Watching a War on Social Media

Tokens of solidarity outside the Ukrainian embassy in Georgetown. Photo by Kaiden J. Yu.

For young people such as me, the war in Ukraine has been truly unlike anything we have lived through. We have seen a terrible civil war unfolding in Syria for over ten years now and other conflicts across the world, some of which the United States has been involved in. Some of these conflicts have been just as destructive, but Ukraine has felt very different for young Americans given the role of social media and the significance of the conflict to the West.

My and my classmates’ social media feeds are flooded with war like never before. People on the ground have been filming the invasion on their personal devices and sharing that footage with millions on social media instantaneously. These are just ordinary people, not professional journalists.

The role of social media has in some ways been a double-edged sword for onlookers. On one hand, we are able to see what ordinary people in Ukraine are experiencing through social media, which has led people who would otherwise be completely disconnected from the conflict to be able to empathize and better understand what is happening. 

On the other hand, young generations are faced with the problem of not knowing what information they see online to believe. We have seen rampant disinformation about the conflict. Young people should be mindful that the information they find on social media may be pushing an unreal narrative in an attempt to either entertain, push an agenda or boost Ukrainian morale.    

This war also presents a reality that young people are unfamiliar with: an armed conflict in Europe involving a major world military power. War in Europe is something that we read about in history textbooks. It was not something I ever expected to see taking place in my lifetime. For me, this war has brought about the realization that history is unfolding before my very eyes. 

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has seen an outpouring of support from Americans unlike similarly bloody conflicts in my lifetime—for example, Saudi Arabia’s military presence in Yemen—perhaps because the cities and towns that we see being destroyed by the Russians look like home for many in the West, unlike other wars in the 21st century. 

At the end of the day, a town destroyed is a town destroyed, and a life lost is a life lost no matter where or what the implications are. In order to be good global citizens, it is necessary to reflect on why Americans, and more specifically members of the GDS community, haven’t given as much attention to other important conflicts as they have to Ukraine. The outpouring of support has been inspiring, but people should not only care about unjust wars when everyone around them does. 

Seeing that much of Eastern Europe is now more closely aligned with the West and more democratic than during the Cold War, I had always thought of Soviet-era oppression I grew up hearing about as a thing of the past. Putin’s invasion is reminiscent of stories of Soviet aggression I had heard but never lived through. 

For young people, the war in Ukraine presents itself as a moment of reckoning. Peace in Europe, something we once took for granted, now seems less certain. 

I have lived through the reigns of numerous autocratic and oppressive rulers—North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, for example, or Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro—but none who are as powerful as and have posed the same threat to democracy as Putin. Watching Putin roll in and attempt to topple a democracy is truly eye-opening and should prompt us all to reflect on our values and how we can best uphold them.