War In The Age Of So­cial Media

Kyiv Post - - Front Page - BY ALYONA ZHUK [email protected]

Many don’t think twice about their posts on so­cial media, but for Ukrainian sol­diers in the Don­bas war zone, what they do online could be a mat­ter of life and death.

So­cial media net­works like Face­book and its Rus­sian coun­ter­part, Vkon­takte, have played a huge role in Rus­sia’s war against Ukraine, now 16 months old with no end in sight.

Who could for­get the damn­ing Vkon­takte posts by Rus­sian-sep­a­ratist com­man­der Igor Strelkov last July, in which he bragged that his men had shot down a Ukrainian mil­i­tary plane at the same time MH17 was shot out of the sky, killing 298 civil­ians?

Or the Rus­sian “selfie sol­diers”

who un­wit­tingly ex­posed Rus­sia’s deep in­volve­ment in the war by post­ing photos of them­selves in mil­i­tary uni­form in Luhansk?

Ukrainian sol­diers have been just as ac­tive on so­cial media. But their ac­tiv­ity doesn’t sim­ply risk em­bar­rass­ing their gov­ern­ment. It risks giv­ing the en­emy crit­i­cal in­for­ma­tion that could lead to de­feat in bat­tle.

“There have been cases where po­si­tions were re­vealed, which led to ac­tive shelling,” Dmytro Pod­vor­chan­sky from the Dnipro-1 Reg­i­ment told the Kyiv Post.

“Or if a per­son wrote that there was shelling, and it was se­vere – that could let the en­emy know that the at­tack was ef­fec­tive, and that they need to at­tack the same spot again.”

The other side makes the same mis­takes, ac­cord­ing to Pod­vor­chan­sky.

“We can trace them, find out where they are,” he said, adding that many Ukrainian sol­diers look through so­cial media for ac­counts of Rus­sian or sep­a­ratist fight­ers, most of whom use Vkon­takte.

The ac­counts of­ten give away the users’ lo­ca­tion un­less they were care­ful enough to switch lo­ca­tion ser­vices off.

All the same, Pod­vor­chan­sky said, it is safe for sol­diers to use Face­book and other so­cial media as long as they fol­low cer­tain rules: Turn off ge­olo­ca­tion and avoid post­ing pic­tures of any build­ings or rec­og­niz­able ob­jects. He said even the shadow of a build­ing or a large pipe could re­veal a soldier’s po­si­tion.

There is no of­fi­cial pol­icy on the use of so­cial media by sol­diers.

Vla­dyslav Seleznyov, a spokesman for the Gen­eral Staff, said that so far the mil­i­tary had been re­ly­ing on sol­diers to use their com­mon sense.

“At the na­tional level, there are no re­stric­tions on the use of so­cial media [by sol­diers], but there is an un­der- stand­ing that it could be dan­ger­ous,” Seleznyov said, adding that mil­i­tary in­struc­tors of­fer sol­diers train­ing on how to be dis­creet in us­ing so­cial media while near the front.

Many sol­diers don’t like be­ing pho­tographed due to con­cerns about their own safety or that of their fam­ily, Pod­vor­chan­sky says.

These are usu­ally sol­diers from the Rus­sian-an­nexed Ukrainian ter­ri­tory of Crimea or the ar­eas of Donetsk or Luhansk oblasts where armed groups have seized con­trol from the lo­cal author­i­ties, Pod­vor­chan­sky added.

Oth­ers are gain­ing fame from their posts online, which give the world a glimpse of what is hap­pen­ing in eastern Ukraine.

It can even help, Pod­vor­chan­skyi said, when such sol­diers use their pop­u­lar­ity to “com­pe­tently and calmly” ex­plain to peo­ple what’s hap­pen­ing in the coun­try.

“[But] some­times there are panic-mon­gers, who even dur­ing a quiet phase find a way to write that all is lost, ev­ery­one has sur­ren­dered, etc.,” he said.

Ilya Bo­hdanov, who served in the Right Sec­tor’s Ukrainian Vol­un­teer Corps for nine months un­til the end of May, gained online pop­u­lar­ity. He now has al­most 12,500 fol­low­ers on Face­book.

Ac­cord­ing to Bo­hdanov, so­cial media help to “de­liver truths that are dif­fi­cult to de­liver.”

He told the Kyiv Post he once wound up in hot wa­ter with com­man­ders for writ­ing that many Ukrainian sol­diers drink in the war zone.

“I just wrote how it was: Ev­ery­thing was kept se­cret,” he said.

Chal­leng­ing of­fi­cial line

Face­book has cer­tainly pro­vided a plat­form to chal­lenge of­fi­cial in­for­ma­tion about the war. Per­haps the most high-pro­file case of this was the Fe­bru­ary bat­tle of De­balt­seve, when Pres­i­dent Petro Poroshenko’s state­ments on the Ukrainian mil­i­tary’s re­treat were met with out­rage and dis­be­lief.

Poroshenko said the re­treat had been “planned and or­ga­nized,” with just over a dozen sol­diers killed. Sol­diers, how­ever, took to Face­book to dis­pute the ac­count, say­ing fa­tal­i­ties were at least in the hun­dreds and that the re­treat had been chaotic.

While Bo­hdanov has used so­cial media to ex­pose the re­al­i­ties of war, he said he tried to avoid con­vey­ing a “de­pres­sive mood,” and never posted graphic im­ages of dis­fig­ured bod­ies, as some other sol­diers have done.

Another online star, Don­bas Bat­tal­ion soldier Yevhen Shevchenko, who has more than 20,000 fol­low­ers, says he uses his so­cial media ac­counts for self-ex­pres­sion.

He posts lots of photos and videos from the front line, but says he never re­veals the lo­ca­tion of ma­chine gun or ar­tillery po­si­tions.

Some videos that he has posted show him fir­ing at the en­emy or run­ning through a half-de­stroyed build­ing. Some footage has had back­ground mu­sic added and is rem­i­nis­cent of a com­puter game.

Psy­chol­o­gist Olena Bo­hatyreva says such videos can be use­ful in that they en­cour­age young­sters to join the army. But there is a hid­den risk from such post­ings, she said.

“A boy goes to war, think­ing it’s fun there, and then comes face to face with a scary re­al­ity, where peo­ple are killed for real, and you can’t just start again like you can in a com­puter game,” Bo­hatyreva told the Kyiv Post.

Mil­i­tary ex­pert Olek­siy Mel­nyk from the Razumkov Cen­ter think tank says that the big­gest dan­ger lies in us­ing mo­bile phones in the war zone. There have been cases when Rus­sian-sep­a­ratist forces at­tacked a lo­ca­tion where the sig­nal of mo­bile phones has been tracked, he says.

Par­lia­ment has al­ready acted in the face of that threat: In a vote on July 1, the leg­is­la­ture passed a bill lim­it­ing the use of mo­bile and wire­less com­mu­ni­ca­tions by the Ukrainian army. Ac­cord­ing to the bill, sol­diers will need to get per­mis­sion from their su­pe­ri­ors to use their phones.

Mel­nyk cham­pi­oned the new leg­is­la­tion, say­ing it aims to boost sol­diers’ safety. But he said it could also have the un­in­tended ef­fect of cut­ting off sol­diers from their loved ones.

“The ab­sence of com­mu­ni­ca­tion [be­tween sol­diers and their rel­a­tives] will be­come a huge deal for a lot of them in just a cou­ple of days. With the cur­rent ten­sions in the coun­try, there has to be a way [for rel­a­tives] to con­tact sol­diers,” he said.


Sol­diers of the vol­un­teer Ukrainian Dnipro-1 Bat­tal­ion take a selfie in the vil­lage of Cher­ma­lyk, some 40 kilo­me­ters north­east of the eastern Ukrainian port of Mar­i­upol in Donetsk Oblast on Feb. 26. Rus­sia’s war against Ukraine is be­ing fought in an...


Don­bas Bat­tal­ion soldier Yevhen Shevchenko stands on top of a train car with logs in Luhansk Oblast. The pic­ture was taken in mid-June dur­ing an anti-smug­gling op­er­a­tion, ac­cord­ing to Shevchenko.

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