The Ukrainian crisis disrupted the American culture war. Briefly.
At the end of last month, the world watched in real time on social media as a nuclear power invaded a sovereign neighbor. In the days before Russian forces entered Ukraine, many high-profile commentators treated the looming crisis through the prism of America’s never-ending culture war. Left-wing contrarian Glenn Greenwald sneered that the CIA had told the media to use the term invasion, while Fox News host Tucker Carlson hinted that Russian President Vladimir Putin isn’t as bad as America’s cancel culture. “Has Putin ever called me a racist? carlson wondered aloud. “Did he threaten to get me fired for disagreeing with him?” COVID-truther conspiracy theorists have wisely declared the Russian military build-up to be a ‘wagging the dog’ moment, a ‘manufactured crisis’ triggered by the elites pushing the ‘Great Reset’, a malicious ploy to hijack the Attention Trucker People Fighting Vaccine Tyranny.
But then, on February 24, the invasion began. On American social media, where the culture war normally rages on incessantly, the fights that tend to dominate online debate — like those over COVID policies, school curricula and trans athletes — have suddenly quieted down. It was not for lack of effort; many hyperpartisan influencers attempted to maintain their shtick. But the public’s attention seemed to be elsewhere. Data from CrowdTangle, a tool that tracks users’ engagement with Facebook content, suggested that many of the top messages among US users focused on the horrors and heroism of the conflict – families falling apart, Ukrainians volunteering to defend their country, a young soldier sacrificing himself to blow up a bridge. Although it is an imperfect metric, a top 10 list derived from CrowdTangle data— a ranking generally dominated by the most successful political rage content of the moment — suggested that, at least for a few days after the invasion, users were more engrossed in the coverage of the erupting war.
These early days after Russia’s invasion have revealed something important about the United States: Much of what looks like an insurmountable polarization online may be the product of boredom, distraction, and the tiredness ; when something real happens, people pay attention to it instead. We are constantly updating our feeds, looking for new information and sharing it. And at the start of a shooting war, average users sought out reputable experts and news outlets. Google Trends, for example, showed a relative increase in searches for nuclear weapons and Potassium iodide-a treatment used after radiological emergencies research Ukraine were at an all time high. The culture war has temporarily faded into the background, much like in early 2020, when a new pathogen was still largely confined to China.
The change in mood after the start of the invasion of Ukraine was so profound that many Twitter users assumed that Russian trolls – so often blamed for the tumult of online political debate since 2016 – had suddenly banned American screens. This hypothesis fueled speculation: perhaps the trolls had been reassigned to focus on Ukraine, taken offline by new Russian social media restrictions, or somehow bankrupted. by the vertiginous fall of the rouble. “Please note how dramatically Twitter has changed since the Russian asset freeze. Suddenly, all those anti-Biden “American patriots” disappeared,” read a tweet which received over 100,000 likes. Doctors whose accounts were verified noted that they were no longer harassed by anti-vaccine, anti-warrant or pseudoscience conspiracy theorists. A observed that Google search trends have shown a relative decline in interest in myocarditis and ivermectin; he too went on to speculate that “*most* COVID #disinformation is driven by Russian bots”. But the bots aren’t the ones searching the internet for rare vaccine side effects or unproven COVID drugs.
In general, Americans have been too quick to blame Russian trolls for the degraded quality of online speech. Residual anger over Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election has prompted many, especially on the left, to blame the spiteful talk on foreign agents bent on dividing Americans. This story is heartwarming; this implies that the fault lies elsewhere than with our fellow citizens or with ourselves.
Yet research from my team at the Stanford Internet Observatory suggests that the conspiracy theories that permeate conversations about COVID or politics typically originate with Americans, and they spread because enough Americans want them to. Although some foreign agitators play on the fringes of certain hashtags, they are rarely the main drivers of public conversation. If flooding social media with propaganda is an act of aggression, Americans are our worst enemy.
Like the invasion of Ukraine loomed, pro-Moscow social media accounts were busy, but not trying to get Americans to fight for mask mandates or cancel culture. Online Russian propagandists had a more specific job to do. At the beginning of February, Russia tried to lay the foundations for imminent action, inflecting its claims for specific audiences on particular platforms. As it had done in past conflicts, it produced information campaigns for its domestic population, the citizens of its immediate adversary, and distant observers, including Western audiences, using a combination of state media and false accounts to try to convince them of the correctness of Putin’s cause as well as the treachery and genuine Nazism of the “Ukrainian regime”.
But then, on February 24, the shooting war began and the information war entered a different phase. Russian state media accounts – and anonymous figures sharing similar stories on the Telegram messaging app – changed the subject. Rather than trying to shape Western public opinion on Ukraine, their content focused on creating confusion for the public on or near the battlefield, undermining the morale of the Ukrainian people and spreading rumors. that the Ukrainian government had fled.
Meanwhile, on US social media platforms, a wave of support for Ukraine began to dominate the news environment. the the tone was set by video capturing the extraordinary courage of President Volodymyr Zelensky and scenes of incredible bravery on the part of ordinary Ukrainian citizens, including a women telling Russian soldiers to put sunflower seeds in their pockets for the flowers to bloom after they die.
Some of this content was also quickly repurposed as propaganda; clips of heroic deeds have gone viral, and the rumors have become a myth. Fake clips proliferated, as fog of war met cyclone of content – video game scenes have been shared like footage of alleged fights – but debunker executives and open source intelligence analysts enlisted in volunteer armies online, coordinating on Telegram channels, reviewing clips and adding context. Even as a researcher accustomed to viral chaos, I sometimes couldn’t keep up with the flow of unverified Ukraine related content– but not all was deceptive trash.
For better or for worse, the change in Americans’ listening habits has not been permanent. Early last week, the top-ranked posts on CrowdTangle were again mostly focused on shocking stories – calls for Anthony Fauci to be fired, discussions of Jussie Smollett’s hate crime hoax – mixed with stories comforting on dogs (both in Ukraine and Alaska Iditarod race).
Interestingly, Russian state media seems to be looking west again. When “denazification” justifications failed as a pretext for invasion, English-language accounts in these media began to talk about alleged Pentagon-backed Ukrainian bioweapons labs; Chinese state media started boosting the story too. But Russians don’t need obscure troll accounts to whisper about it on Twitter, because, predictably, prominent American culture war influencers took the bait and spread the conspiracy theory on their own platforms. What was the role of the US government in biolabs, anyway?
Yet the early days of the Russian invasion showed that everyday users had a choice. America’s culture war influencers haven’t gone away; users just didn’t pay as much attention to it. It shouldn’t take a firefight to take our eyes off the culture war. The normal state of online speech should not be information war of all against all. The brief moment when Americans focused on bigger things didn’t last, but it showed that we have some agency here.