Article Thumbnail

The Russia-Ukraine Discourse Is Collapsing

People following the conflict from afar have already turned on each other

Three weeks into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Vladimir Putin’s military forces remain “stalled in many areas,” per the U.S. State Department. Whereas many anticipated a swift and brutal takeover of the region, the conflict may instead evolve into a bloody, long-term stalemate. And as Ukrainians fight to survive an encroaching occupation, those following the terrible news from abroad — trying to suss out reliable information and sources — are turning on one another.

Tensions are running especially high in a number of the new subreddits dedicated to the Russia-Ukraine crisis. There are internal power struggles within such groups, which in turn jockey with each other for influence on the platform. This weekend, a former moderator for r/UkraineWarVideoReport called for the head mod, u/YungChaky, to step down in light of his apparent ethical lapses — including the removal of posts that criticized him, alleged sharing of Russian propaganda and the creation of a Patreon to profit off the page (and, by extension, the war). A third mod, who agreed with this assessment, wrote a heartfelt message to u/YungChaky urging his resignation, only to have their own permissions removed. 

The same day, u/YungChaky shared a debunked story, noting that he was “​​gonna get called a russin [sic] shill, massively downvoted and insulted and have people conspire against me again, but who cares.” Commenters fact-checked the claims, called him an “absolute embarrassment” and interrogated his Russian sympathies. One told him, “Just step down before you get this whole sub removed.”

Meanwhile, r/VolunteersForUkraine, where users encourage one another to travel to the front lines to join the Ukrainian resistance — despite many lacking military experience — looks poised for accelerating collapse. Would-be soldiers arriving in an active war zone are reporting, with some surprise, just how dangerous things are on the ground. Even a self-described combat veteran with the foreign legion who retreated into Poland after his position was bombed by Russian jets admitted that he’d been “naïve,” adding, “I guess we underestimated Putin’s aggressiveness and willingness to poke the bear.” Such stories have set off further arguments about who can realistically expect to help in the struggle and what expectations to bring to it. 

Another source of controversy: Posts from volunteers who may be misrepresenting their skills and credentials. Anthony Walker, a young comedian from Canada now going by u/Bulletproof-Medic, announced at the end of February — on both Twitter and Reddit — that he would be traveling to Ukraine as a “combat medic.” He also set up a donation page for himself. Soon, however, he explained that he was offering to be trained as a combat medic, and only certified as an Emergency Medical Responder, with “maybe” 15 percent of a course in Tactical Combat Casualty Care under his belt (no more than “a day” of training). 

Nevertheless, he has shared photos of himself wearing a medic patch, to the great consternation of other redditors. Some have criticized him for exaggerating both his abilities and actual proximity to the enemy, noting that he seems to be at an aid station on the Polish border. He’s tweeted about buying a drone for unspecified use and asked Apple for tech support due to “continually crossing back and forth between Kyiv/Poland time,” adding to skepticism of his stated intent and activities. 

On r/Ukraine, redditors have gone head-to-head on the question of whether a NATO intervention is worth the risk of nuclear armageddon, with tempers flaring often. The subreddit r/Russia was quarantined two weeks ago, after being flooded with pro-Russia propaganda; its moderators appeared to make an effort at evading their bans. A user in r/conspiracy posted the same debunked content shared by u/YungChaky in r/UkraineWarVideoReport, likewise insisting that giving people the chance to refute misinformation was in the public interest, and triggering similar accusations of propagandizing. 

The internet is always a chaotic place full of disagreements, though as the Russia-Ukraine violence stretches into drawn-out misery — rather than conforming to the speedy turnover of the digital media cycle — it leaves space for grifters, clout-chasing, smear campaigns, manipulation and paranoia. Already, many channels created for balanced coverage and civil discussion have devolved into name-calling and recriminations. From here it will only get harder, and more essential, to know who to trust and what to believe. But we have to see through the rotten agendas, if only to stay sane.