Ukrainian Social Media Documents War Crimes

March 22, 2022

 At the end of February, Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an invasion of Ukraine, catching the rest of the world by surprise. The unprovoked attack destroyed international norms against wars of aggression and left the world searching for an appropriate response.

Although the conflict is developing rapidly, the invasion has already proven the effectiveness of new technologies—including social media. Ordinary Ukrainian citizens have taken to the Internet en masse to document the invasion in real-time. The consequences have been immediate and far-reaching. This post will attempt to highlight the importance of social media to this conflict and its implications for international law affecting the invasion, within the uncertainties imposed by the fortunes of war.

In the weeks leading up to the Russian invasion, troop buildups along the Russo-Ukrainian border sparked concern. Western intelligence agencies suspected that Russian forces word stage ‘false-flag’ attacks—attacking their own forces and pretending that the attack had been carried out by Ukrainian forces. Sure enough, on February 18th, Russian forces claimed that Ukraine had attacked a Russian pipeline. Within a week, the Russian army had crossed the border and attacked.

Here social media proved invaluable—Ukrainian civilians on social media were able to make their voices heard around the world in real-time. Whereas in the past events occurring in contested regions could be impossible to verify, in this case, the voluminous evidence of Ukraine’s peacefulness sparked a global outpouring of support and condemnation of Russian aggression. This evidence has largely come from Open Source Intelligence (OSINT), which involves analyzing non-classified information available to anyone, such as social media posts.

The Charter of the United Nations—of which Russia and Ukraine are members—requires all members to refrain from the threat or use of force against the political independence of any state. Although most likely traditional reporting methods would have discovered Russian deception, social media provided instant evidence every minute that Russia was attacking without real provocation and lying about its motivations. The United Nations swiftly passed a resolution condemning the invasion.

In addition, the International Criminal Court launched an investigation into Russian activity, citing concern over war crimes. These alleged war crimes have been documented in large numbers by Ukrainian citizens. Most notably, Ukrainian citizens have posted videos of Russians attacking civilian structures and medical facilities, Russian soldiers feigning non-combatant status by removing their uniforms, and Russian artillery deploying cluster munitions and thermobaric bombs (the links provided are to legal authorities outlawing these practices, not the posts themselves, which may contain disturbing content).

Again, although traditional methods of investigation could have eventually found evidence of these acts to bring to courts martial, minute-by-minute social media evidence has proved even more valuable in the court of public opinion.

Although the exact legal significance of social media will change as investigations, prosecutions, and the war itself progress, it is clear that this is the first war to be documented at every level of fighting by the individuals participating in it.

Although international law condemns Russia’s actions, the hard reality is that military conflict is largely extra-legal until the conflict is concluded. Just as the Nazis did not face justice until the Nuremberg Trials following their defeat in World War II, Putin is unlikely to face any legal justice while he still controls the Russian military.

Hopefully, that day will come, and if it does, these posts will be valuable evidence. Until then, they have proved the most powerful weapon in turning the international community against Putin. After declining an offer from the United States to be evacuated from Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy famously quipped “I need ammunition, not a ride” in a video he posted to Twitter. He continued to post videos to social media showing himself alongside the Ukrainian military, which earned him international praise for his leadership and boosted Ukrainian morale.

Ukrainians’ social media feeds have enthralled the world as they have documented their struggle. Although the exact legal significance of social media will change as investigations, prosecutions, and the war itself progress, it is clear that this is the first war to be documented at every level of fighting by the individuals participating in it. This kind of documentation has brought the ugly reality of the conflict home to viewers around the world, who have united in their opposition to Russian aggression. The speed at which social media allowed the spread of information and the humanity of seeing a conflict through an individual’s point of view have proved effective tools in drawing support for the Ukrainian people.

John Gray & Ryan Brown

 John Gray was born in Boston, Massachusetts. He came to UNC-Chapel Hill for college and liked it so much he stuck around for law school. In his spare time, he likes to research the history of Roman Law.

Ryan Brown graduated from the University of South Carolina and is a staff writer for the First Amendment Law Review. He is president of the National Police Accountability Project.