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‘Trolling helps show the king has no clothes’: How Ukraine’s military conquered Twitter

Earlier this week, a small group of Ukrainians experts in video editing, communication and advertising decided to thank France for the weapons it had sent to the country’s army.

“It’s France, so we knew we had to do something romantic,” said Anna, who helps create content for the team that runs the Ukrainian Defense Ministry’s Twitter account and who asked that his real name is not used. “But we also had to remind them that they can do more.”

The result clip was posted on the ministry’s Twitter feed on Wednesday. Set to Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin’s recording of the classic French ballad “Je t’aime moi non plus (I love you, me neither),” the video features images of chocolates and flowers that turn into images 155 mm howitzer artillery Caesar offered by France fire on the Ukrainian battlefields. “Thank you France”, we read in the text. “Send us more.”

The clip racked up 1.5 million views and 31,000 retweets in 24 hours.

As the battle against Russia enters its eighth month after February’s full-scale invasion of Moscow, the Ukrainian military appears to have taken over Twitter with an effective mix of humor and tragedy posts. The goal is to “win hearts and minds” across the world and keep international allies by its side, Anna said.

Ministry of Defense feeds intersect grim reminders of the toll of the war in Ukraine with skillfully produced and often irreverent messages – creating a narrative that Ukrainians are stoic in wartime, ironic in difficult circumstances and magnanimous about their path to a victory made possible by the West. weapons.

The messages spilled onto the Twitter feeds of their target audience — international policymakers, influential journalists and ordinary pro-Ukrainian Westerners — who clearly seem hooked. Even as energy costs soar across Europe, such accounts are helping to maintain popular support for Ukraine’s war effort, observers say.

“Videos like this help define a narrative that influences what is possible in the political world,” said a Western diplomat. “Accounts like these are a key part of that and they’re influential.”

The Ministry of Defense account has 1.5 million subscribers, but its influence is much wider. Followed by top officials around the world, including at the US State and Defense Departments and the CIA, its output – and that of other unofficial pro-Ukrainian sites – is helping to build support, while “the humor and creativity help ward off [the west’s] war fatigue,” said another Western diplomat.

Tweets from Ukraine’s Defense Ministry include references to their target audience’s concerns, such as a map hinting at the Japan-Russia dispute over the Kuril Islands, and creative ways to thank allies for military donations. weapons

Behind the result is a diverse group of volunteers, including graphic designers, video editors and copywriters, who feed their creative efforts into a strategic communications company made up of veterans of the Ukrainian political scene. This team manages the Twitter accounts of the country’s Defense Ministry and Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov.

They have become the voice of the country’s armed forces, drowning out their enemy’s stilted messages with dragging, irreverent jokes and an understanding of the culture of the countries they are targeting.

When using a map of Japan to show the length of Ukraine’s front line, the team included the Kuril Islands, the subject of a territorial dispute between Tokyo and Moscow. Comments have exploded with Japanese users, surprised and grateful that Ukrainians are aware of the problem.

Some contributors work in the United States, refining content for one of their main targets – the American taxpayer. Some of the material pays homage to the hit 2000 film Gladiator – known to be particularly popular among American men of the generation that now holds influence.

In another, a cartoon Himars – the guided rocket system donated to Ukraine by the United States – floats on a dinghy, its missiles pointed at Vladimir Putin’s iconic infrastructure project in Crimea, the Kerch – foreshadowing last weekend’s explosion which partially destroyed the structure.

Those involved in the Twitter content asked not to be identified out of concern for their physical safety and the possibility of a cyberattack from Russia. “It’s tempting to take credit for it,” says Anna. “But maybe after the war.”

The creatives work in separate silos, using an encrypted messaging app to stay in touch with the dozen people who approve and publish the final messages.

Examples of tweets from the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense
Simple messaging and trolling their enemy are among the Twitter techniques deployed by the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense

At headquarters, the goal is clear: to keep the audience engaged with a simple narrative. “No one believed Ukraine would win this war, but we weren’t surprised we were tigers,” said Taras, also an alias, who has the final say on what is tweeted. “We weren’t surprised that we were tigers – so we have to show Western audiences what we know about ourselves.”

The simplest messages often work best, Taras said. He chose a photo of four soldiers and a scowling cat in a Humvee, which his team found on Telegram and tweeted. “Five of us,” read the post, which struck a chord with audiences and was retweeted 110,000 times.

“Ukraine offers the world a beautiful story, full of tragedy and pain, but also beauty, humor and compassion,” Anna said. “We are brave on the battlefield but we also rescue cats and dogs, hold weddings on the front lines – we fight for these values.”

The team’s most effective weapon proved to be their foe’s ruthless trolling. After Ukrainian forces seized ammunition and armor from the Russian army during its chaotic retreat from the Kharkiv region at the end of the summer, Taras and his colleagues tweeted: “We do not accept gifts murderers, torturers, looters or rapists. . . we will give back everything, down to the last shell.

Throughout the summer, as unexplained explosions rocked Russian bases in Crimea, their posts neither claimed nor denied the attacks. Instead, they mocked Russian soldiers for setting fire to their own infrastructure by carelessly smoking, using the Bananarama song “Cruel Summer” as the soundtrack.

“Trolling is the best way,” Anna said. “If you ridicule your enemy, then there is less fear. Russia has tried to convince the whole world that it is the most powerful army. Now we see that they are weak, ill-equipped, demoralized – and trolling helps us show that the king has no clothes.

Hazel J. Edmonds

The author Hazel J. Edmonds