Digital Warfare. The Russian Full Scale Invasion against Ukraine as Enacted on Telegram
Screenshots from the “Colonel Cassad” Telegram channel (https://t.me/s/boris_rozhin)
Digital Warfare. The Russian Full Scale Invasion against Ukraine as Enacted on Telegram
Since Russia’s military invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, the messaging app Telegram has played a major role in the so-called information warfare. Telegram has developed into the central digital battleground of the conflict. For both warring parties, Telegram – one billion downloads in 2022 – works as an information center that brings together the data and images currently collected by the swarm intelligence. The app communicates the latest military developments, disseminates air raid warnings, documents war crimes, forwards satellite images for potential targets or lists maps of local air raid shelters. A new era of military reconnaissance, archiving and mutual reconnaissance has dawned.
In addition to means of disseminating information, Telegram also provides communication technologies to stage the ‘credibility’ of causes of war and to construct dehumanized enemy images of the opponent by way of disinformation and demoralization. This platform-based construction and medialization of the war in Ukraine lends an aesthetic dimension to military action, which shows both in the technical-medial characteristics of the messenger service itself and in visual repertoires and references.
Recently, Andrew Hoskins and Pavel Shchelin published a trenchant analysis in the journal American Behavioral Scientist. In their essay “The War Feed: Digital War in Plain Sight,” the authors argue that social media platforms represent a new type of mediatization of war that has never existed in this form before. By “war feed,” they refer to a new spectrum of warfare: platform-based features such as the subscriber principle or the hash tagging function entail globalized communication spaces. The constant stream of footage creates an illusion of presence, a never-ending ‘Netflix series’ to be binge-watched, while engendering a desire for shock and blood. With the “war feed,” a specific “media ecology” has emerged that is produced by a technical-media infrastructure and networks of human and non-human actors: soldiers, but also other combatants and civilians, use their cell phones, action cams and editing programs to disseminate images of hostilities, violence and murder on their Telegram channels – fueled by hashtags, meme aesthetics and musical emotionalization.
Hoskins/Shchelin speak of a “fractal war,” because the users of the ‘War Channel’ decide to subscribe to their own version of the war in their feed. The subscriber system and the follower principle turn the war in Ukraine into the most personal war in history. In this ever-growing stream of war images, of killed, wounded and tortured bodies, along with infographics on body counts (the enumeration of the killed members of the opposing war party), and digital mashups (memes, music videos, etc.) are used to dehumanize the enemy. On the other hand, a digital archive has been created on Telegram. It is supported by the Ukrainian civilian population, deploys smartphones to document war crimes and war damage and collects and networks audiovisual material in order to provide sources of information for subsequent war crimes tribunals. When civilians are used for legal investigations or to provide criminal evidence for war crimes, their personal data itself provides a target for military operations.
In his 2022 book Radical War: Data, Attention and Control in the 21st Century, Matthew Ford argues that the war in Ukraine is the most networked war in history. It is the first war between two states in Europe that is almost entirely mediated by digital technologies. According to Ford, digital war blurs the boundaries between soldiers and the civilian population.
Smartphone & crowdsourcing
This observation had already been described by William Merrin in his 2019 Digital War. A Critical Introduction, where he speaks of a “participatory war” – “a new mode where networked technologies and online public platforms allow anyone within or outside of a conflict zone to participate in informational war, to tell their story, expose events, offer support and contribute towards or expose propaganda” (218).
For Ukrainians, Telegram acts as a digital archive of military violence. Smartphone technology has led to the multiplication of observation orders. A new era of military intelligence, archiving and mutual reconnaissance has emerged: the app communicates the latest military developments, disseminates air raid warnings, documents war crimes, forwards satellite images for possible targets or lists maps of local air raid shelters. The war in Ukraine is the best documented modern military conflict to date, raising a number of questions and challenges. The era of smartphones has established the ubiquity of eyewitness testimony. In contrast to traditional war reporting, the content can be transmitted unfiltered and in real time. Anyone can feed these images to the public instantaneously, without editorial supervision and discursive contextualization. A non-centralized digital archive has emerged on online platforms and websites, supported by the Ukrainian civilian population.
The practices of “witnessing war” disseminated on the internet are plenty and diverse. They document destruction and violence on the ground, but they also contain testimonies that are collected on websites, messaging services, social network sites and video platforms. The resulting online archives collect photographs, videos and text-based documents and are not only used by those affected to share their experiences, but are also by academics, human rights activists, NGOs, lawyers and public prosecutors to initiate war crimes trials at a later date. Methods of ethnography, interview research and research of witness literature are being applied to process the various contents; the more eyewitness documents that substantiate a case, the more reliable appear the existing sources.
This assessment by Matthew Ford discussed above is supported by various surveys. The study “Media Influence Matrix: Ukraine. Funding Journalism” by Oesya Grabova (2021) shows that since the 2019 presidential election in Ukraine, there has been a clear shift towards a de-monopolization of the media and a change in media consumption in favor of social media. Almost 60 per cent of Ukrainians consider social networks (including Telegram) to be one of the two best sources of information during the Russian invasion. One of the reasons for this is that Telegram is used by Ukrainian users to build up a documentation archive. The number of users on the Russian side is also high: Telegram “remains what almost all people in Ukraine and Russia are looking at” (politico.eu, 10.3.2022). On the day of the Wagner Group’s march towards Moscow, “Russian-speaking Telegram channels recorded 11 billion views, twice the ordinary traffic, according to TGstats, an analysis site using data made public by Telegram. On the same day, subscriptions to these channels reached a record 11 million, ten times the ordinary number” (lemonde.fr, 27.6.2023).
Since the beginning of the war, an endless stream of images of war has emerged in the newsfeed, uploaded for “regarding the pain of others” (Susan Sontag). Other than on Instagram, TikTok or YouTube, on Telegram depictions of violence are less censored, injured bodies are shown in pixelated form, recordings of killings at a distance are constantly distributed using combat footage, explicit, non-pixelated depictions of violence of tortured, abused or dead bodies are distributed by way of links. These videos shared on Telegram to the applause of emoticons are effective due to their visual exhibition value and thus inherit the voyeuristic viewing culture of the early “cinema of attractions” (which, according to Tom Gunning, was primarily focused on visual effect and less on storytelling).
The number of images grows daily and hourly, bringing together injured, imprisoned, mutilated and dead people, perpetrators and their victims, who are available at any time and any place in the digital theme park of attractions. While Ukrainians are dehumanized as “Nazis” in Russian Telegram channels, opponents of the war are referred to as “orcs” in Ukrainian channels. Orcs are fictional monsters from Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. For example, an author of the Telegram channel Ukraine Now writes about a video showing a captured Russian soldier: “Another lying orc” (Ukraine Now, 5.2.2022). “Orcs” are also mentioned in image comments when Russian soldiers are ‘punished,’ i.e. killed by drone attacks. These drone images are not only documentary images of tactical warfare, they are also used to dehumanize the enemy. On the one hand, they show the power of one’s own gaze; on the other, they demonstrate the complete passivity of the enemy.
With Hoskins/Shchelin, the new participatory environment of war can be understood as a “crowdsourcing war”. The claims, opinions and outrage of anyone who can post, link, like or share on social media lead to the war being perceived as fragmented and thus as socially non-committal and arbitrary. Drone images in which perception, recognition and killing are superimposed in a single image space are uploaded every hour, neutralizing the individual act as an interchangeable spectacle. This is the opposite of the globalized vision of visual homogeneity that characterized the wartime era of satellite television at the end of the 20th century.
Although Telegram is not controlled by the Russian government, the presence of government or pro-government media on Telegram indicates the control of the information space by Russian propaganda. A prominent example of a channel-based Russian “war feed” is Colonel Cassad, originally a personal channel of journalist Boris Rozhin. As Hoskins and Shchelin explain, Rhozin supports the Russian war doctrine, believes that the Cold War never ended and that the war against Ukraine is an opportunity for a ‘revival’ of Russia. With over 865,000 subscribers (as of July 1, 2023), Colonel Cassad has become the most important pro-Russian Telegram channel. Before the war, Rozhin was the number one communist blogger on LifeJournal (colonelcassad.livejournal.com). He invented the meme “polite people” to describe the Russian units – special forces with green uniforms without insignia – that were deployed to annex Crimea.
With other Telegram channels, it is less clear who the main operator is. According to further information from Hoskins and Shchelin, one of the largest pro-Russian channels is Rybar (t.me/rybar/35537), which has 1,217,000 subscribers (as of 1 July 2023) and offers a mixture of populist infographics, tactical coordinates for possible airstrikes and criticism of the Russian Ministry of Defense. With its ‘from below’ perspective, it achieves a high level of credibility among the target group of the Russian armed forces.
According to the TGstat analysis system on the most popular Telegram channels in Ukraine, the Ukraine Online channel (1,350,000 subscribers as of July 1, 2023) also does not provide any open information about its operators and their interests. This channel is top-down and state-oriented, with key elements of the news feed reproducing public speeches by members of the government, bureaucratic elites and strategically relevant information. Ukraine Online reproduces the media format of the state news channel and sees itself as a pro-government medium that primarily disseminates patriotic and pro-state content. This channel largely does not recycle authentic war-related experiences. Rather, Ukraine Online’s strategic media goal is to provide media-suitable identity scripts to build a collective memory. In comparison, the broad acceptance of Ukraine Online shows firstly that Telegram can be received as a traditionally ‘serious’ news channel, secondly that the agenda of cross-sector general content generates majorities, and thirdly that the war as experiential content addresses male-dominated target groups that have a lower reach in comparison.
In such ‘male’ offerings, action cams in point-of-view (POV) mode mark a new turning point in the gamification of war and violent extremism. With action-based media formats such as the livestreaming of acts of violence, selfie sticks in the trenches and action cams in field maneuvers, new practices of digital media usage in military use have emerged in the special interest channels on Telegram, which meet the demand for immediacy and realism in the online image markets.
Action cams in point-of-view (POV) mode mark a new turning point in the gamification of war and violent extremism. With action-based media formats such as live streaming of acts of violence, selfie sticks in the trenches and action cams in field maneuvers, new practices of digital media use in military applications have emerged in the special interest channels on Telegram. These practices meet the demand for immediacy and realism in the online image markets. Gamified images of war from a first-person shooter perspective are very popular on video platforms, social networks and messaging apps. They mix images recorded on location with popular images of virtual worlds and thus blur the boundaries between reality and fictionality.
Cameras are mounted on the helmets and weapons, on armored vehicles, cannons or aircraft and show playful images of military and terrorist operations. To increase visual interest, a helmet-mounted GoPro miniature camera is used to transmit live broadcasts of war and violent extremism. Their preferred location is the scene of combat, where there is a direct encounter with the enemy/victim. For games studies scholar John Martino, the images produced by both state and non-state actors (to be disseminated via digital streaming platforms and the internet) are examples of hybrid warfare.
Mobile technology and digital connectivity are essential components of the soldier’s experience on the front line. Armed forces operating in the field always project themselves into a virtual script and go into battle driven by imaginary spectacles.
In the present day, the POV shot contributes significantly to the shared image repertoire and the digital visual memory of the Instagram, TikTok, Discord and Twitch generation. The dissemination of egocentric images of the battle from the perspective of those directly involved realizes the old media dream of bringing war to life in the context of its medial observation. Moreover, such a mediatized war, live-streamed in the perspective of participation, is located at the contemporary interface of social media, providing the dialogical proximity between sender and receiver. The media dream of the immediate transmission of experience is still carried on today by the digital messengers of war. Unlike historical media systems, soldiers are willing to take more risks when they know that the currency of social media, namely ‘authenticity,’ demands visual credibility, or when they are aware that their images are being broadcast live on the internet. Today, soldiers are not only fighting the enemy, they are also fighting for attention on the virtual battlefield when it comes to competing for likes, comments and retweets.
The combat images on social media or messenger app platforms such as Telegram, Instagram, TikTok, Facebook and YouTube thus combine two essential elements: firstly, they ensure traditional media satisfaction through realistic depictions of war; secondly, their images create a new stage for the self-portrayal of a medially personalized war hero (equipped with selfie stick, helmet camera, direct addressing, first-person perspective) who is willing to share his personal experiences (seemingly exclusively) with his followers.
Colonel Cassad, 2.6.2023, comment: “Footage by @bro571 of the work of Russian Air Force snipers as part of the independent hunt near the Luhansk region.” The video combines images and music. The music is part of an editing program and is used as background sound to mobilize the audience. The video shows day and night shots from the perspective of snipers. The image space is also a death zone, as it represents an instrument for recognizing the enemy and killing him with a well-aimed shot. In the center of the image space is a targeting device, a crosshair; this design offers an interface to the first-person shooter. Gamification of war and dehumanization are two sides of the same coin: the video repeats the successful killing of the enemy. Killing is portrayed as a craft that is practiced without error and without emotional involvement. The viewers in the video look through the eyes of the soldier. The camera becomes the perpetrator’s companion. First the victim is observed, then the decision is made, and the viewer sees the trajectory of the bullet and the killing of the enemy. The video shows a perfect sequence of events. The person who perceives, recognizes and acts is portrayed less as an avenger and more as someone who can apply his expertise in the field.
Telegram offers an attractive interface between Agon and Ares: under conditions of contemporary warfare that involve platform media, all military action competes for public attention. The technologies that soldiers and civilians carry in their pockets and Telegram’s information infrastructure concur in establishing a new ecology of war in which the distinction between combatants and non-combatants is blurred systematically. When, in conjunction with clicks and likes, the relationships between friend and foe or victim and perpetrator become excessively polarized, social media, messaging apps and online platforms contribute to the acceleration and intensification of violence.
Ramón Reichert (Dr. phil. habil.) teaches and researches as a senior researcher at the Department of Cultural Studies at the University of Apllied Art in Vienna. Previously, he taught and researched in Basel, Berlin, Canberra, Fribourg, Helsinki, Sankt Gallen, Stockholm and Zurich and was EU project coordinator for many years. His current research project »Visual Politics and Protest. Artistic Research Project on the visual framing of the Russia-Ukraine War on internet portals and social media« (2022-2024) deals with the visual politics of violence, conflict and resistance. A German language version of the text translated here was published as “Im Krieg der Attraktionen. Der russische Krieg gegen die Ukraine auf Telegram” in POP. Kultur und Kritik 12, no. 2, September 2023, pp. 64-70.December 10th, 2023 — Rosa Mercedes / 05