Social media war and conflict on the ground are two different things

For every conflict that is well covered or analysed by the news media, there are countless that remain unreported, ignored or marginalised

By Prasun Sonwalkar

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Published: Sun 17 Apr 2022, 10:40 PM

Words and visuals shape narratives and outcomes, particularly when truth becomes the first casualty in the fog of war. How the grim events are reported, which frames are used, who are the good and bad guys: the ways in which the news media report help citizens make sense of a conflict’s progress and decide whether they support their governments, or not. Historically, advances in media technology altered the reporting of war, which was for long the domain of print journalists, who were subject to tight control, censored or allowed limited access and embedding during the two World Wars, until television arrived.

The Vietnam War (1955-75) is considered the ‘first television war’, when for the first time in American history, news from the frontlines was brought straight into the living room. The visuals of ‘American boys’ dying led to an outcry of public opinion, galvanised the anti-war movement, and eventually helped end the war. The first Gulf War (1990-91) was the first conflict covered live on television, led by CNN. The news channel’s defining impact at the time is since embodied in political and media theory as ‘the CNN effect’: how instant, real-time media coverage builds pressure on governments and policy-makers to act, and eventually influences the outcome of conflicts.

Cut to 2022 and the ongoing Ukraine-Russia conflict has already been described as the ‘TikTok war’, or more generally, the ‘first social media war’. The mediatisation of war and conflict in a networked world is intense, reflected now at many levels:

• Following Kremlin’s framing, the Russian media call the conflict a ‘special military operation’ (calling it anything else invites jail term), while for Ukraine and its western allies, it is an ‘invasion’ and ‘war’;

• Russia has banned access to western media in the country, but BBC, for example, explained in detail to Russians how they could circumvent the ban online;

• Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has been savvy with social media, frequently producing videos in which he addresses his people, Russia or western allies, and also uses online technology to address various parliaments;

• If you access western news media and social media platforms, it is clear who are the good and bad guys in the conflict, also because western tech platforms have silenced Russian voices and perspectives;

• The key role of ‘citizen journalism’ (first evident during the 2004 tsunami in southeast Asia): ordinary Ukrainians and young social media influencers have been shaping the narrative by providing graphic, raw footage of life under siege in places where journalists and aid workers cannot reach (for example, during the tragedy in Bucha);

• The western news media are dominated by human interest stories and narratives of wide support for Ukraine, while Russian perspectives are largely ignored;

• Online sleuths and fact-checkers use geo-location and other data to quickly confirm or debunk rival claims.

As media technology advanced to enable instant production and communication, information warfare was factored into battle plans. The idea of ‘hybrid war’, often mentioned in the Ukraine-Russia conflict, includes the domain of information and the contest to dominate narratives. But much as Ukraine and Zelenskiy appear to dominate the news and social media space, at least in the west, there is growing awareness that ‘social media war’ and war on the ground are two entirely different things.

As Cambridge academic John Naughton writes, “Seeing the embattled Ukrainians vanquish Putin on social media is deeply satisfying. But there’s a whiff of Arab spring about it – a tendency to confuse online excitement with more sobering realities of power, ideology and ruthlessness. When Stalin was informed that the pope was opposed to something he wanted to do, his icy riposte was: ‘And how many divisions has the pope?’ Something similar applies today. Faced with the rout of his bots on social media and his banishment from tech platforms, Vlad the Invader might similarly inquire how many missiles does TikTok or Facebook possess? And he knows the answer, as do we in our hearts. The battle for Ukraine won’t be fought with memes.

Zoom out from the Ukraine-Russia conflict and you see another dimension of the mediatisation of conflict: ‘out of sight, out of mind’, or the non-reporting of the large number of small wars and insurgencies across the globe, within countries as well as at the international level. The marginalisation or absence of media coverage of such conflicts precludes ‘the CNN effect’, there is less pressure on policy-makers to act to resolve them, which has further implications for peace and development, particularly in conflicts that involve minorities and/or geographical peripheries within large countries.

Selectivity is built into the processes and dynamics of news production. Violence and terrorism have long been privileged as key news values in media theory, but they clearly remain hostage to the defining threshold of cultural proximity. Wars and conflicts are not intrinsically newsworthy; they need to be culturally proximate enough to become news, in international as well as national settings. Even a high degree of violence in conflicts may not always qualify as news if it does not involve the ‘right’ perpetrators or victims in the ‘right’ geographies of culture. For every conflict that is well covered or analysed by the news media, there are countless that remain unreported, ignored or marginalised.

The power geometry of international relations ensures that conflicts involving major actors such as the United States, western European states, Nato are extensively covered by news superpowers based in the west. But the situation is different in relation to a large number of ongoing wars in various theatres of conflict across the globe; many now involve challengers with an international reach, which makes it all the more vital to ensure wider coverage and awareness, greater scrutiny and more action to resolve underlying issues.

The writer is a senior journalist based in the UK

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