Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

Virality Isn’t Victory for Ukraine

Catchy stories can mislead the public about the war’s future.

Braw-Elisabeth-foreign-policy-columnist3
Braw-Elisabeth-foreign-policy-columnist3
Elisabeth Braw
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
Members of the Ukrainian military arrive.
Members of the Ukrainian military arrive.
Members of the Ukrainian military arrive to reinforce a forward position on the eastern front line near Kalynivka village in Kyiv, Ukraine, on March 8. Christ McGrath/Getty Images

If you use Twitter, it’s likely you’ve recently made the acquaintance of a Ukrainian cat named Mikael, nicknamed the “Panther of Kharkiv.” A few days into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, social media users enthusiastically began sharing the news that Mikael, working with Ukrainian soldiers, had detected four Russian snipers in the city.

The Panther of Kharkiv is, of course, bogus. But in this war, global internet users eagerly share news of such uplifting tales. Many people hope the global public can will Ukraine to victory by sharing news of dramatic feats, however fantastical. But Ukraine’s road to victory will be bloody and painful. Sharing news of fantastical but false Ukrainian success will only harm the country.

On Feb. 26, two days after the invasion, a Twitter user posted a video of “[Ukrainian President Volodymyr] Zelensky drinking coffee and chatting with his fellow Kyiv defenders this morning. Imagine what a moral boost it must be for these troops to have the freakin’ president literally fighting next to you. What a badass.” The post has received nearly 200,000 likes and retweets. After a while, someone told the poster that the video was, in fact, from before the invasion. But the poster didn’t remove the post, insisting instead that the Ukrainian president is “still a badass.” That’s a repeat pattern across Twitter, where debunkings of bad information rarely lead to the original post being taken down—and usually get a fraction of the retweets of the original.

If you use Twitter, it’s likely you’ve recently made the acquaintance of a Ukrainian cat named Mikael, nicknamed the “Panther of Kharkiv.” A few days into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, social media users enthusiastically began sharing the news that Mikael, working with Ukrainian soldiers, had detected four Russian snipers in the city.

The Panther of Kharkiv is, of course, bogus. But in this war, global internet users eagerly share news of such uplifting tales. Many people hope the global public can will Ukraine to victory by sharing news of dramatic feats, however fantastical. But Ukraine’s road to victory will be bloody and painful. Sharing news of fantastical but false Ukrainian success will only harm the country.

On Feb. 26, two days after the invasion, a Twitter user posted a video of “[Ukrainian President Volodymyr] Zelensky drinking coffee and chatting with his fellow Kyiv defenders this morning. Imagine what a moral boost it must be for these troops to have the freakin’ president literally fighting next to you. What a badass.” The post has received nearly 200,000 likes and retweets. After a while, someone told the poster that the video was, in fact, from before the invasion. But the poster didn’t remove the post, insisting instead that the Ukrainian president is “still a badass.” That’s a repeat pattern across Twitter, where debunkings of bad information rarely lead to the original post being taken down—and usually get a fraction of the retweets of the original.

When news of the Panther of Kharkiv emerged, a Twitter user responded that “cats can not see infrared light.” Another user replied: “I don’t think they use lasers on snipers either but whatever to motivate Ukraine.” Ever since Russia invaded the country on Feb. 24, people all over the world have been cheering the Ukrainians on in their underdog fight against the Kremlin’s forces. For countless people, sharing social media updates of Ukrainian success—whether real or not—is the most immediate way of showing solidarity.

Zelensky is indeed a badass, an almost accidental president who turned into a formidable wartime leader. But like the Panther of Kharkiv and Zelensky’s alleged coffee with soldiers during the invasion, many of the updates are false. A video posted by an Eastern European media organization—which has been seen more than 1 million times—purports to show how a “#Ukrainian pilot shoots down #Russian attack aircraft near #Kharkov.” In reality, it’s a scene from the video game Arma 3. Other videos being shared show fighting in Libya, Syria, and Iraq; military drills; and the war in eastern Ukraine. Another much-shared video allegedly showing a Ukrainian fighter pilot nicknamed the “Ghost of Kyiv” is, in fact, footage from a digital combat simulator. A virally spread phone call with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu in which Russian President Vladimir Putin admits the war was a mistake is fake too.

The Ukrainian government has also turned out to have an outstanding military public relations team, which unsurprisingly issues updates that make Ukraine look good. That’s what any country does during a war. The problem begins when social media users mistake their amplification of good news—however fantastical—for a step toward Ukrainian victory.

“People who want to show they care about Ukraine don’t wait until a major news outlet confirms the veracity of the content,” a disinformation reporter told me. “They just share away. And a post with thousands of likes or shares is automatically deemed genuine by many people.” Because social media algorithms are designed for virality, countless such social media posts go viral and help create an image of Ukrainian triumph against formidable odds.

Misinformation and disinformation have been plaguing the West for years, especially since Russia became more belligerent around a decade ago. As a result, society rightly focuses on the Kremlin’s falsehood-sharing, which continues during this war and includes the assertion that Ukraine was developing nuclear weapons at the Chernobyl power plant. Yet despite our knowledge of disinformation, we keep posting unverified news about Ukrainian success. That risks creating unrealistic expectations of a swift Ukrainian victory. To be sure, the degree of Ukrainian resistance has been startling—and verified equipment kills are piling up as Western assessments confirm unexpected levels of Russian casualties and stalled advances. But in an unbalanced war, that’s no guarantee of a win.

“The Russians have lost a lot of tanks and a lot of men, but they still have plenty left,” retired Maj. Gen. Pekka Toveri—until recently, Finland’s head of military intelligence—told me. “The Russian armed forces erroneously planned for occupation when they should have planned for combat. But now they’re regrouping, and they’re not planning to give up. That will make this war very bloody, and it will make things very bad for civilians, especially in cities. They’re already bombing cities and evacuation routes, but every civilian they kill will create more resistance.” The war is becoming a war of attrition.

Social media posts portraying anything other than this brutal reality are misinformation, even when the posters have honorable intentions. In fact, spreading inaccurate news of Ukrainian feats will harm the country. “It’s important that we all get an accurate sense of what is happening on the ground in Ukraine, not how we might like things to be,” the disinformation reporter said.

The war is likely to drag on for weeks, possibly months. And as it does, many of Ukraine’s well-wishers around the world will lose interest, especially when all the reports of sniper-detecting cats and Hollywood-like downings of Russian fighter jets don’t translate into swift victory. Even sharing such footage will demean the incredible efforts of the Ukrainians soldiers and civilians still in the country and draw attention away from their plight and heroic acts.

“The first casualty when war comes is truth,” Gov. Hiram Johnson famously said a century ago. But we don’t need to accelerate truth’s demise in this war. Only long, hard fighting will give Ukraine a shot at winning against Putin’s soldiers.

Elisabeth Braw is a columnist at Foreign Policy and a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, where she focuses on defense against emerging national security challenges, such as hybrid and gray-zone threats. She is also a member of the U.K. National Preparedness Commission. Twitter: @elisabethbraw

More from Foreign Policy

A closeup of Russian President Vladimir Putin
A closeup of Russian President Vladimir Putin

What Russia’s Elites Think of Putin Now

The president successfully preserved the status quo for two decades. Suddenly, he’s turned into a destroyer.

A member of the Zimbabwe Republic Police is seen in front of an electoral poster of President Emmerson Mnangagwa
A member of the Zimbabwe Republic Police is seen in front of an electoral poster of President Emmerson Mnangagwa

Cafe Meeting Turns Into Tense Car Chase for U.S. Senate Aides in Zimbabwe

Leading lawmaker calls on Biden to address Zimbabwe’s “dire” authoritarian turn after the incident.

Steam rises from cooling towers at the Niederaussem coal-fired power plant during the coronavirus pandemic near Bergheim, Germany, on Feb. 11, 2021.
Steam rises from cooling towers at the Niederaussem coal-fired power plant during the coronavirus pandemic near Bergheim, Germany, on Feb. 11, 2021.

Putin’s Energy War Is Crushing Europe

The big question is whether it ends up undermining support for Ukraine.

U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres attends a press conference.
U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres attends a press conference.

A Crisis of Faith Shakes the United Nations in Its Big Week

From its failure to stop Russia’s war in Ukraine to its inaction on Myanmar and climate change, the institution is under fire from all sides.