Some say the first internet war was in Kosovo. If you had one of the biggest machines masquerading as computers at the time, you could plug in, log in, and reach the front lines without any middle man. You might receive an email from an Albanian businessman or walk into a chat room with a beleaguered student in Belgrade. Others combat that the War on Terror was the real original Internet War. After all, it was the first where our own newspapers were also widely online – bloody dispatches ready with a click and a bit of buffering.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, however, is a war of the platform age – the truly digital age, where social media has become central to social life, and where we don’t use not the web just to gather information, but also to spit it out.
The Arab Spring, of course, spawned the new reality in which citizens turn conflict into content. But as essential as Twitter, Facebook and the like were to these uprisings, most of the speech still came from people physically present at the scene, with the rest of us reading and watching. Ukraine feels different from many of us, especially young Westerners.
There is an unsavory racial element to our attachment to this crisis: a CBS reporter recently blundered that Ukraine is more “civilized” than others Internet-age war zones – like Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan or Yemen – are one reason the clash has captivated some in the West.
But also responsible for how we deal with today’s events is an evolution in the way we use the internet. Always inclined now towards interactivity, we participate rather than simply observe what is happening thousands of kilometers away. We serve memes created in Kyiv or Kharkiv to the timeline of Brooklyn residents, using algorithms designed in Silicon Valley. Sometimes we forge our own rallying cries.
Consider the obsession with Paddington Bear, which Ukrainian President (and former comic actor) Volodymyr Zelensky voiced in the film’s Ukrainian dub. The cuddly creature and unlikely hero is known in the eponymous films for delivering a “hard look” to bullies. Now an image with this trademark expression win the legend from a recent speech by Zelensky: “When you attack, it will be our faces you will see, not our backs.”
It’s not the only line viewers have adopted as an expression of their own distant challenge. “Russian warship, fuck you,” said soldiers defending a coastal island as they refused to surrender, just before the bombardment. Now, the replica has become ubiquitous as an ornament on Westerners’ Instagram stories.
Zelensky’s almost cartoonish charisma, of course, inspires us to encourage the good guys. His speeches look like they could have been written by a 21st century Shakespeare – emotional and electrifying, but now eminently clippable and shareable too. Its government’s ease with the lingua franca of the internet doesn’t hurt either. See, for example, Ukraine’s official Twitter account.
“It’s not a ‘meme’, but our and your reality right now,” he job alongside a cartoon of Adolf Hitler patting Putin on the cheek as Russia invaded on Thursday. On Saturday, the same page took the time to explain to a random netizen why New Jersey’s official Twitter account is among the 24 he follows: “Because they’re cool,” Ukraine responded, just days after its invasion. This combination of sincerity and weirdness is just what a seriously threatened nation needs to navigate the often silly space of social media.
But what if the story turns tragic? We in North America and Western Europe have never really been the fighters here. We cheerfully press “send” on tweets while real soldiers gravely throw javelins. Our pseudo-participation, whether or not our hearts are in the right place, has been a kind of unhealthy pleasure. But when the fun stops, we can tune out, as we do whenever we get tired of staring at our screens. Meanwhile, in Ukraine, the war will continue. There is no closing the laptop in real life.