By Arab News
By Dalia Al-Aqidi*
It is generally acknowledged that following the news on social media has become more important, more popular and more influential than watching television news networks, which we always used to use to find out what was happening in the world. The Ukraine-Russia crisis has proven the validity of this theory beyond any doubt.
This justifies the fact that world leaders are turning to social media to convey their messages to their people in a simple manner on a platform that is followed by different age groups around the globe.
Before this conflict, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was barely known as a politician outside of his country; rather, he was the actor who became a president twice: Once on TV and once in real life.
Zelensky, as an actor, had a large social media following prior to his presidential bid, making it easier for his campaign to communicate and appeal to Ukrainian voters. In 2019, he won 73.2 percent of the vote in a runoff contest to beat incumbent Petro Poroshenko to the presidency.
Since the Russian invasion of his country, how has this inexperienced politician been able to get so much support from the world’s people? And how did he succeed in mobilizing such great help for the Ukrainian people, government and army?
Since the first day of the crisis, social media has helped the Ukrainians internationalize their cause and motivate European countries and the US to do everything they can to support their resistance.
Zelensky has emerged as a global hero. He set the example of a true leader when he rejected an American offer to evacuate him and his family to a safer location, saying: “I need ammunition, not a ride.” The New York Times said this phrase “will most likely go down in Ukrainian history, whether he survives this onslaught or not.”
This position brought to mind how Afghan President Ashraf Ghani last year fled the country when Taliban forces reached the outskirts of Kabul, leaving his army without leadership and encouraging troops to quickly give up. Ghani’s decision prompted the Americans and the wider Western community to wonder about the benefits of training the Afghanistan army and arming it, spending so much money, if forcing its surrender was that simple.
Zelensky understands very well the importance and influence of social media. He began flooding platforms with simple, impassioned and highly effective speeches, while also posting photos and videos of him and his government in the devastated streets of the capital, Kyiv, to deny all reports that he had fled the city or sought refuge in a neighboring country.
His social media following has significantly increased during the war. He has used his channels to provide continuous updates and as a platform to publicly address world leaders. At the time of writing, Zelensky has 14.1 million followers on Instagram and 4.7 million Twitter followers.
The Ukrainian leader knew how important it would be to win the sympathy and support of the world’s people. He understands the importance of public opinions and poll numbers in the Western world. Therefore, he speaks to the people, especially the younger generations that criticize their rulers for sending young people into wars they do not understand, while keeping their own children at home.
Millions of people subsequently took to the streets in many parts of the world to demand their rulers provide humanitarian and military aid to support the Ukrainian government and people. Zelensky has won the public opinion battle and succeeded in getting help. At the same time, he has inspired his fellow Ukrainians to defend their land just like their president.
I would say Zelensky has cleverly used social media platforms to aid his country’s cause. Without his media strategy, the situation could be far worse for Ukraine.
- Dalia Al-Aqidi is Senior Fellow at the Center for Security Policy.Twitter: @DaliaAlAqidi