Future Tense

Ukraine Could Be the Most Documented War in Human History

A woman in a subway station kneels on the floor in front of a suitcase and a cat carrier as she looks at her phone.
A metro station in Kyiv, Ukraine, on Thursday morning. Daniel Leal/Getty Images

It’s been less than 24 hours since Russia invaded Ukraine, yet we already have more information about what’s going on there than we would have in a week during the Iraq war. Already, Google Maps has revealed Russian armored invasion routes due to civilians in the area getting caught in traffic, leading Google to send out alerts. We know almost exactly when Russian forces began their helicopter air assault near Kyiv. We know that one of two Russian soldiers captured by Ukrainian forces on Thursday is probably 20 years old—a reporter found his social media account.

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If you’re interested, you can find footage of airstrikes, ground battles, Russian helicopters getting shot down, civilians being targeted. Most of it isn’t coming from traditional sources. The amount of information flowing in live is so great that there are whole social media accounts devoted to analyzing Russian and Ukrainian combat strength, the front lines, and the losses of equipment down to the vehicle. This sheer amount of information being widely available is unheard-of for a major conflict. People in Ukraine are posting combat footage on Reddit for engagements that are still ongoing. Even TikTok has become a source for those who want to keep up with events ongoing in the country.

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It takes time, people, and equipment for media organizations to produce live reports on any event, especially a conflict. It is those things that will limit news organizations in their efforts to establish a full picture of what’s occurring. What is coming out of Ukraine is simply impossible to produce on such a scale without citizens and soldiers throughout the country having easy access to cellphones, the internet, and, by extension, social media apps. A large-scale modern war will be livestreamed, minute by minute, battle by battle, death by death, to the world. What is occurring is already horrific, based on the information released just on the first day.

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The official messages coming out of Ukraine may sometimes seem garbled and confused, but very few governments, if any, could keep up with all the narratives that are occurring. Such confusion creates an ample opportunity for misinformation to spread and for actors to exploit—which they already have.

When I was a U.S. Army journalist/photographer in Iraq in 2016, a same-day turnaround was considered quick by Department of Defense standards. If I could get footage and interviews from a firebase outside Mosul on Christmas into the living rooms of Americans back home before the New Year, that was a win. In fact, it ended up taking me “only” two days.

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Now, that’s way too slow.

Half a century ago, the Vietnam War being widely televised fundamentally changed how the world viewed conflict. No longer could there be rosy reports from the front lines through radio broadcasts that spoke coolly about the fighting or photos that took weeks or months to arrive. Now, people could view footage from the front lines of combat at home mere days after the events happened, the realities of the actions of the combatants, and their effects, readily apparent for all to see. Whether the images caused support for the conflict to grow or falter is up for debate, but conflicts would take place in living rooms and the battlefield from then on. By the time the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003, it was a given that the world was watching, and that it took intentional effort to guide those eyes toward the intended message.

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The explosive growth of the internet and associated technologies in the last two decades has changed that, starting with the Arab Spring in late 2010 (the “first livestreamed revolution”), when social media served as a megaphone to the outside world, and through the Syrian civil war afterward. Raw, often brutal footage was captured by participants who frequently were engaged in a struggle for survival as they took the images. In these “early” events, most of the information from these events reached outside audiences through key interlocutors who then spread the footage to the wider world.

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Domestically, we saw an evolution of that media landscape during the George Floyd protests in 2020, itself a continuance of the efforts started by images of police brutality posted on social media. Within hours of Floyd’s murder, the footage of the event had spread internationally, sparking perhaps the largest protest movement in the country’s history. No longer were interlocutors as important. The sheer amount of information coming from the protests was astonishing: hundreds of videos documenting individual instances of police violence, attacks on protesters, and suspected “infiltrators” seeking to cause violence. Users on social media sites even took to forums asking military personnel what they would do if they were ordered to attack American civilians.

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Two years later, the information environment has further evolved. Embedded reporters now post Instagram live content highlighting the fighting on the ground. The first footage of the Ukraine invasion came not from news crews on the border, but from CCTV footage that was released online. Journalists are creating updated data on the front lines of the conflict based on geolocation of fighting reported on social media. Any atrocities will have dozens, if not hundreds, of witnesses spreading footage in minutes.

The scale and impact of what’s occurring and what we’re seeing can’t be understated. We’re watching a massive conflict—the scale of which hasn’t been seen on the continent in almost 100 years—rock the second-largest country in Europe. From our offices, our porches, our cars, and our schools, we can watch battles as they happen. What could this possibly mean? It’s too soon to tell. But it signifies a historical change in how we fight—and how the world watches those fights.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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