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Everything will be all the time and everywhere
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On Wednesday night, Russia began its invasion of Ukraine, a country that has been independent for over 30 years. The US has announced sanctions, targeting the country's military sector, the UK plans to target Russian banks, removing them from the country's financial system, and the EU is focusing on blocking Russia's supply chain. But Russia is still part of the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunications, or “SWIFT,” an international financial transaction system which would be the toughest sanction that could be imposed on the country.
For the rest of the world experiencing Russia's invasion of Ukraine via social media, it has been a dizzying mix of incomprehensible horror and extremely dumb posts. As social media manager Moh Kloub tweeted on Wednesday, "Twitter feels especially dystopian on nights like this. Tweets about war mixed in with sports, memes, etc., like it’s all of the same importance. Don’t think we were meant to absorb info like this."
It seems clear that our feeds aren’t meant for content like this and are breaking. Memes are colliding with conspiracy theories and fake war footage posted by former meme accounts. Programmatic ads are appearing next to gruesome photos of the dead or Russian propaganda. Our current information landscape was created by American companies and was meant to algorithmically shield its users and, more importantly, brands in walled gardens, safe from the realities of proxy wars fought in far-off places, not a land war in Europe. Bloated and broken capitalist social media platforms run by Silicon Valley monopolies, creaking with age at this point, now have to respond to what could be the first battles of a much bigger war. And, if the last 24 hours are any indication, they are simply not up to the task.
Twitter, usually the center of culture, has now become the center of the war online and Ukraine's Twitter account has taken the popular phrase "posting through it" and given it a new darker meaning, tweeting updates as the Russian military shells the country's major cities. One of the account's most viral tweets yesterday was a cartoon of Hitler caressing Putin's face, which got a lot of shares from Americans who couldn't believe Ukraine was "shitposting" amid an invasion, which seemed to prompt the Ukraine account to post a follow up, writing, "This is not a ‘meme’, but our and your reality right now."
But there is a question of exactly what memes even accomplish in a conflict like this. Tanner Greer, a writer based in Taiwan, wrote in an essay titled, "Thoughts On Shitpost Diplomacy," that the incentives of the internet are not only unrelated to the very tangible concerns of war, but, actually, in opposition to them.
"One’s internet enemies are to be canceled where possible, and lampooned when not. The social media addict knows victory when the right words are used by the right sorts," Greer writes. "But not all enemies can be canceled. Not all fights can be won through clever retweets. The world of flesh and blood does not always work like the world of memes and tweets."
But there seems to be a desire for a full-internet total war, one waged on all levels of cyberspace. And, yet, we still don’t know it if matters. Beyond the world of viral content, the US is currently considering an all-out cyberattack on Russia, but Ukraine is not waiting around. The country's government is building a people's cyber army out of local underground hackers, asking them to help hold the country's digital infrastructure together, and spy on Russian military activity. Hacktivist group Anonymous has activated, as well. They took responsibility for briefly taking Russia Today's website offline last night. Which meant that, at least for a little while, YouTube was one of the last monetized parts of Russia Today's operation still active online.
Google removed Russia Today, the country's main propaganda channel, from their ad tools, but their YouTube videos are still very much monetized. Russia Today's channel has been streaming from Kyiv for days now, all while American brands appear in programmatic ads in front of the channel's news clips blaming the west for the current crisis in Ukraine. But it's not just Russia Today that's streaming Russia's invasion. Many YouTube channels are and, at least in one case, viewers in the chat keep getting mad that "it" is "taking too long".
Justin Hendrix, the editor of Technology Policy Press, wrote, "It is time for Mark Zuckerberg, Sundar Pichai, Parag Agrawal and other Silicon Valley leaders to choose sides, and to suspend these accounts until Russia ceases its attack and withdraws from Ukraine."
But, at least yesterday, it was another social platform that became the center of the Ukrainian invasion's online front — Patreon. The platform was being used in several ways by Ukrainians trying to crowdfund their defense. Most notably, Ukrainian non-governmental organization, Come Back Alive, was using Patreon for crowdfunding, with subscription tiers based on different kinds of weaponry they could buy. The nonprofit's Patreon was banned, with all the money being refunded, and the platform cited their policy against using Patreon for purchasing military equipment and promoting violence.
A Patreon spokesperson said in a statement, "We are shocked and heartbroken at the invasion of Ukraine." Just not heartbroken enough, it seams, to let them use their platform to support their "military activity". Come Back Alive set up a new donation page here.
But Patreon isn't alone sitting on this fence. Ukraine's Twitter account has called on western social media platforms to ban accounts tied to the Russian state and in a frightening parallel to Americans pleading with these companies to stop the insurrection as Trump supporters broke through the doors of the Capitol, so too are we now begging these companies to do something, though, one again, in an irl war, how much does the content on a social platform even matter? Either way, none of have done anything.
And as platforms sit on their hands during this initial phase of the invasion, conspiracy theories and misinformation are, of course, flourishing. One now-suspended Twitter @WarClandestine posted a large thread yesterday alleging that all of this was because Ukraine had "biolabs" that were creating "COVID-2," which is very idiotic, if not especially because COVID-2 would just be a COVID strain that was discovered in 2002. This conspiracy theory would have stayed pretty fringe, except it was promoted by YouTube drama channel KeemStar. Though, he was nice enough to eventually delete his tweets about it.
On Instagram, it’s not conspiracy theories that are spreading (yet), but instead, meme pages are turning into "war pages," with multi-channel networks spuriously posting any and all content that looks like it could be coming from Ukraine, which has led to bizarre breakdowns in Instagram's content economy, including one instance where an OnlyFans creator was advertising lewds amid photos of missile strikes.
But it's TikTok that has really distinguished itself as a place for cynical and awful invasion content. Influencers are making fake live videos of soldiers parachuting into Ukraine and using the videos to collect donations. And, at least according to one content report the platform sent back to a user, these videos do not violate TikTok's policies. Though, it’s worth asking why they would. Using fake content about Ukraine to raise money is scummy, but can or should a platform try to ban fake content? I'm not so sure.
The closest we've seen to some kind of big response from an American tech platform has been Facebook. The company's head of security policy, Nathaniel Gleicher, posted a lengthy thread outlining how the platform was responding to the invasion. Facebook has set up "a Special Operations Center" to "respond in real time." God, I wish I loved anything as much as Facebook loves setting up content moderation command centers. I wonder if this Special Operations Center is in the same room where they used to have their Election War Room back when they cared about monitoring that "in real time". Meanwhile, Russia Today currently has 6.2 million followers on the platform and one of their recent posts this morning is, once again, blaming western leaders for the carnage playing out in Ukraine this week. But it appears Facebook has given Ukrainian users additional security tools, which is good. Also, luckily for Facebook, their content is so low value that it seems like a lot of the invasion content on Facebook is actually just wrongly-labeled gameplay videos from the video game Arma 3.
Speaking of gamers, Elden Ring reviewers are posting tributes to Ukraine on Steam and, as the shelling in Ukraine began Wednesday night, pro eSports player Sasha Kostyliev tweeted, "My city is shelled r fck n".
It's not just the video game community, however, that is suddenly realizing they have users who will be impacted by this. A Reddit user who was active in a bunch of gaming subreddits posted selfies from inside a Moscow police van after getting arrested during an anti-war protest. His account is now deleted, but I went through it yesterday and didn't see anything to indicate that it was fake. And another redditor in the r/WitchesVsPatriarchy subreddit posted footage from Odessa, Ukraine. Once again, there is nothing to indicate it's a troll account. (Her uncle found a huge mushroom last month and users are leaving her nice messages there.)
And if you’re curious about Tumblr, they’re starting to talk about it, but users over there still seem distracted by the live-action Spider-Men doing the Spider-Man pointing meme.
A 4chan user with a Ukrainian IP address flag, posted, "Just felt a boom outside. I'm gonna log off and be with my family. Remember us." Though, the genuine feelings of concern on 4chan were short lived, as other users are beginning to wonder if now is the right time to launch a trolling campaign, where they would make fake accounts to reply to Ukrainian content with angry responses about how it was taking attention off Black Lives Matter in the US.
But you don't need a 4chan psyop for bad Ukraine takes. There were so many produced yesterday that by the end of the day, it had become something of a sport collecting them. For instance, there was the "don't let Russia see The Batman" take and, this morning, the “Putin is Emperor Palpatine” take. And multiple Twitter users who desperately need to go outside got ratio'd for saying the footage of Russian airstrikes were "aesthetically pleasing". The fact that this happened more than once yesterday makes me think that our fascination with vibes has already soured. But what hasn't soured is CNN viewers' appetite for Applebee's, baby.
Witches and astrologers have also mobilized. There are a lot of online covens casting spells against Putin, which, alright, thanks. But astrologers are having a hell of a time figuring out how to get in on this content cycle. One user speculated that all of this was because Putin has a "transiting Saturn opposing his natal Pluto," while another said that Russia is "Scorpio Rising," which could mean it's more powerful than Ukraine. (Can countries have astrological signs?)
The Web3 community is also having a tough time figuring out where they stand. Ethereum founder Vitalik Buterin has been extremely vocal about supporting Ukraine, tweeting in Russian, "Very upset by Putin's decision to abandon the possibility of a peaceful solution to the dispute with Ukraine and go to war instead. This is a crime against the Ukrainian and Russian people. I want to wish everyone security, although I know that there will be no security. Glory to Ukraine." And he then followed that up with another tweet, reading, "Ethereum is neutral, but I am not."
Other Web3 proponents were less graceful, including one user who tweeted, "To those in the Ukraine, stay safe. Apes together strong." And, yes, there are pro-Ukraine DAOs now. Posts on the r/CryptoCurrency subreddit are currently alternating between genuine questions about how to donate crypto to Ukraine and panicked investors trying to figure out if a world at war means a bear or bull market.
It wasn't TikTok witches or comic book fans who produced yesterday's worst Ukraine take, though. It was Anna Lynne McCord, an actress who starred on Nip/Tuck, who posted a video of her reading a poem(?) about how if she were Putin's mother, none of this would have ever happened. My favorite take on this was from @default_friend, who called it, "The fandomification of global conflict." Which could be seen everywhere yesterday. I feel very bad for the empaths of the world right now.
McCord wasn't the only celeb who was "at it again". John Cena tweeted he wished he could "summon the powers of a real life #Peacemaker," which is both very dumb and also an incredible display of misunderstanding his own character. Peacemaker, while slightly redeemed by the end of the HBO show, is a sociopathic murderer. Kendall Jenner didn't comment directly on Ukraine, but she did post an Instagram Story saying that we need to start experiencing things more, which I think we can all agree was weirdly timed. It was Bravo's Andy Cohen, though, who posted a Wordle-themed tribute to Ukraine that was so bad it made me scream out loud, which you can hear in this week's episode of my podcast.
The best take of the day was not about Ukraine, however. Instead, it was from the delightfully boring Guardian columnist Adrian Chiles who posted a lovely tribute to letting delivery drivers use his toilet when they drop off packages, which was then, incredibly, frontpaged by The Guardian alongside their Ukraine stories.
Finally, Substack writer Matt Taibbi issued a breathtaking apology for his months (or years) of playing down the dangers of Vladimir Putin. "My mistake was more like reverse chauvinism, being so fixated on Western misbehavior that I didn’t bother to take this possibility seriously enough," Taibbi wrote. "To readers who trust me not to make those misjudgments, I’m sorry. Obviously, Putin’s invasion will have horrific consequences for years to come and massively destabilize the world."
Meanwhile, Edward Snowden hasn't tweeted for four days.
Yesterday morning, we all woke up in a different world. We do not know where we are going, only that we are entering a very dark time. We've never seen a fully connected world at war like this before. And, for better or worse, our current very-broken information landscape is the one that this war will be fought on, as well.
Propaganda, shitposts, cyberwarfare, and viral content will blur together, breaking our understanding of our own feeds, bringing global conflicts closer to home than ever, but also distorting our understanding of them. As much as people on Twitter love to moan about “reading the room” and knowing when to post certain content, there has never been a cohesive single internet that fit within the traditional tonal boundaries expected of other media like TV or the radio. And that is now truer than ever. Everything will be all the time and everywhere, but also nowhere and moving too fast process.
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