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Zelenskyy Humanizes Ukraine's Plight in His Social Media Messaging

The country is using social media to expose Russia's invasion and build support for Ukraine's defense.

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Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is using social media to get his country's message out.
Aleksandr Gusev/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

This story is part of War in Ukraine, CNET's coverage of events there and of the wider effects on the world.

From his office in Kiev, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy shoots a selfie-style video on his phone. The clip, one of many Zelenskyy has recorded since Russia invaded his country on Feb. 24, is part of the exhausted-but-defiant leader's effort to rally his besieged country.

The video, shot in landscape rather than more common portrait mode, gives viewers a wide field of view that includes the ornate doors and hallways Zelenskyy walks through.

Wearing a green sweatshirt, Zelenskyy moves with purpose. As he enters another room, the shot subtly changes. The president is recorded on another camera, likely outfitted with a professional lens. Because his selfie was in landscape mode, no jarring jump distracts the viewer. 

"You know, we used to say, 'Monday is a hard day,'" the charismatic president says from a desk flanked by flags that evoke patriotism. "There is a war in this country, so every day is Monday."

Zelenskyy's magnetism, ever-present in selfie videos recorded on the streets of Kyiv, shined again on Wednesday, when the wartime president appealed to the US Congress for more assistance. His constant presence, particularly on social media, exemplifies the Ukrainian government's savvy at bringing its message to both citizens and the broader world. From CNN to Reddit, Ukraine's social media is everywhere, shaping the way the world sees the war ordered by Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Since Russia's attack, which Zelenskyy has described as a "war against the whole of Europe," more than 3 million Ukrainians have fled the country. Russia's military has bombarded Ukrainian cities and other targets. Numbers are difficult to come by, but US officials estimate that thousands of Ukrainians and Russians have been killed. 

Analysts say the Ukrainian government's expertise in shaping its message through social media -- in addition to video, it tweets and creates memes -- has helped it marshal the support of countries around the world. Governments have punished Russia with more sanctions than any other country in history. They've also inspired ordinary people to express support for McDonalds, Coca-Cola, Starbucks and other companies that have suspended operations in Russia.

Ukraine's official social media channels have experienced a surge in followers since the start of the war. Followers of the country's Twitter account soared to 1.9 million followers, nearly 6 times as many as before the war, according to Social Blade. Zelenskyy's Instagram account added more than 6.5 million followers in the last 30 days. 

Posts that lean into memes and other forms of internet humor appear to generate more likes and retweets than straight video or text posts. One meme remixed by the Ukrainian government features actor Toby McGuire and generated 87.3 thousand likes and 11.7 thousand retweets. By contrast, an earlier video calling Russian officials liars prompted 22,000 likes and just under 5,250 retweets.

Olgierd Annusewicz, a professor of political communication at the University of Warsaw, says Ukraine's tight focus on social media rather than television and publications has been key to its success.

"When [Zelenskyy] does it on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, whatever, everybody can listen to it because it's seen worldwide," Annusewicz said in a Zoom interview. Had Zelenskyy used national television, he says, "nobody would listen to it."

In getting its message out, Ukraine's media team hasn't shied away from the grim reality of life in the country. It's used social media to document the ferocity of Russian missile strikes and the toll they take on civilians. Zelenskyy included one gritty video, set to swelling strings, in his address to Congress as he appealed for US help in establishing a no-fly zone over his country. It was also posted to Instagram, the Meta-owned photo-sharing site.

Shortly after the address, US President Joe Biden approved $800 million in new military aid, including drones, anti-aircraft systems and anti-armor missiles. 

On Twitter, Ukraine's tech minister, Mykhailo Fedorov, published an open letter to Apple CEO Tim Cook urging the executive to block the Apple store in Russia. Fedorov also tagged Tesla CEO Elon Musk on Twitter asking for Starlink internet satellites. Apple has closed its stores and App Store in Russia, and Starlink has sent over satellites. 

Russia has blocked social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram in order to prevent the messages from reaching its citizens, though some people seem to be getting around the de facto ban. Instagram is among the most popular apps in the country with around 65 million users, leading to a major spike in VPN demand.

"While they were available, we were trying to reach them," Alex Bornyakov, Ukraine's deputy minister of digital transformation, said about Facebook and Twitter during an interview with CNET. "Now that Russia is banning the platforms, there are less options to reach out to them."

Zelenskyy is a natural messenger for the social media moment. The actor-turned-politician understands the importance of an on-screen presence. He doesn't hide his humanity; anyone watching will know he's acutely aware of the daunting odds his country faces and his personal risk if captured. Still, his commitment to the people has proved to be captivating and stirring.

In a video tweeted out on Thursday, the president surprised a young patient at a hospital with a bouquet of flowers. The young woman, identified as Katya, told Zelenskyy that he was a star on TikTok, too. "We have occupied TikTok!" he told her.

"Social media strategy is only as good as their messengers," said Chris Haynes, an associate professor of political science and national security at the University of New Haven. "We can't overemphasize the importance of his charisma, guile and skill set." 

Ukraine has used its official Twitter account to demonstrate the country is part of an online culture that Russia notably hasn't joined. In addition to wry tweets, it has posted memes and political cartoons to rally support.

"Social media can often have an outsized impact both at home and abroad," Niklas Myhr, an associate professor of marketing at Chapman University, said in an email. Ukraine should include popular Russian social media platforms in order to reach ordinary citizens in its adversary, Myhr said.

Ukraine's social media activity contrasts with the environment in Russia, which still relies heavily on state-run stations and publications. Independent news organizations, such as Germany's Deutsche Welle and Russia's TV Rain have stopped reporting in Russia. The BBC resumed reporting after stopping earlier this month due to a stringent new censorship law. Journalists could face up to 15 years in prison for calling Russia's action a war or an invasion.

Russia has blocked access to the BBC and other publications.

Bornyakov, the Ukrainian politician, says Ukraine is planning new ways to reach Russians but declined to provide details. Given how nimble the country has been, it's likely to be effective.

Correction, 10:40 a.m. PT: An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of the Chapman University professor. His name is Niklas Myhr.