As day promised to turn into another panicked night in Kyiv on Friday, a friend approached Eslam Mamdouh with a desperate plea. Would Mamdouh drive him 340 miles west to Lviv, a city near Ukraine’s border with Poland? Mamdouh agreed though the young nursing student was reluctant to leave what he believed to be the relative safety of the county’s capital during the ongoing Russian invasion. (Troop movements have been hard to track. Most of the fighting—the largest in Europe since World War II—seemed further east at the time, nearer Russia.) They loaded into Mamdouh’s tiny white Ford and headed out of town around 5 as Mamdouh continued to do what he’s done for the past several days: chronicle the whole thing on Snapchat, including public posts to the app’s map function, which allows anyone in the world to zoom over to a place and watch videos uploaded from there.
Reached via a Snap call while stuck in traffic a short time later, Mamdouh quickly changed the view on his video, switching from a camera pointed at him to one aimed at the highway. “You see, you see?” he asks. Up ahead, in the distance—soldiers. “The army is everywhere now,” he says. “Everywhere.” For now, Mamdouh believes, the uniformed figures in Kyiv are Ukrainian forces. The prospect of them soon confronting their Russian counterparts on Kyiv’s streets leaves Mamdouh undeterred from his plan. “I’m going to take my friend, and then I’m going back,” he says, prepared for more evenings huddled beneath the ground in the subway, as Londoners did a century earlier during the Blitz. Having grown up in Egypt, he explains, armed conflict is a somewhat familiar sight.
Really, ever since the Arab Spring swept through Mamdouh’s homeland more than a decade ago, social media has continued to offer a complex window to world events, presenting access we once could expect only through cable news. But the perspective offered through television was a carefully vetted, limited one. Now through on-the-ground posts from average citizens such as Mamdouh, apps like Snap, Telegram, TikTok and Facebook offer an infinitely more expansive glimpse at what happens.
But it comes without the safeguards of a journalistic broadcast, producing a swirl of personal missives like the ones Mamdouh has offered through Snap intermixed with dis- and misinformation about the situation. (Snap Maps is something of an outlier. Since it is geo-tagged, you can take away some greater confidence that the person posting really is there, not a thousand miles away.) Some of that misinformation is deliberately spread, some unintentionally. It still results in the same thing. We get an enlarged picture of situations like the one unfolding in Ukraine, grander than what we could’ve gotten before, but it’s one in which it can be difficult to limn the difference between the real and the fake.
Probably the greatest difference between social media use in Ukraine and previous conflicts is the country’s reliance on Telegram, an app with 400 million users worldwide but one still little known in America. Telegram is one of the most popular social networks in Ukraine, a combination of Twitter, WhatsApp and Facebook launched almost nine years ago by a Russian billionaire, Pavel Durov. (A spokesperson for Durov didn’t return a request to comment.) While Telegram has provided a means for Ukrainians to communicate with each other and the outside world, it has been put to a darker purpose, too.
“Telegram is the breeding ground for anti-democratic disinformation and conspiracy theories,” says Ksenia Iliuk, a data analyst at Detector Media, which tracks malicious content online. Detector and other researchers have identified over two dozen channels on Telegram spreading misinformation meant to aid Russia. Ahead of the invasion, Iliuk says, those Telegram groups focused on sowing and anti-Western sentiment in the country, using terms like “Western reptiloids,” and even sought to propagate a false narrative that the U.S. billionaire George Soros has financed efforts by “proteges of Soros,” “servants of Soros” and “Soros bots” to shove Ukraine toward America. The Soros stories seem ripped straight from the playbook used by conspiracy theorists here in America, which have sought to make the billionaire into a liberal bogeyman.
Ukraine videos have lately been a mainstay on TikTok, too. For much of the last month, clips purporting to show the mobilization of Russian troops for war with Ukraine have accumulated millions of views. (Rob Lee, a doctorate candidate at London’s King’s College, condensed many of them into threads on Twitter.) #UkraineWar has amassed 163 million views on TikTok, while #Ukraine has 10.9 billion views. (For perspective, #Britain has had just 2.6 billion.) Not all of that content is genuine. One TikTok clip purporting to show an armed standoff between Ukrainian and Russian soldiers—the footage is quickly known as the “Face to Face” video—received almost 20 million views before TikTok appeared to pull it down amid a campaign by researchers to mark it as inauthentic. Overnight, another popular recording on TikTok came from an actual skirmish between Ukraine and Russia over Snake Island, a sliver of land in the Black Sea. The video, which the Ukrainian government has verified as authentic, shows 13 Ukrainian troops on the island standing their ground to a Russian warship.
When asked to surrender, the Ukrainian troops give this response: “Russian warship, go f—k yourself.” All 13 were killed. In response, Ukraine will posthumously bestow the highest honour possible on the troops, Ukrainian President Velensky announced earlier today.
For Facebook, the Ukraine crisis is an important test, the company itself under siege by critics for its handling of disinformation. On Thursday, Facebook’s parent company Meta said it has established a “Special Operations Center” to handle information being posted to its platforms about Ukraine. “It is staffed by experts (including native speakers) so we can closely monitor the situation and act as fast as possible,” Meta’s head of security policy, Nathaniel Gleicher, said on Twitter. (Facebook has been faulted for operating in countries while its content moderation teams lacked deep knowledge of the languages used there.) On Friday, Russia said it would restrict access to Facebook, claiming the company has unfairly censored state-sponsored media organizations. Nick Clegg, Meta’s president of global affairs, said Russia had asked the company to stop fact-check work on some outlets’ work.
None of the platforms has said how many pieces of content they have removed from their sites.