the popularity of civilian witnessing, Allan said, is the perception, especially among young audiences, that traditional news outlets too often sanitize war or obscure atrocities.

“They want to see the actual moment when a tank is destroyed by a British-made missile, and TikTok affords them that kind of insight,” Allan said. “It shows you, ‘This is what the grisly horrors of war look like up close, and isn’t it awful?’’’

TikTok’s rules describe it as “a platform that celebrates creativity but not shock value or violence,” noting a ban on content deemed “gratuitously shocking, graphic, sadistic or gruesome.”

That would seemingly apply to footage showing potential war crimes such as torture or extrajudicial killings — scenes that regularly pop up on Telegram and Twitter. Humanitarian groups are increasingly vocal in their pleas for social media companies to be more transparent about how they filter images to the public, and what happens to footage deemed too graphic to post. Some activists are calling for a central “digital evidence locker” in case of future investigations.

“The last thing you want to do is traumatize people with horrific content. That’s not the way to get engagement or solidarity,” said Sam Gregory, program director at the technology-focused human rights group Witness. “But, at the same time, how much content is being taken down? Is it being preserved? Will it be accessible for justice?”

Gregory cited the cautionary tale of the Syrian Archive, a preservation campaign that amassed a collection of hundreds of thousands of videos from the Syrian civil war. Suddenly, in 2017, much of the collection was lost to sweeping new content moderation measures.

“They disappeared overnight because YouTube had decided they were graphic footage,” Gregory said.

In Ukraine, one difference from the free-for-all battlefields of Libya or rebel-held parts of Syria is that a central government still exercises control over information.

Led by the charismatic President Volodymyr Zelensky, a master of using social media to rally support for his beleaguered nation, the government clearly understands the value of on-the-ground witnesses. Amateur footage was woven into a video montage, set to melancholy music, that Zelensky presented to Congress last month during a virtual address.

At the same time, analysts say, Ukrainian authorities on the ground have warned civilians against posting images of military positions or the immediate aftermath of airstrikes in case it helps Russia improve its targeting.

“Of course, it works both ways. They’re being encouraged to photograph the Russian armed forces for intelligence purposes,” said Boichak, the analyst at the University of Sydney.

Boichak said people generally regard such efforts as a civic duty because they know that “every eyewitness testimony can potentially matter” in Ukraine’s fight for survival.

A few days after she was interviewed, Boichak’s Twitter feed provided an object lesson on the power of civilian stories to connect with faraway audiences. She tweeted a heartbreaking post describing how her grandmother in Ukraine has dementia and wakes up every day to learn anew that Russia has invaded. Each time, the post said, she starts packing to flee.

“She’s been in this never-ending loop for 41 days. Grandpa’s keeping the keys in a safe place,” Boichak wrote.

Boichak’s previous tweet, an academic argument that Russia’s targeting of Ukrainians amounts to genocide, received 10 “likes.” As for the intimate post about her grandmother’s daily struggle: More than 43,000 and counting.

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