How digital media could help end the conflict in Ukraine

In the lead-up to Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine last week, much of the information the public received was from open-source intelligence. Commercial satellite imagery, mainstream media coverage and social media video footage all combined to provide a detailed picture of the Russian military build-up. Most major cities are covered by CCTV, which has helped police solve crimes but also enabled repression by authoritarian regimes.

In Russia, dashcam footage abounds. In Ukraine, we can already tune in to live CCTV footage from major cities and witness the Russian military crossing Ukrainian borders and making its way through Crimea.

But now, with Russia having invaded Ukraine, could real-time video also play a role in ending the conflict?

Despite advancements in ‘deep fake’ technology, video is a powerful weapon for the truth. One of the defining images of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protest is video (and stills) of a lone Chinese citizen holding up a column of tanks. During the 2011 Arab Spring, mobile phone video footage was sent out on social networks over the internet, bypassing state media. Al Jazeera, one of the most trusted news sources in the Arab world, amplified those messages and provided a window into events for many in the West.

So too in 2019 in Hong Kong, where months long protests were documented by video and disseminated through social media. Chinese authorities went to extraordinary lengths to clamp down on dissent, including stopping video content from Hong Kong from making its way into mainland China through the social media platform Weibo. Beijing also provided a counternarrative in an effort to nullify the persuasive effects video imagery can have.

But it’s not only in authoritarian regimes that video footage has changed the course of history. In February 1968, with the US in a bloody conflict in Vietnam, widely regarded as the first televised war, American news anchor Walter Cronkite’s on-the-ground reporting has been credited with exposing the US position as far worse than official government reporting had claimed. Controversy still rages as to whether Cronkite’s coverage undermined the US war effort or legitimately reported in the public interest. Either way, the images emerging from Vietnam turned public opinion and ultimately led to political pressure that caused the US to withdraw.

Large social unrest has also resulted from video imagery of police brutality. The 1992 Los Angeles riots following the acquittal of police accused of beating Rodney King were largely caused by the public having seen video footage of the event beamed into their living rooms. The death of George Floyd in 2020 at the hands of Minneapolis police, captured in excruciating detail on video by onlookers, sparked the global Black Lives Matter movement calling for social change.

Ukraine’s own ‘Euromaidan’ revolution in 2014, which overthrew the pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych and ushered in a more euro-friendly government, was greatly assisted by video broadcast on social media drawing Ukrainians into the street.

Russia surely knows this, and may soon use cyberattacks on Ukrainian communications infrastructure to limit the flow of information out of Ukraine, but it will also need to limit the spread of information at home. For now, video footage caught on CCTV and with widespread mobile phone usage helps document the invasion and counter the Kremlin’s disinformation narrative.

Extraordinary moments of bravery by ordinary citizens willing to confront an armed foe have already been documented. In the face of overwhelming military might, Ukraine can’t hope to win a conventional military conflict, but must instead try to prevail by maintaining resolve and winning sympathy and support worldwide.

While Western governments try to contain and ultimately defuse the Ukrainian crisis through increasing sanctions, Russian President Vladimir Putin will only back down if it becomes too politically damaging for him to persist. This requires domestic pressure, which the West’s sanctions may spark if they bite on ordinary Russians’ economic wellbeing. Some have speculated that the invasion of Ukraine may ultimately lead to 69-year-old Putin’s downfall.

The invasion and the consequences for both Russia and Ukraine will be documented on video and shared with the world. While ‘fake news’ will no doubt emerge on both sides, and we ought to treat all footage with caution until verified, video is a highly effective medium. Vision of the progress of the invasion will likely unify and embolden Western liberal democracies to strengthen measures against the Kremlin.

To build a movement for change from within, Russian opposition to Putin needs to employ elements of past successful protest movements. The old adage still stands that seeing is believing, and with millions of lenses capturing events globally, what one person films can now be instantly seen by thousands.

As events in the US, Hong Kong, the Arab world and elsewhere have shown, video messaging on social media can be a powerful motivator for change. We may already be starting to see seeds of opposition within Russia to Putin’s war. Should that protest movement build, we may see the beginnings of a peaceful revolution—and one that will be televised.