Instagram-Fueled Optimism

Collin Hansen of Gospel Coalition in Tuesday’s Daily TGC newsletter:

So how can anyone know what to trust in an uncurated world now dominated by opaque algorithms? If the story confirms everything you want to believe about your enemies, pause before clicking that share or retweet button. It might be too bad to be true.

Hansen is talking about fake news that portrays your enemies in a bad light, and his warning is spot on. It’s deeply satisfying to gobble up a story that agrees with your hopes and dreams. The problem is, how do you know the story is true? This question is as vital as it has always been as the world follows the news about Ukraine.

I read OAF Nation on Instagram, a veteran-owned media outlet which posts military news. Many of the stories feature live footage of Ukrainians allegedly being awesome. There are videos of Ukrainians stealing Russian armored vehicles, launching rockets, forming human blockades, taking Russian prisoners, and giving Russian soldiers sunflower seeds so that when they die maybe flowers will spring up around their corpses.

One especially popular story circulating is that of the Ghost of Kyiv, a Ukrainian fighter pilot who has supposedly downed numerous Russian jets. Newsweek reported that the story is most likely false, and yet—and this is important—people want it so badly to be true. “Please let the Ghost of Kyiv be real,” wrote one Twitter user (as quoted in the Newsweek report). The fact that the story has gone viral suggests that thousands of others feel the same way. Some have gone so far as to say it it doesn’t matter whether it’s true or not: the real value is that it uplifts the spirit of the Ukrainian defenders.

Source: Wikipedia. “A MiG-29 Fulcrum takes off from Starokostiantyniv Air Base, Ukraine, Oct. 9 as part of the Clear Sky 2018 exercise.” This image is similar to the photos shared on social media related to the Ghost of Kyiv.

So the Ghost of Kyiv is likely a hoax and the same time an inspiring morale-booster—and I suppose there is a place for that in times of war. And yet it also feels precisely like the dangerous type of misinformation that Hansen and others are warning about. I worry that average users of social media are paying too much attention to where things are going well, and not balancing that with a view into where things are going horribly. Granted, the invasion has not gone according to Putin’s plan, and the Ukrainians are undoubtedly putting up a brave fight. But will the Russian army adapt? Seasoned political writer David French suggests it will:

This is not a movie. There is no script that gives the underdog the victory in the end. NATO’s renewed solidarity is of limited benefit to Ukrainians under fire in Kyiv. Germany’s increased defense budget does absolutely nothing to destroy the miles-long Russian armored convoys now inching down Ukrainian roads.

The West has woken up. NATO is united. Russia has already been made to pay for its aggression. But its army is still in Ukraine, grabbing more territory every day. It may learn from its mistakes, growing more aggressive to both destroy the Ukrainian resistance and deter additional foreign interference in the fight. If Russia does ultimately break Ukraine, the first flush of hope is likely to be forgotten amid the ashes of defeat.

I’m inclined to agree with this. I can’t imagine that Putin, who has put so much on the line, will halt his advance unless something far more drastic happens such as being given major concessions, or Europe switching to nuclear power and consequently removing its enormous dependency on Russian oil and natural gas. The latter move would require considerable pain and sacrifice. Are Europeans willing or able to pay the price?

Maybe that’s one reason stories of Ukrainian heroism on Instagram are so pleasurable. They have a way of inoculating us against more depressing possibilities and demands on our energy and resources.

Whatever the case, this much is clear: be wary of trusting any story that seems too bad to be true (for your enemies—whether they be the Russians or not). Skimming headlines on Instagram may be an interesting place to start studying what’s going on, but it is definitely not the place to stop.