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Are young people ambivalent about Ukraine — or about the news?

Distrust of mainstream narratives is spreading.

US Marines burned their fortifications on front-line positions in Fallujah, Iraq, before pulling out of the city on April 30, 2004. Perceptions of this war may be contributing to cynicism about today's war in Ukraine and other international news.JOHN MOORE/Associated Press

A recent YouGov poll, commissioned by The Economist, suggests that roughly half of American respondents under 30 do not sympathize more with Ukraine in the current conflict. The rest either are unsure, do not sympathize with either side, or sympathize more with Russia.

Why would younger Americans be likelier to hold such a blasé attitude toward the war? After spending the past eight years tracking the evolution of popular dissent online, I think these findings point toward an emerging youth culture that openly distrusts the news.

Political disengagement might partially explain these attitudes. But I would suggest that media disengagement is the reason for ambivalence. Young people appear increasingly likely to believe that institutions are using news to nudge popular opinion toward particular ways of thinking. To what ends? Well, that would be what’s considered a “known unknown.” Young people may “know” (or believe they know) the mechanisms by which information is used to suit institutional agendas, even if the specific intent of the supposed agenda remains unknown.

It is at this boundary of “unknowingness” that young people engage in the sport of media deconstruction. There is competition for social prestige to provide novel interpretations of the day’s events, with bonus points for taking a controversial position. The daily inhumanities in Ukraine become just another media happening to be deconstructed. They hold similar importance to the slap Will Smith gave Chris Rock at the Oscars — it’s an event to be disputed. Was it staged? Was it justified? Was it a distraction? Your answers can earn you prestige online.


People younger than 30 grew up watching the “war on terror” on TV. The events of 9/11, and government officials asserting that Iraq hid weapons of mass destruction. The abuses at Abu Ghraib. Soldiers returning in coffins amid debates over whether it was all for oil. Then the withdrawal, the chaos facing those left behind.


It is, perhaps, no wonder that young people are jaded about the war in Ukraine: The narratives may seem all too familiar. When Sean Hannity points to US support of the Afghan mujahedeen in the 1980s as a moral rationale for providing weapons to Ukrainians, it creates an uncomfortable parallel suggesting how allies may become enemies. When Don Lemon seemingly walks back Biden’s statement that Putin “cannot remain in power,” it is a reminder that national media outlets softened the rhetoric around the war on terror. So when young people encounter mainstream narratives about the moral imperative to support Ukraine’s defense against Russian aggression or Putin’s madman crusade to rebuild the Soviet Union, they are likely to wonder if this is a ploy to get Americans on board with the idea of playing world police once again.

Is it bad for America to police the world? Great question, but I do not think the younger generations are inclined to morally assess geopolitics. Young people on both the left and the right are fond of critiquing global capitalism. Generally, these critiques assert that powerful elites (BlackRock, Bill Gates, Purdue Pharma — take your pick) spend capital to influence opinion and advance their agendas. As such, there is an expectation that news about Ukraine has been manufactured to maximize revenue for both news organizations and their financiers.

You see this framing across broad, interrelated networks of podcasts, live streams, and Telegram channels. The presumption of authenticity is what makes this alternative media apparatus attractive to people under 30. These channels hold themselves out as daring spaces for conversations you would not hear on mainstream news, led by personalities who project the idea that while they may be wrong, at least they don’t lie to fit someone else’s agenda.


There is a growing appetite for media content that runs counter to the perceived status quo of the last 10 years. Unfortunately, this demand is now being met by those who seek to demonstrate to their audience that everything produced by mainstream media is a corporate-backed falsehood. Even nonprofit media organizations like National Public Radio are treated with skepticism, as they receive funding from grantmaking bodies that are presumed to have links to corporate entities that are attempting to install a distinctly American brand of global control. Young Americans are tired of feeling like they are part of the problem. One solution is to increasingly disengage from the mainstream and build an entirely new understanding of what America “should” be doing.

Everything I have seen over eight years suggests that the YouGov poll results were not an anomaly or outlier. Media deconstruction on social media is becoming increasingly effective, while unplugging from mainstream news is becoming increasingly fashionable. Countering these trends will take a monumental effort from everyone within mainstream media to engage with disaffected youth. This will mean trying to understand where their reservations have come from and taking the time to demonstrate how news is made. There is a role for long-form video and audio content that explores conversations of the day and repackages news in more accessible formats. Finally, journalists should see podcasting and streaming as opportunities to market themselves to a new audience. Journalists need to share their authentic insights and understanding of particular stories while letting the audience know who they are.


Martin Rooke is a research fellow in the technology and social change project at the Harvard Kennedy School.