Is Ukraine’s torment becoming a social media sensation?

Maya Moreno, Contributing Writer

Social media — shocking to no one — is catered specifically to keep a user engaged for as long as possible. Social media companies create algorithms to hold attention, and nothing holds attention better than the violent or the profane. The Russian invasion of Ukraine is sensationalized by social media, in part, because of these engagement-driven algorithms. 

Traditional media has practiced similar strategies to maximize engagement for years — the 24-hour news cycle comes to mind, where sensational content is incentivized, similar to internet media.  Videos and pictures of warfare in Ukraine, like the shelling of cities, tanks rolling in and firefights, play out like action movies on our screens, circulating faster on the internet because of the massive user-base of social media platforms — all fueled by algorithms encouraging engagement with candid warfare. All of this creates a “social envelope — of which increasingly concentrated media empires and rivalrous oligopolistic markets are central [to] shaping influences.”

To this end, the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the subsequent media sensation of warfare are part of the newest theater of war — the cyberspace. Governments around the world who are engaged in conflict have an incentive to use whatever media they have access to as a way to propagandize,  generating antagonism toward the enemy and sympathy for the war effort. The war in Ukraine is no exception, and media outlets are eager to play along, often producing content centered around violence, which is both easy to find and emotionally engaging — the perfect combination to maximize engagement. 

While there may be utility in showing and even propagandizing, to an extent, the violence of warfare — we do, after all, need some level of emotional engagement with Vladimir Putin’s actions in order to highlight the atrocity of war. But Ukraine’s torment has evolved beyond what could be considered necessary to call out the actions of Putin. Twitter, Facebook and most other media sources are currently engaged in the age-old tradition of war-profiteering, with a digital twist. 

The issue lies in what is seldom covered — the pathway to peace. As it stands now, in late March of 2022, a no-fly zone over Ukraine and the destruction of Mariupol are the inescapable headlines of social media posts and news crawls alike. Often mentioned, but hardly expanded upon, are the ongoing peace talks between Ukraine and Russia being mediated by Turkey and Israel, during which there have been significant efforts to de-escalate. Currently, it seems Russia’s primary goal is neutrality from Ukraine in not joining NATO. By my metric, coverage of peace talks with informed analysis on broad negotiation strategy and the dismantling of Russian propaganda would do so much more to further peace than talks of a no-fly zone and the depictions of combat violence in Ukraine. 

Our rhetoric surrounding depictions of war should focus primarily on peace. We shouldn’t look at the destruction of a country, all the while sharing its torment among one another, to arrive at positions that would undoubtedly perpetuate death and destruction. What it all comes down to is this: peace in Ukraine will not come if we do not acknowledge the uncomfortable truth that open warfare between nuclear powers has never happened before, and the implications of such a conflict are grim at best. Social media companies are both out of their depth and wholly uninterested in controlling the publication of violent content on their platforms, and do not seem to consider the base truth that wars end in two ways: in death or in concession.