It is estimated that 36 million Russians use TikTok, the social media app that delivers entertaining and informational short videos. That explains, in part, why the Biden administration brought 30 social media influencers onto a Zoom call for a briefing about Ukraine. The hope is that many Russian TikTok users will be able to access social media and influence their fellow citizens on Russia’s invasion of sovereign Ukraine.
Russian President Vladimir Putin understands the influence of social media. He shut down foreign media and blocked Instagram as of Monday, leaving his own population in the dark. Meanwhile, news outlets inside Russia have been instructed not to say anything about Ukraine. Independent news stations have been shut down, and even state-run media staff have walked off the job.
The efforts to engage social media won’t stop Putin’s army from bombing Kyiv, targeting civilians, and occupying an independent nation. Russian critics of the war, many of whom bravely took to the streets at the start of the invasion, have been imprisoned. Their voices, for now, have been silenced. They sit in Russian jails or under house arrest, awaiting trials while Russian operatives track their families.
But where social media and media writ large will matter is in the days and months ahead, when a Russian occupation of Kyiv will run headlong into public opposition from within Russia and from around the world. Occupying a nation is expensive and deadly. As the economic pain of sanctions grows real for ordinary Russian citizens, the best hope is that critics within Putin’s circle will feel empowered to resist the authoritarian rule that is ruining their nation. That is the moment when social media can penetrate the iron curtain and inspire resistance.
Putin’s propaganda has limited value. It can galvanize people to support a phony war for a brief period. But as losses of Russian troops mount and the bodies come home, information will seep out, and those who can gain access to their mobile phones will learn about the war crimes committed by their government. Young people may rise up and risk their lives as they come to understand the false narrative of a dictator who has silenced opposing views and imprisoned dissidents.
Unfortunately, the fight over “truth” all over the world, aided and abetted by social media platforms spreading false information, has had a corrosive effect on citizens everywhere. Even in the United States, there is a basic lack of trust and confidence in government and the media, making it harder, in a time of war, to convince people about facts on the ground; this will be especially true for those in totalitarian societies, where information is tightly controlled. But the truth does, eventually, come to the surface, and the message will get out that what Russia is doing is criminal and disastrous.
This war has raised the stakes for everyone, everywhere. Information from Ukraine has come steadily and constantly, galvanizing citizens in every corner of the globe. Correspondents are reporting live from the ground. Refugees are posting video diaries. Ukrainian officials are tweeting from shelters. The sounds of shelling in Kyiv can feel deafening even for those of us thousands of miles away.
The Biden administration is right to keep social media influencers in the loop on the war, in the hopes that some Russians, through VPN technology or by other means, will be able to download news about what Russia is really doing in Ukraine rather than accept Putin’s propaganda or remain in the dark. Information energizes public sentiment. Energizing global opinion against Russia and in favor of Ukraine will continue if the wall-to-wall reporting, on all platforms, continues.
Tara D. Sonenshine is professor of practice of public diplomacy at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. She served as US undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs from 2012 to 2013.