When Russian troops crossed the Ukrainian border on February 24, 2022, I naively thought most online commentators would drop their digital personas and unite over helping those who are most effected by the war. But even the threat of World War III was not able to stop popular social media influencers from playing their games of online superiority. Why are political discussions on social media websites so unbearable and is there a place (or hope) for nuance on the feeds?
Contributing to social media’s discourse is not easy. You have to follow the specifications imposed by social media companies in terms of the format, length, accessibility, and audience of your message. At the same time, you are expected to fit all of your justifications and rebuttals into one place, or you risk being chastised for omitting key information, and become “the enemy.” You have to constantly pump new posts to keep your followers engaged and to satisfy the algorithm. To get the most juice out of the feeds, you have to lean on moral emotions and outrage in your messaging, because that’s what triggers the most engagement. Last but not least, you have to be careful what you post, or you might find yourself “shadowbanned” and your content might be downgraded, because you overstepped a platform’s internal policy, which was created by … who knows?
The result of these dopamine-fueled habits can hardly be described as communication. The funneling of breaking news, sports, entertainment, and politics in one place makes perfect sense for social media companies’ ad revenue, but it provides little control to users. Rather than being able to easily access messages from their representatives and each other, citizens are forced to abide by terms and conditions set by for-profit corporations, which are increasingly working with political establishments and corporations around the world. Clearly, this environment was not created to encourage understanding and compassion, or lead to any sort of compromise.
The relationship between economic and political elites and addictive, all-encompassing channels of bite-size information is a threat to anyone who believes in independent and local journalism. In this new paradigm, many don’t have access to local news coverage and instead rely on limited sources. According to Pew Research Center’s Amy Mitchell, “the very concept of what news is for many Americans is changing. About 30 percent of people told Pew that they now get news from what she calls ‘second tier’ sources such as small online sites, local government agencies, and local organizations such as schools and churches rather than traditional newspapers with professional reporters and editors.”
Can social media and a hodgepodge of second tier sources fill the gap left by professional journalists? While Google and Facebook were presented as efficient solutions to this problem, their gradual positioning as hosts and judges of all news has had a devastating effect on civic life. “Not only have these digital intermediaries scooped up most of the advertising revenue from traditional news outlets, but their algorithms make decisions as to what news and information reaches the public,” writes Anya Schiffrin in Columbia Journalism Review. The article analyzes how governments and corporations hinder journalists with “media capture,” a process in which “political parties and corporations work in tandem to subtly or boldly pressure media to produce favorable coverage.” The prevalence of social media—and their steadfast adoption by the ruling class—has allowed politicians and corporatists to influence coverage without leaving much of a trace.
Ironically, the media capture of news-related messaging and its subsequent funneling into various login walls and paywalls has made it easier to avoid online political discourse altogether. Still, due to their size, influence, and widespread services, social media companies have become the preferred places for news gathering and sharing. Although not everyone has the privilege to spend their time scrolling, posting, and tweeting, we must consider how different events affect the output of individual and institutional content creators that are aiming to increase their numbers and push a certain agenda into the mainstream.
Given the toxicity-inducing design of social media, the dialogue about Russia’s military aggression in Ukraine turned into provocative statements about how the situation should be perceived, rather than reporting on what’s happening on the ground. Since it’s easier to shame an avatar than doing so face-to-face, many commentators utilized moral outrage for the sole purpose of keeping their online audiences captivated.
While we should all be outraged by acts of military aggression and the killing of civilians (regardless of where that happens), political influencers used the opportunity to enhance their brand as anti-imperialists, activists, and critics. As it often happens when you mix politics with the two-dimensional world of social media, the discourse gradually became focused on particular users and their avatars, rather than those who are most affected. A number of online commentators who minimized Russia’s troop buildup focused on repairing their reputation. Others exploited the opportunity to inflict damage on the Russian people and to vilify their culture.
To be fair, few outside of Putin’s circle could have expected Russia to invade Ukraine in a full-scale war. However, many politically-focused social media influencers feel the need to be constantly right when it comes to world affairs, which inevitably spills into various forms of prophesying, xenophobia, bonding with accounts that exhibit similar posting patterns, shaming users who are perceived as the enemy, and engaging in petty arguments that probably wouldn’t exist without the platforms’ content restrictions.
The pressure to always have the correct opinion has turned social media into a unique version of online hell, where the only thing that matters is being accepted into an imagined group of users who feel the same as you do, though you can’t really know for sure. It was no surprise that after the initial apologies and astonishment of “getting it wrong,” popular users went back to comparing and correcting the historical and geopolitical context of the ongoing war. This made it easy for online cliques to divide themselves into corresponding teams that aim to trigger each other by posting polarizing statements.
The online arguments that transpired after the invasion can be described like this—if you blame Russia for the invasion, but omit what NATO has done in the past to contribute to Russia’s aggression, you are labeled as an imperialist (since you fail to acknowledge how the U.S. is connected to the conflict). Conversely, if you blame NATO and don’t point out the aggressor, you are a “tankie” who is defending Russia’s interests. Since what usually floats to the top of news feeds is the most emotional mix of words and images, sounding like (or labeling) people as warmongers or tankies is what promised to deliver the most engagement, so many users adopted such stances out of ignorance, a desire for more followers, or both (it’s hard to tell these days).
As the Russian army bombed Ukraine, a number of social media influencers were arguing about the circumstances that led to the invasion. Many brought up the role of NATO, Nazi presence in Ukraine, and the history between Ukraine and Russia in order to add nuance to content that is critical primarily of Russia. Since Putin uses the same reasoning to justify Russia’s actions, social media was quickly polarized by users who began to accuse each other of political ignorance. Some acknowledged that Russia is to blame for the conflict, but spent more time analyzing the factors that led to the invasion and how the U.S. is implicated, which resulted in videos and posts that resemble Russian pro-war propaganda. At the other extreme, users who are not critical of U.S. mainstream media started to parrot the militarist rhetoric that is always buzzing in the background on corporate U.S. media.
While interviewing people who have lived in Ukraine or have studied the country’s history would’ve better served audiences, many social media commentators interviewed their friends which inevitably turned into a battle of online allegiances, rather than a discussion about the devastating impact of the unfolding war. A fair analysis would’ve focused on the numerous half-truths in Putin’s speeches, as well as the comments of frenzied U.S. politicians and agents calling for escalation. Unfortunately, but true to form, the majority of online influencers chose to exploit the online discourse for their own benefit.
Outside of social media, the reality of the invasion is not so contentious. “We can hardly say let’s keep Russia and NATO away from here, because it is only Russia who invaded Ukraine. Because it is not NATO who is bombing the cities, it is very obvious here. You cannot say: Let’s not take sides. You cannot avoid taking sides, especially when you are here,” wrote Oksana Dutchak, a researcher and activist based in Ukraine who provided her on the ground account of the invasion. “There are people who are not radically anti-Russia. But it is hard when you see what is happening, the bombing in Kharkiv—which is one of the biggest cities in Ukraine and a predominantly Russian-speaking city. The level of hate is very high now. It is explainable. It is hard in these circumstances to perceive Russia differently.”
It makes sense that those who are currently in Ukraine and are fighting for their independence might interpret outsize emphasis on U.S. and NATO as an effort to justify Russia’s actions and provide credibility to Putin’s warped reasons to invade. This is especially true on social media, where article titles, thumbnails, copy, and other elements fighting for users’ attention are designed to provoke a reaction, rather than inform. While there’s nothing wrong with bringing up the circumstances which led to the current situation, social media is clearly not built for nuance, so we shouldn’t be surprised when various accounts take anti-U.S. and anti-NATO positions to the point of adopting Putin’s talking points.
Similarly, labeling those who criticize Russia as misinformed tools of U.S. empire could also backfire. Provocation triggers users, which is why we could expect a number of accounts to be paid to, or duped into, amplifying content that might as well come from the U.S. oil lobby and weapons manufactures, even if it means increasing the chance of nuclear annihilation. However, that doesn’t mean everyone who criticizes Russia is a U.S. or NATO puppet. Those who draw such conclusions are likely to ignore the complex history of Eastern Europe and engage in what some have called “westsplaining,” or the act of interpreting world events and prescribing solutions from a Western-centric point of view.
In order to protect ourselves from manipulation, we have to reject the simplistic explanations and false choices that make for top social media content, but don’t have much of an impact outside of the social media spectacle.
To zoom out a little bit, let’s focus on what “winning” online arguments concerning the war would accomplish outside of popular social media websites. Would NATO be abolished if all users suddenly grasped the full historical context of the conflict? Would that prevent U.S. warmongers from exploiting the potential for a full-scale war in order to enrich weapons manufacturers? Would it help people on the ground who are assaulted and traumatized by a foreign army led by someone who is clearly losing his grip on reality? What, besides “likes” and “shares,” is the outcome of these daily digital quarrels, which are only accessible to fractions of the U.S. population, and ultimately serve to enrich the owners of the biggest accounts?
Given what we know about the social media blob, the way to escape the simplistic views promoted on popular feeds is to reject the limits in format and expression that are imposed on users. To cut through propaganda coming from the Kremlin, NATO, and other governments and agencies, we need to understand that there are competing motives pumping dollars into social media, and they don’t necessarily care about credible information. Whether we join, reject, or try to improve this arrangement is up to us, though nothing in the history of these platforms suggests that they will address the inherent manipulation that is at the center of their business models.
We are all bound to be wrong sometime and we should be wary of those who use catastrophic events for building their online reputation, rather than informing the public. Since being pedantically “right” online doesn’t mean much in the middle of an ongoing war, it makes sense to trust people and institutions that don’t exploit sensationalism and moral outrage to promote their political opinions. Unfortunately, voices of reason are often overshadowed by the noisiest accounts, and there’s very little that regular people can do about that—other than finding sources outside of that toxic environment.