Every major war effort involves a degree of media manipulation. The creation of powerful images has always been a way to motivate populations in moments of conflict and gain sympathy abroad. A photo recently went viral showing an old man cradling a cat after, the post suggested, his home had been obliterated by a Russian missile. That this photo was found to be actually from a house fire in Turkey in 2020 demonstrates that propagandists on both sides of the conflict don’t feel bound by truth in their pursuit of stirring images. That said, the clumsiness of this one in an age where any ‘Fake News Fact Checker’ can do a reverse Google Image search makes it feel more like a false flag operation to justify Russian intervention. Abiding by no standard of truth of their own, the Russians freely accuse the Ukrainians of manipulating international sympathy with ‘fake’ images. Welcome to warfare in the age of misinformation.
An adept propagandist, Putin has crafted images for the entire span of his political career. He also knows the importance of symbols in galvanizing mass movements. The newly-minted ‘Z’ symbol used by the Russian military and, now, Russians in favour of the war, far too close to the swastika for comfort, is now being used by pro-Putin and pro-military groups within Russia. No one can say exactly what it means, an ambiguity that lends itself perfectly to the sorts of flexible non-ideologies that fascism thrives on. Meanwhile, Putin’s status as a hero amongst fringe far-right groups in America brings a frightening association with the sympathetic response to Hitler amongst white nationalists in the U.K. in the pre-WWII years. A media ecosystem which rewards polemic with virality has laid the groundwork for this, empowering elements in the West to spread subversive conspiracy theories and cheer for any strongman with a revanchist message.
In all of this wash of images, there is the real suffering of an innocent people invaded by a neighbour who speaks the same language as them. That is hard to comprehend in the 21st century, and the corresponding images are rightly difficult to stomach. And yet, as we find ourselves glued to the screens which bring us daily new images of the day-to-day horror of war, it is hard to avoid the sense that we have been desensitized by the very media ecosystem which has made possible Putin’s propaganda machine, allowing him to pry open a Pandora’s box of distrust and division in the West, and simultaneously flood his own people with outright falsehoods. The merging of fiction and reality, highly useful to the Russian strongman, has made it difficult to grapple with the reality of what’s happening at home as well.
‘This can’t be real. It feels like something from a movie’—this sentiment has shaped our reactions to the most pivotal events of the 21st century, starting with the surreal, startlingly fictional-seeming images on September 11. In a highly televisual and media-addled culture, do we have the capacity any longer to grapple with the meaning of images? Right now, a future president of the U.S., a future prime minister, and an emerging right-wing leader somewhere in Europe are observing Putin’s playbook and wondering whether, given large, credulous populations at home in thrall to whatever appears on their screens, similar gains might be made for a would-be authoritarian in the West. It is therefore not just a matter of national security that we address how vulnerable we have become to the levers of mass manipulation available on social media. Beyond this war, our own future political salvation depends on it.