The war for hearts and minds can be as important as any gun battle.
Ukraine has so far been beating Russia handily in the game of information warfare, setting the narrative for how the fighting is being perceived and winning broad global support through videos showing their resolve to fight.
Videos of President Volodymyr Zelensky in the streets of Kyiv following nights of bombing and vowing to keep fighting has inspired his countrymen and made him a hero around the globe.
Equally as effective have been videos of disgruntled, older Ukrainians mocking invading Russian forces, like one woman telling soldiers to put seeds in their pockets “so at least sunflowers will grow when you all die here.” Another showing a motorist offering to tow a tank crew back to Russia after they had run out of gas, underscored Ukrainian’s bitter contempt.
But Ukraine has also more effectively set the terms of understanding how the war has progressed by simply offering information about what is going on. Ministries around the country have been aggressive in putting out statements about how the fighting has evolved.
On Monday, Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, said it is restricting access to Russia’s state-media outlets RT and Sputnik in Europe to help prevent the spread of disinformation and propaganda.
From Russia, by contrast, there has mostly been silence. The defense ministry has offered very little information about what is happening on the ground.
State-run TV — which is how most Russians get their news — has presented the war as entirely orderly, and even peaceful, with the aim solely to, as President Vladimir Putin has put it, save Russian-speaking separatists in the east from genocide. Meanwhile, Russia’s media regulator, Roskomnadzor, has threatened to fine or block media outlets that have described the efforts as a war, an invasion or an attack.
It’s a pattern that has repeated itself since Russia seized Crimea and began fomenting a separatist insurgency in Ukraine’s east in 2014.
Right from the beginning, the militarily outmatched Ukrainians seemed to grasp that there was a major advantage to be gained by aggressively fighting the battle for information online.
Russia has traditionally fought this fight by flooding the zone with misinformation and bots to confuse people into not knowing what to believe. But Ukrainians seem to see more value in showing things as they are.
While the descriptions of activities on the front by Ukrainian officials may surely be propagandistic and rife with half-truths and impossibly rosy spin, the Ukrainian people have latched on to the power of their cell phones and social media to show the world what is actually happening on the fronts in Kyiv, Kharkiv and Kherson.
These videos have already played a role in rallying broad foreign support for Ukraine’s defense.
There has also been a fair bit of hero myth-making to rally folks at home and abroad. One such example was the “ghost of Kyiv” tale of a heroic fighter pilot who reportedly shot down six Russian jets in one day. It perhaps seems unlikely that happened, but it served the purpose of inspiring Ukrainians hunkered down under Russian bombing. There was also the viral audio recording of a Ukrainian solider defending an outlying island in the Black Sea, who told a Russian naval ship crew to “go f*** yourself” when asked to surrender before being shelled into oblivion.
The war may only have just begun and so far, it appears to have been fought to a stalemate on the ground. But any advantage on the information battlefront may prove to be decisive.
Lukas I. Alpert is a financial crimes reporter for MarketWatch, and a former Moscow correspondent for The Wall Street Journal.