War storytelling in the digital media era

That public opinion followed a conflict in real time by obtaining direct information from the most influential personalities involved was inconceivable twenty years ago. In recent years, however, the whole world has experienced the intense media presence around the pandemic caused by COVID-19, an event of historical and global significance. In recent weeks, the current war conflict has been the focus of attention, a very sensitive issue whose stakes seem to be different. What will be the effects of the very rapid and continuous circulation of news on a situation which is already very uncertain in itself? So, what is the weight of digital media on contemporary war storytelling?

Zelenskyy's direct communication strategy

Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the Ukrainian president who has become a symbol of resistance to the Russian invasion, uses social networks to spread awareness and to appeal to the international community. He immediately used Twitter - the most suitable social media for official communications - to keep his citizens and the rest of the world constantly updated on the continuing implications of the conflict.

On his Twitter and Telegram channels Zelenskyy prefers to wear a camouflage t-shirt rather than a formal suit. This has helped to strengthen his image as a fighter defending his country. These videos (some of which went viral) has also helped to convey a sense of proximity to the Ukrainian population, who saw in their president a hero fighting for his homeland.

Zelenskyy's communication is very intelligent because it exploits this sense of closeness and ease of dialogue with the aim of strengthening consensus and conveying one's intentions in the most direct and effective way possible. These elements are undoubtedly essential in times of war, where every second and every information is precious.

At the same time, Zelenskyy's communication strategy is in stark contrast to that of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who instead prefers communications with a decidedly more austere and institutional form. This difference is absolutely revelatory of the different self-image that the two leaders aim to communicate to their own nations and internationally. This shows, once again, how communication always fits into a particular narrative context, and the same goes for digital media.

Meta: in the middle of the conflict

Even more interesting is the position taken by Meta, one of the top media-tech companies in the Western market.

Facebook has 70 million subscribers located in Russia and 24 million in Ukraine. In the era of digital media, companies in this industry has acquired enormous power deriving from their ability to control international media storytelling and consequently also the public opinion perception.

Aware of this, President Putin restricted access to Facebook in Russian territory after Meta refused to remove disclaimers indicating the risk of possible fake news posted by Kremlin-affiliated accounts. In response, Meta blocked any type of propagandistic content coming from the Russian state media. Meta's hard stance makes his position clear.

Although Russia has its own social media, it is not irrelevant for the Russian state to lose an information channel like Facebook, especially for international coverage purposes.

When conflicts change, narratives change too

As we all know, the media support for the Ukrainian population has been considerable and continues to be. Keeping this example in mind, we cannot fail to notice notable differences in the war storytelling between this and as many dramatic conflicts outside the West such as the civil war in Yemen, or the conflicts involving the Republics of Central Africa, or finally the now known war situation in Afghanistan.

The invasion of Ukraine is currently in the spotlight of Western media attention. In the past, however, many other countries that did not fall within the Western media interest area did not receive the same media coverage. Trying to understand the reasons, this phenomenon can be explained by cultural proximity. Many viral Western media videos are amazed that the conflict in Ukraine is taking place in what they call "civilized" territories - at the same time inappropriately alluding to the uncivilized nature of non-Western countries. This clearly demonstrates how the difference in media narratives is partly driven by discriminatory reasons.

Media pressure on political actors

In the universe of digital media, where information is ever greater and travels quickly, we must ask ourselves how this impacts the already existing media pressure on the actors involved. Could the constant request for updates and crucial information cause an acceleration in making decisive decisions about the conflict? While it may seem risky to allow public opinion to participate in crucial discussions in real time, at the same time this is the result of the essential component of the Internet, namely democratic engagement. The Internet is an unregulated territory in many of its aspects, but this is a double-edged sword, especially when it comes to such sensitive issues.

We can only be spectators of the inevitable changes that technology brings to the media sector, the one with the greatest political weight ever and which has always guided the evolution of mass culture, with our values, ideals, perceptions and opinions within.

Translated by Simona Taravella

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  • L'Autore

    Mariam Ndiaye


Sections Technology and Innovation


media digital war Russia communication information news

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