Why is Ukrainian State Twitter waging a meme war?
The country's official account appears to be targeting a western audience
Right now, somewhere in Ukraine, there is a twenty-something social media manager who, amid all the wreckage and carnage, is being instructed by a content strategist to create shareable content on the country’s national Twitter account.
In a clear bid to appeal to young and western users, Ukraine’s official account has pumped out tweets like: “Tag @Russia and tell them what you think about them, “STOP SAYING UKRAINE CRISIS: THERE IS NO CRISIS. THERE IS A BAD NEIGHBOR (replete with a Simpsons meme),” and an appeal to Twitter to remove Russia from the platform.
Like what you’re reading? Get the free UnHerd daily email
Already registered? Sign in
— Ukraine / Україна (@Ukraine) January 13, 2022
Why — at the height of war — are we seeing these English-language memes and pleas to cyberbully Russia? Some people have suggested that there’s a Ukraine-native social media platform that people are using for more serious matters, and that the official Ukrainian Twitter account isn’t directed towards Ukrainians at all. They’re trying to grab American attention by using Twitter — and it’s working. After all, what was the story behind the sudden influx of photos of beautiful Ukrainian women holding guns not a month ago? Clearly, there is an agenda here.
Attempting to appeal to Americans is quite understandable. The US has, after all, the largest and most powerful military in the world. But what is strange is how Ukraine’s social media tactics are coming from the same playbook that brands have been using on social media since 2013, starting with Denny’s infamous Tumblr account. The playbook that instructs corporations to act like people, not companies.
Rarely do these corporations succeed, with examples running all the way from Netflix to Wendy’s to Twitter itself. Sometimes, brands will even engage in conversations with one another, as though they’re all a bunch of friends shooting the breeze online. But what companies — and the Ukrainian Twitter account — have realised is that the best way to gain clout online is to do so from the vantage point of a person. In other words, they want to sound more human.
One question remains though, and that’s why these attempts at digital personhood always seem so ham-fisted. I have one theory. I’ve worked in marketing for most of my adult life, and if there is anything I’ve learned it’s that content is rarely bad on purpose. That’s a comforting lie we tell ourselves to bat away the truth: companies and brands are that out of touch. Bad content happens because, in pursuit of virality, it becomes artificial. Usually, the process will go something like: a content strategist spots and forwards a popular meme to the social media manager, who will make it ‘brand-appropriate’ before sending it off for approval two weeks later (at which point, further edits take place to ‘better fit the brand guidelines’).
It’s therefore not hard to imagine Ukraine’s official Twitter content strategist saying to her line manager: “Last quarter, being sassy about Russia got the most engagement. Let’s try that again.”
The answer surely is that if you try to capture hearts and minds you need to target your audience in the way most likely to appeal to them
The Russians appear to be largely waging what could be called a very old-fashioned ‘Clausewitzian war’ in the sense that they seem to be aiming at depriving their enemies of the capacity to resist meaningfully rather than ‘changing hearts and minds’ or ‘nation-building’. Hence they do not need to occupy the country for any prolonged period and shouldn’t get bogged down by an insurgency. However, if ‘denazification’ is truly an aim then they are condemning themselves to getting bogged down in a quagmire in Galicia that they would almost certainly lose (albeit by eventually declaring victory and getting out as quickly as possible).
The Russians have lost the social media war big time on this one. Brilliant tactics from the Ukrainians, especially Zelenksy with his wee videos.
I feel like Jamie Lee Curtis listening to John Cleese speaking Russian in A Fish Called Wanda, since even as a bloke I’m seduced by the Cyrillic language of Zelensky and I haven’t a clue what he’s saying.
Join the discussion
To join the discussion in the comments, become a paid subscriber.
Join like minded readers that support our journalism, read unlimited articles and enjoy other subscriber-only benefits.Subscribe