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How Social Media is Changing the Way Citizens and Companies React to War

Social media has created new ways to inform global citizens of ongoing wars and conflicts. Tim Halloran from the Georgia Tech Scheller College of Business and Amy Bruckman from the College of Computing explore what this means for individuals, companies, and society.
In the early 2010’s, the Arab Spring entered our vocabulary. In the most simple terms, thousands of Arab citizens in numerous countries protested what they viewed as corrupt government systems and dire economic conditions. Through social media, we saw their massive demonstrations, the violence they endured at the hands of militia groups, and triumphs in gaining attention from governments, which for some countries meant overthrowing leaders. In short order, governments tried shutting down social media platforms. While these actions were meant to squelch the resistance, many demonstrators continued to post tweets, videos, and messages that reverberated across the world.

Today, the world is again witnessing in real time via ordinary citizens what it means to be in the middle of a conflict that crosses geographic and political borders.

The Rise of the Citizen Press

Many of us are still in shock over the Russian-Ukrainian war. We’ve watched videos, read tweets, and seen photographs of the build-up of a massive arsenal of combat machinery like a slow drip of water. We felt relieved when we saw Ukrainian soldiers thwarting Russia’s initial approach. But as Russian troops advanced, we watched as the slow drip of resistance was met with a steady stream of tanks and artillery fire flooding key sites and cities, including the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, Mariupol, Kharkiv, and now Kyiv.

Through the power of social media, we’ve witnessed civilians confronting soldiers, Ukrainian soldiers holding the line, and apartment dwellers recording incoming mortar shells in the distance from a birds-eye perch. Notable social media posts include the official twitter account of Ukraine asking for cryptocurrency and Mykhailo Fedorov, the vice prime minister of Ukraine and minister of digital transformation, asking Elon Musk for more Starlink stations to keep the internet running. A world away, a student at the University of Central Florida is tracking the yacht locations of oligarchs in real time on his Twitter account. Once posted, these bits of information fly to all parts of the world.

“By its very nature, social media has transformed traditional communication. The communicator has ceded control. The messenger can no longer dominate the message. Messaging has evolved to a conversation and that conversation can be shared to others outside of the immediate actors. We’re obviously seeing that right now,” noted Tim Halloran, a senior lecture in marketing at the Georgia Tech Scheller College of Business who studies social media and consumer behavior.

Once a poster uploads a video of say, a residential building being bombed, controlling the intent of the message is out of his or her hands as the video begins to circulate among millions of users. For some, the bombing can appear as a win for the Russians. While this process is not in the control of the poster, it is not so for social media platforms. They are playing a significant role in shutting down the Russian propaganda machine.

Information Censoring and Social Media Companies

While social media can be an effective means of spreading disinformation and misinformation, it can also be an effective tool for telling the truth in war reporting.

“I think there’s a consensus reaction to Ukraine,” said Amy Bruckman, Regents' Professor and senior associate chair of the School of Interactive Computing in the Georgia Tech College of Computing. “The thing that surprised me is that platforms have been more responsible than they have been in previous information crises. Facebook won’t share Russian state news and Reddit has shut down multiple pro-Russia subreddits. This is a lot more activity than there was around January 6, for example.”

While Russia may be successful at controlling the message through traditional state-run media such as television, social media platforms and their users are thwarting Russia’s attempts to shut down the platforms its citizens are using.

“Social media users will likely get around that control. So, Russian citizens are being exposed to what their government is really doing in Ukraine versus being forced to listen to the Russian propaganda machine. It’s been one reason this war has not been the slam dunk that Putin thought it would be,” said Halloran.

Consumer Reaction to Corporate Responses

In addition to individual users, global brands like McDonalds, Starbucks, Goldman Sachs, and Adidas have also actively shown their customers which side they’re on. So far, over 400 companies have withdrawn from Russia. And this has not gone unnoticed by the public on social media.

“If the brand is going to put out a point of view, it has to know that it may get challenged. And that’s okay. It comes down to authenticity. If the brand stays true to what it stands for, it should be able to withstand consumer feedback. Where brands get into trouble is when they post something that is perceived to be inauthentic, that goes against the brand’s positioning, or that is deemed to be insensitive or of poor taste. You always want to stay true to the messaging and ‘personality’ that has been established by the brand,” Halloran explained.

While many companies are exiting Russia, customers are carefully noting which ones are continuing to conduct business with the country. They’re also making their opinions known on social media by calling them out and boycotting their products and services. These companies may face grave consequences from consumers because of their decisions to remain neutral.

“The true power of course lies in the hands of the consumer. And if a large enough percentage of the target segment finds what the brand has posted inauthentic or insincere, they will let the brand know about it. However, if the message is one that the target customer supports, it will be one more way the consumer aligns with the brand and one more reason to choose that brand over others at the purchase decision,” said Halloran.

Whatever the outcome of the Russian-Ukrainian war, the significant role that social media is playing in keeping the world informed can’t be ignored. Global citizens will continue to monitor this war, some receiving their news purely from social media. In a connected world, it is important to recognize social media many times gets it wrong. On the other hand, it also spurs users to change outcomes for the better, whether through consumer decisions, protests, humanitarian outreach, or by simply changing one person’s mind at a time.



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Timothy Halloran
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