War In The Age Of Social Media
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.