How videos of social life in Ukraine have been repurposed as a propaganda tool

By: sam doak&
August 30 2023

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How videos of social life in Ukraine have been repurposed as a propaganda tool

Source: Reuters

Over the last few months, large pro-Kremlin social media accounts have taken to sharing content that may seem out of place among footage of military equipment, photographs of battlefields, and maps showing troop movements. 

At first look, the videos, showing crowds of seemingly affluent young people dancing, socializing, and relaxing at beaches, resemble something a mainstream influencer might post. The critical difference is that the users behind this trend attribute the footage to Ukraine, attaching a clear, consistent, and political narrative. 

A warped narrative emerges  

The underlying message of these posts is best summarized by a post shared by a user on X (formerly Twitter) on August 11. Resharing a compilation of videos purportedly filmed at events held across Ukraine, the user comments, “Kiev has become the party capital of the world. Keep sending those dollars.” 

The narrative is clear – its proponents seek to persuade their audiences that Ukrainians are having fun, that the severity of the war is overblown, and that foreign aid should be cut off. At a time in which many in the West have seen inflation cut into their standard of living, it's not difficult to see why this line of thinking would carry a particular weight. 

The consistently high levels of engagement on these posts demonstrate their potency as a persuasive tool. Despite this, the image of life in Ukraine being peddled is a heavily warped one. As has been proven time and time again by outlets including Logically Facts, footage of this nature is often revealed to have been recorded before the war or in entirely different countries. 

A collection of misattributed videos. (Sources here, here, and here)

Ukrainians socializing does not mean civilians have been unaffected. 

While misattributed videos speak to the dishonest element of this discourse, identifying and debunking content of this nature is limited in its effectiveness. In some areas of Ukraine, bars, restaurants, and beaches have reopened at points during the war, albeit with restrictions. But curfews remain in place in cities throughout the country, even in Kyiv, which is hundreds of kilometers away from the frontlines. 

The gradual reemergence of nightlife and the reopening of social spaces do not mean life has returned to normal. Ukrainian cities have continued to be shelled throughout the conflict, and fighting along the front lines remains fierce. In July alone, the United Nations recorded 748 civilian casualties in Ukraine, including 143 deaths.

Map showing locations of major cities in relation to frontlines in Ukraine, Accessed 22/08/2023 (Source

For Anya, a Ukrainian forced to leave the country following Russia’s full-scale invasion, the circulation of narratives concerning purported parties in Ukraine speaks to the users' motivations for sharing this material. “I think a lot of this just comes from the complete lack of empathy,” Anya told Logically Facts, “and what happens eventually is that they don't really care about how factual those situations are, whether someone's partying on the beach or is in a nightclub, they didn't care how much any of that footage is grounded in reality. Because quite often, you know, all of those videos are not even from Ukraine or not even from the years 2022 or 2023.”

Putting these scenes in context 

Framing these videos as evidence that all is well in Ukraine misses two key points: it is not uncommon for elements of everyday life to continue during conflicts, and front lines typically do not range across an entire country. Speaking to Logically Facts, Danny Rigg, a journalist who has recently spent time in Ukraine, said, “Even if you think of World War Two films where there are scenes from bars and clubs in Paris, Berlin, or London during wartime… I don't think anyone looks at that and thinks that means that the war wasn't as bad as it was made out to be.” 

According to Rigg, the existence of social spaces, far from being evidence of a population insulated from the effects of the conflict, offers a valuable outlet for those returning from locations close to the front lines. On this, Rigg told Logically Facts, “The kind of people who are going for those, it's not just young people who were in the relative safety of those big cities. It's soldiers who are coming back from the frontlines; it's humanitarian workers who've been evacuating people from war zones, from Kherson, from the flooding after the Kakhovka dam blew up.” 

For Rigg, it is unsurprising that citizens of a country at war would seek out social spaces: “If you were to just not have fun for, you know, 5-10 years, it's really hard to imagine how anyone would be able to sustain morale,” Rigg told Logically Facts. “So it's really kind of about building community. It's about restoring energy and maintaining morale for people.”

Footage of LGBT+ nightlife in Kyiv. (Source: Openly)

Rigg’s work in Ukraine has focused mainly on exploring how LGBT+ activism has developed throughout the conflict. According to Rigg, the existence of social events provides this community. Noting that the war has prevented people from organizing significant public events such as pride parades, Rigg notes, “In terms of really visible acts of the community coming together, that's just not happening. So I think those kinds of, I guess, the rave scene, the clubs have taken on new importance.”

Speaking to Logically Facts, Edna Fernandes, founder of Beyond Conflict, a charity dedicated to supporting individuals dealing with the psychological effects of conflict and displacement, noted that this kind of footage cannot reveal much about how Ukrainians have been affected by the war, stating, “The videos you speak of may show someone dancing or looking happy, what they do not show are the moments of pain and darkness where their trauma is triggered.” Elaborating further, Fernandes commented, “I spoke to psychiatrists in Kyiv who said they know of many Ukrainian children who will seem perfectly fine and happy and then a loud sound will trigger fear of a bomb blast or siren.”

On the use of these videos in a political context, Fernades stated, “Russia is using every propaganda tool at its disposal, including outright lies, to break Ukraine. So it is unsurprising that Russia seeks to take images of Ukrainians' resilience and courage to carry on and try to subvert it for Russia's own ends”

The war continues to affect civilians beyond the frontlines  

Reminders of ongoing conflict are constant for young Ukrainians still in the country, even those far from the front lines. According to Maria*, a student based in Kyiv, this does not mean that people cannot go about their daily lives when the circumstances allow it. “It is obviously impossible to forget about the war, nobody can, but the reaction to air raids, for example, certainly differs from the beginning,” Maria told Logically Facts. “Like it [an air raid] went off about an hour ago. I was outside, and nobody even pays attention anymore; life just continues. But, when it’s a nightly air raid, everybody knows that it’s most certainly a missile launch, and then there’s about two and a half to three hours when every Ukrainian feels like a live target and prays for air defense to work. Then – sleep, morning, and again. Life continues.”

The dangers posed by the Russian invasion of Ukraine are real, but they have not robbed the entire population of their ability or desire to seek out normal social interaction. To illustrate this, Maria offered a personal anecdote. “It was May, I had my midterms, and if you remember, we got bombarded literally every night of May, from 2 a.m. until early morning,” Maria told Logically Facts. “So we took out the final test and went to a bar to celebrate, where we read that bombers took off [about 5 hours before the bombardments started], and my classmate just said, ‘Listen, let’s not go anywhere, I’m just exhausted, let’s just live while we can,’ and that pretty much summarizes how many of us feel.” 

*This individual’s name has been changed to preserve anonymity

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