Politicians and media figures have flocked to social media to rally behind Ukraine and share memes, video footage and stories of Russian incompetence and Ukrainian heroism. A blitzkrieg of tweets routed those few contrarians who praised Putin, and every rumor exalting the Ukrainian defenders, from the supposed martyrs of Snake Island to the elusive Ghost of Kyiv, has been amplified a hundred-fold — no matter if it turns out to be fake after all.
The content coming from the frontlines in Ukraine has even the 24-hour news cycle seemingly bursting at the seams. Some commentators have called this conflict the first “social media war” due to the ubiquity of videos and pictures available on Twitter.
Russia’s ground offensive may have hit a few bumps due to Ukrainian opposition and logistics problems, but it is getting outflanked, double-enveloped and massacred online.
Taking advantage of the dramatic posturing, corporations have practically fallen over each other to show their support for Ukraine — namely by discontinuing their products in Russia or ending deals with Russian companies. Massive companies like Apple, Nike and Disney have announced that they will cease operations in Russia.
As with any overzealous online reaction, the outcry has inevitably veered into the absurd. The International Cat Federation declared that Russian-bred and owned felines will be barred from participating in any of their competitions. An Italian university postponed a class on Russian writer Fyodor Dostoevsky before quickly walking the decision back after they realized the irony of their mistake.
Thus are the results of such performative acts of online “activism.”
The “social media war” against Putin is going so well simply because it requires no courage to wage it. Everyone already hates Putin, and Russia was already on the world’s villain list. Speaking out against the invasion will not endanger anyone’s career or their social standing.
In fact, the opposite is quickly coming true. If you are not sufficiently aghast and mortified by Putin’s dastardly attack on a peaceful nation, you may find yourself suspected of being a cold-hearted isolationist or — gasp! — a Russian bot.
It’s just the latest cause embraced by Twitter’s hall monitors in order to justify their schoolmarmish behavior. We saw it with the Black Lives Matter movement. We saw it with COVID. Now we’re seeing it with Ukraine. Those who break with the online orthodoxy must be shamed and condemned in even harsher terms than the original object of derision.
But their targets are ultimately easy ones. BLM targeted a society that was already grappling with the implications of its history and social institutions already overly concerned about issues of race and diversity. The COVID scolds were able to thrive in the early days of the pandemic because of the fear surrounding the virus and the lack of vaccines.
And now Russia is being clobbered online, and on the global stage, because its weak economy is heavily dependent on exports, its media sphere is relatively accessible to the West and it was already isolated within the international community.
An interesting question to ponder is how is a war like that going to work against an enemy that is a lot more restrictive of social media, a lot more ideologically dedicated to its cause and has a much more integral relationship with Western business and political interests?
Simply put, how effective would a “social media war” be against China?
While pulling business out of one of the largest countries and economies in the world may seem like a bold move on the part of profit-minded corporations, a closer look reveals they aren’t losing all that much.
Apple will lose a grand total of 1% of its global revenue as a result of its decision to stop selling products in Russia. German industrial giant Siemens will miss out on a similar percentage of revenue.
In comparison, Apple gets 20% of its revenue from China, and Siemens has noted that China represents its “second largest overseas market.”
While the Russian market is negligible for Disney, the company has invested billions on its theme park in Shanghai, and it worked closely with the Chinese government during the making of the live action remake of “Mulan.” Disney also relies on Chinese moviegoers to inflate box office numbers, especially since the American movie market has yet to fully recover from the pandemic.
No company has dared risk its lucrative Chinese market to stand up for the cruel mistreatment of the Uyghurs, and it’s unlikely that they will stand up in any future conflict.
The international community has dodged every opportunity to hold China accountable for the coronavirus pandemic. Some organizations like the World Health Organization have actively helped China to obfuscate its responsibility for the outbreak.
China can easily purchase good will in any country it chooses, and its campaigns have been highly effective at convincing politicians, companies, activists and large sections of the regular population to ignore the country’s human rights abuses and economic shenanigans.
Many of the people who have spoken out against the war in Ukraine have also expressed anger over the treatment of Uyghurs in China, but we have not seen the same kind of cascading effect in regard to China as we have with Russia.
Companies have not jumped on board to divest their businesses from China. Few politicians are suggesting anything more than some sanctions, and certainly none are going to suggest any move that might provoke a strong retaliation from the Chinese.
The answer might just be that the war would not be fought at all. This apparently new kind of conflict is by definition a fair weather fight, and to speak out against China threatens people’s career prospects and, in certain circles, their place in the social hierarchy.
China heavily regulates its citizens’ access to the internet and social media, so if any online campaign were to be launched in the event of, say, an invasion of Taiwan, it would be relatively useless beyond allowing Twitter activists to pat themselves on the back.
Contrasted with the reports coming out of Russia that its citizens are confused and displeased with the war, China and its people are dedicated to retaking Taiwan and projecting Chinese greatness. They believe that Taiwan is an integral part of China that must be reunited with the mainland in order to fully recover from the humiliations of the 19th century, when a weakened and corrupt China was exploited by European powers and Japan.
A nation like China, which has a clear goal, the ability to carry it out and an integral place in the global economy, may not fold so easily to the slings and arrows of online activists.
Hayden Daniel is the opinion editor at the Daily Caller.