State TV Versus Social Media

A picture of a man raising the Russian flag in the Crimean city of Simferopol was featured on Russian state TV, but Ukrainians tracked down the man on social media and discovered he actually lived in Moscow.Russian state-owned media is pushing a narrative of a neo-fascist takeover in Ukraine that has led to spiraling violence in the former Soviet client state. 

Supporters of a western-looking Ukraine are fighting back through social media, using posts on YouTube and Instagram to describe a different reality on the ground.

A perfect example is an image on Instagram that gained widespread viewership on Russian TV showing a man taking down the Ukranian flag and raising a Russian flag over a building in the Crimean city of Simferopol. He was portrayed as a Ukranian loyal to Russia.

Ukranians tracked down the man through his social media site, found out he actually lives in Moscow and circulated the information as proof of a Russian invasion.

Not long ago, state-owned media was an effective tool to control the narrative of historical events and economic progress within a country's boundaries. But the digital age and social media have punctured a huge hole in that balloon.

Efforts to portray Ukrainians as sudden converts to fascism, which still kindles dark, agonizing memories for Russians who faced the advancing armies of Hitler, may not be completely convincing. After all, President Vladimir Putin's government offered $15 billion in financial aid to Ukraine just a few months ago. State TV may talk as if Viktor Yanukovych was deposed in an "unconstitutional coup," but social media is ablaze with pictures of Yanukovych's extravagant mansion and charges of large-scale national theft.

Dueling propaganda has always been a dimension of conflict. The advent of social media, however, has changed the balance of power in the war of words.  All you need is a smartphone and Internet access and you can compete with a regime-backed network of TV stations and newspapers.

The Arab spring was ignited by social media chatter and wound up toppling tyrants with a firm grip on official news.

Russia under Putin doesn't have the same lock on information, but is trying to advance a storyline that mashes together fear of a former loathsome enemy and the dream of a grander future.

New York Times columnist David Brooks reports that Putin is guided by the views of three Russian philosophers who see Russian people as exceptional and believe the country's influence on its history-scarred neighbors is positive. You could sense this thematic undercurrent in the opening and closing sessions of the 2014 Sochi Olympics.

Vanukovych's abrupt departure from Kiev, the assumption of power by Ukraine's western-leaning parliament and the popularity in Ukraine of a future independent of Russia didn't stick to the Putin script.

For now, the battle is being waged in media, not on the streets. The Russian narrative is playing to the home country crowd. The Ukrainian social media outreach is much broader, aimed at currying sympathy and support in the West and undercutting the home-field advantage of state media inside Mother Russia.