On 24 Feb. 2022, Russia’s military attacked Ukraine. Since then, Russia has continued to escalate war in Ukraine, which Russian President Vladimir Putin and many Russians view as a ‘breakaway republic,’ similar to how China views Taiwan. This bloody conflict has been unfolding before our eyes in real time, with major coverage on television, with Zoom speeches and reports shared via social media. Ukraine’s plight, as portrayed through mostly sympathetic treatment in Western news media, has riveted audiences worldwide. My analysis here will examine persuasive appeals evident in social media and televised visual imagery, videos, disinformation and propaganda. I will focus on the rhetorical interplay of visual symbols across multimedia platforms, which convey contrasting narratives and histories laden with polysemous meanings across Europe, the U.S., and the wider international community.
Ukraine’s outward international messaging has been effective, whereas Russia’s has been stodgy, old fashioned, and mostly inwardly focused. Ukraine has relied on social media while Russia has used tightly controlled television formats. Domestically, Russia has limited web news sharing, with many websites shut down and everyday Russian citizens access denied. In contrast, Ukraine’s social media and televised narrative has triumphed internationally, as its moral appeals from citizen journalists inside Ukraine have proven to be irresistible. Ukraine appears as the underdog in this fight, the David to Russia’s Goliath. Many Ukrainians have been posting very persuasively about their plight to social media such as SnapChat, Twitter, and TikTok, galvanizing international support. In recent weeks, the U.S. has approved and begun funneling massive infusions of state-of-the-art ground weaponry for the outgunned, outnumbered, and airplane-less Ukrainian army.
One of the most poignant, persistent and persuasive pieces of media outreach has been the flurry of compelling speeches given by Ukraine’s President, Volodomir Zelensky. Zelensky has appeared, to date, via Zoom (or a secure equivalent) before political and arts and cultural audiences, including: the UK’s Parliament, the U.S.’s Congress, Germany’s Bundestag, and Israel’s Knesset, the Doha Forum in Qatar, and the Venice Bienniale. In all of these portrayals, including scenes of him in the streets, bunkers, and hospitals around Ukraine’s capital city of Kyiv, we see Zelensky meeting with his besieged citizenry and soldiers, or appearing alone in empty streets of Ukraine’s capitol, Kyiv, urging courage and solidarity to Ukrainians, and beseeching Western powers for help. Zelensky often appears in social media that gets repeated in traditional television or print media, standing alone, holding up his cellphone and speaking informally, as you would with a friend or family member on your cellphone. A youthful former TV actor in his forties who got into politics in a life-imitates-art trajectory, President Zelensky’s charisma and charm comes bursting through our TV and social media screens. He appears casually, usually wearing a simple army-drab t-shirt or polar-fleece jacket, speaking briefly and seriously, requesting weaponry and a NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) or European Union (E.U.) no-fly zone to be enforced over Ukraine. While Ukraine eventually received weapons and training for them, the no-fly zone is a request which, at this writing, has yet to have happened.
Meanwhile, in Russia, in stark contrast to the casual immediacy and youthful vigor portrayed by Ukraine’s President Zelensky, in ornate Moscow governmental drawing rooms viewers see a highly formal, stiff, emotionless President Putin. Putin couldn’t be any more opposite from Zelensky if he tried. Putin’s media-televised portrayals have shown him most often, wearing a frumpy suit and tie, seated at the end of an absurdly long table across from visiting dignitaries like France’s President Macron, with Putin fending off attempts to broker a peace deal in the early days of the conflict when Western powers hoped a Russian retreat might be possible. Putin looked like a comedic character of a Saturday Night Live (SNL) skit, and Internet memes abounded, such as one spoof of an extra-long, narrow, Ikea-styled table, called ‘the Putin.’ Eventually, some weeks later, Putin must have realized both his latest war and his ‘messaging’ were not going the way he had planned, so he then appeared in a Trump-styled political rally in a stadium, this time wearing less formal attire of a turtleneck sweater and puffy jacket, attempting to muster a phoney smile on his bloated, aging face.
Russia has rolled out a fact-based news blackout, with a new, ever more draconian law passed to imprison anyone, whether professional or citizen journalists alike, with serious prison time for any reporting on what the Kremlin has called variously their ‘campaign to liberate Ukraine from Nazis,’ or their ‘limited military operation’ or ‘special peacekeeping operation’ in the Donetsk and Luhansk areas of Ukraine’s east (a.k.a. the Donbas), and southern port cities like Mariupol, which, under continuous Russian bombardment, have been reduced to rubble. Televised and social media posts show villages and cities resembling a Terminatoresque, post-apocalyptic landscape of destroyed buildings and streets littered with burnt out husks of vehicles, and bodies of the dead strewn about or semi-interred in hastily dug shallow single or mass graves.
All of the combined social and televised media present us with highly potent rhetorical invitations to recall Allied narratives from World War II, making comparisons between Ukraine’s plight today and France’s and other European nations’ occupation by the Nazis in WWII. While such comparisons are historically and factually inaccurate, they nonetheless constitute potent persuasive appeals that are heightened with gripping viewing on TV and in our cellphones and other hand-held devices. There is a life-like immediacy to these stories, which appear as modern-day equivalencies to the tender emotional connections readers in earlier generations felt from stories like Slaughterhouse 45 or The Diary of Ann Frank. As a result, Ukraine’s leader Zelensky has been compared to England’s Winston Churchill at the height of WWII’s Blitz on London. Similarly, his citizens appear on social media, narrating breathily personal stories from apartment-bloc basements and bunkers, building an image of brave solidarity among Ukrainians.
There is extreme pathos and persuasion conveyed via imagery, voices, and wails of refugees fleeing war, and worse, of Ukraine’s many citizens who were unable to flee, like the elderly and others, especially injured children and pregnant women. Such sensitizing sights and sounds have clearly resonated widely, rendering European and American audiences malleable, including the U.S. Congress, which just last week approved billions of dollars of expenditures to send Ukraine’s army unpiloted weaponized drones along with additional conventional ground weaponry like Howitzers.
Underneath all the at turns horrifying and entertaining visuals and stories, in this conflict much has been hidden but, through analysis, may be revealed. First, Ukraine’s misfortune of its proximity to Russia—a nuclear armed superpower—has been mitigated by the international media’s predilection for Eurocentric news stories. As critics like Afghanistan’s media owner, Saad Mohseni, have keenly observed, reverse-racism in media’s white privilege operates here. For it is not the plight of people of color worldwide beset by wars and conflicts, from Myanmar’s Rohinga to Ethiopia’s beset Tigray residents, to Palestinians throwing rocks at soldiers on the West Bank, but rather the majority of Ukrainian people simply being white has guaranteed greater, more sympathetic media attention and audience identification among media viewers in the U.S., Europe, and internationally. Subject matter of what media covers and how that coverage occurs is driven in part by potent but ‘invisible’ influences like racial and cultural attitudes held by powerful media owners and editors.
Second, another lesson learned is that nukes trump all ground forces. Indeed, while Western military pundits gloat that Putin’s Russian military miscalculated badly, and have reorganized as a result to Ukraine’s south and east, what bears noting instead is that the Kremlin correctly calculated NATO’s Achilles’ heel is comprised of quasi NATO-protectorate nations like Ukraine or Moldova. As an aspirational but still non-member state of NATO, until the past couple of weeks, Ukraine has been largely left to fend for itself, with NATO even refusing to grant Ukraine to take up Poland’s offer of two old, Soviet-era MiG jets. The dithering inaction of NATO and the E.U. reveal starkly its member states’ fears and disagreements.
To date, despite Zelensky’s repeated appeals, Germany has been unable or unwilling to shut off its Russian oil and gas spigot, which drives Germany’s economy but is de facto a vast income source funding this war. Only time will tell if Western European and U.S. powers were wise (or not) to cave in with belated weapons support in response to Putin-led Russia’s nuclear saber rattling and ground assault on Ukraine and its civilians. There is much at stake in this conflict: it is important to pay attention not only to what we easily see in media, but also to ascertain what is being left out of prevalent news narratives, and why.
About the Author:
Ellen W. Gorsevski (Ph.D., Pennsylvania State University) is Associate Professor in the School of Media and Communication (SMC), and Affiliated Faculty in American Culture Studies (ACS), Peace and Conflict Studies (PACS), and Women's, Gender, & Sexuality Studies Program (WGSS) at Bowling Green State University (BGSU). Dr. Gorsevski’s research focuses on contemporary rhetoric of peacebuilding, social justice and environmental justice movements. Research interests include environmental rhetoric and critical animal studies, international/intercultural rhetoric, political rhetoric, social movement rhetoric, media criticism, and nonviolent communication. Her sole authored books include: Dangerous Women: The Rhetoric of the Women Nobel Peace Laureates (Communication and Social Justice series of Troubador Publishing, 2014) and Peaceful Persuasion: The Geopolitics of Nonviolent Rhetoric (SUNY Press, 2004). She has published in journals such as Journal of Multicultural Discourses; Quarterly Journal of Speech; Western Journal of Communication; and Environmental Communication. She serves on the Steering Committee of the Ashland Center for Nonviolence.
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