The human tragedy on the ground in Ukraine is hard to fathom or look at. No amount of imagination can match the pain and the destruction on the ground. It is one of the reasons that Putin has for the first time in his 20-year reign shut down everything that is not under his control (including social media and every small independent newspaper, broadcast or online service) and has promised three-year to 15-year sentences for even carrying a placard with the word "War" on it (because in Orwellian speak it is "a special military operation" to liberate and "de-nazify" a country). But the world of storytelling and media has changed. Not just in the past decade but very dramatically in the last two or three years, and this changing narrative landscape plus a new generation of narrators and voices combined with new media behaviors is increasingly difficult to control from top down.
The following are new narratives seen through the lens of the Ukraine war:
New Narrators/New Narrative Publications
Arguably among the best writers on the war, if not the best writer, is Julia Ioffe from a new journalist-owned-and-controlled publication called Puck which believes that "in this new media age, the creator is the heart of the business equation."
Julia is deeply sourced, rational and tries to get to the truth even if we do not like to hear what she reports. In this piece, which includes an excellent interview, she notes that half to two-thirds of Russians support the Ukraine war and that most Russians have not yet felt the big impact of the sanctions since it is really a tiny fraction of the population that has been first hurt (the upper middle class and rich who own the assets and use rouble/dollar accounts that have plummeted). The sanctions will begin to impact the country shortly with inflation and some initial shortages. (The closing down and discontinuing of the major global brands in the country will also prompt some questioning and therefore is likely to be very impactful.)
However, there is a vulnerability for Putin which is that Russians under 35 who because they did not grow up during the Soviet era and most importantly because they do not get their news from newspapers and TV are anti-war, and it is this information wormhole plus the shrinking of the economy that will pierce Putin’s media black hole.
Here is Julia on Putin's black hole. (To read the entire piece you may have to subscribe which I highly recommend for two reasons. First, these are some of the best writers anywhere. Second, and as importantly, I believe that like Substack, Puck is another new model where the creators are grabbing back control and their livelihoods from aggregators and traditional content owners. This is just a preview of the explosion in the way we hear, see and fund a large part of narrative from creators as we enter the Web3 world.)
The TikTok Take-Over
While Puck, Substack and other new forms are scaling we have already seen the power of social media, particularly TikTok, in how narratives are made and opinion shaped. In a wonderful piece from the New Yorker we learn that: "The invasion of Ukraine isn’t the first conflict to play out over social media. The Arab Spring uprisings and the Syrian civil war used Facebook and Twitter to organize protests and broadcast D.I.Y. footage. But in the intervening years, social platforms have become more geared toward multimedia, and smartphones have become better at capturing and streaming events in real time. Large numbers of Ukrainian civilians are taking up arms to defend their country against Vladimir Putin’s reckless imperialism; they’re also deploying their mobile cameras to document the invasion in granular detail. The war has become content, flowing across every platform at once. One video that has circulated in recent days appears to show a Ukrainian man gingerly moving a mine, a cigarette dangling from his mouth, off a road and into the woods. A single tweet earned the clip more than ten million views, but it could also be found on YouTube, TikTok, and the sites of various news publications. Perhaps owing to Western sympathies with the plight of Ukrainians, their videos have overwhelmed American feeds in a way few foreign news stories ever do. The flood of TikTok videos is perhaps more likely to evoke our bemused awareness, a feeling of sympathy that lasts only long enough to keep us scrolling. Yet as the Russian convoys outside of Kyiv continue attempting to penetrate the city center, traditional news organizations are pulling their journalists to safety. Social media is an imperfect chronicler of wartime. In some cases, it may also be the most reliable source we have."More here.
Influencers today often have more power than media companies.
Given the power of TikTok influencers both sides are reaching out and trying to influence the "influencers," but at the current time the Russian ability to dis-inform is less effective than the global army of influencers arrayed against it each with their unique audiences, voices and styles.
The Biden Administration earlier this week briefed influencers: "On Thursday afternoon, 30 top TikTok stars gathered on a Zoom call to receive key information about the war unfolding in Ukraine. National Security Council staffers and White House press secretary Jen Psaki briefed the influencers about the United States’ strategic goals in the region and answered questions on distributing aid to Ukrainians, working with NATO and how the United States would react to a Russian use of nuclear weapons. As the crisis in Ukraine has escalated, millions haveturned to TikTokfor information on what is happening there in real time. TikTok videosoffered some of the first glimpses of the Russian invasionand since then the platform has been a primary outlet for spreading news to the masses abroad. Ukrainian citizens hiding in bomb shelters or fleeing their homes have shared theirstories to the platform, while dangerous misinformation and Russian propaganda have also spread. And TikTok stars, many with millions of followers, have increasingly sought to make sense of the crisis for their audiences.
The White House has been closely watching TikTok’s rise as a dominant news source, leading to its decision to approach a select group of the platform’s most influential names. Teddy Goff, a founder of Precision Strategies, a consulting firm, said that the White House’s strategy of embracing the next generation of media voices was crucial. "There’s a massive cultural and generational shift happening in media, and you have to have blinders on not to see it," he said. "The reach of a piece in a traditional news outlet is a fraction of what a big TikToker gets."
Imagine five years ago reading the paragraphs above. You would ask what are Zoom and TikTok? What is a "Social Media Influencer"? The entire article is here.
If it is real time it is Twitter time.
After TikTok, Twitter is being leveraged to shape and keep up with new narratives. There is a Ukraine-Russia list that you can engage with by just following the list versus each person on it. (A list is composed of a number of people worth following on a topic, a.k.a. members.) The list gets updated as the curator adds new members to it.
The best list to keep updated in real time on Ukraine is the Ukraine-Russia list curated by Noah Smith. It has a list of 75 key accounts (members) worth hearing from. It is followed by many journalists and leaders of countries. You can follow the list by clicking here. It is hands down the go to source for real time news, analysis and much more. Imagine access like this to world class experts with one click for free without Twitter!
A single voice and a shared list can shape narrative in a world of ESG where customers and employees hold their leaders and bosses accountable.
"Founder of the Chief Executive Leadership Institute, Sonnenfeld has spent four decades pushing CEOs to act to benefit society, not just shareholders, on social issues ranging fromgun controltovoting rights. But nothing has drawn as much attention or supportfrom business leaders, media, or the public as his inventory of companies that have cut ties with Russia.
"So many CEOs wanted to be seen as doing the right thing," Sonnenfeld, 67, said in a telephone interview. "It was a rare unity of patriotic mission, personal values, genuine concern for world peace, and corporate self-interest.(The list, updated hourly by his research team, has grown to more than 330 as of Friday.)
"What these lists do is give courageous CEOs the confidence to keep going, and the wannabe courageous ones the reinforcements to deal with their boards so they come off as responsible business leaders when they can see a stampede of their peers leaving Russia," Sonnenfeld said. The "laggards" followed this week, when the public relations arms of more than two dozen consumer products, fashion,fast foodand packaged goods companies contacted him in a single day to be included."
Click here to see the entire list and much more on how companies are grappling with this situation.
The Power of Podcasts
New narrators and voices and newly empowered established narrators and voices are leveraging a spectrum of new techniques and media, one of which is the humble voice in your ear via podcasts. Podcasts are amazing in their ability to unleash the eye and the heart of your imagination and reason thorough the power of spoken word. They are cheap to produce and can be heard everywhere including in the dark. Most importantly they can truly go deep into a subject and bring in superb voices who are deeply informed and knowledgeable to you.
Sam Harris this week had a live conversation over Zoom (later provided as a podcast) with Garry Kasparov the Chess Grandmaster and champion who has been warning about Putin for years. This conversation will unleash new perspectives. (Harris' podcast requires a subscription, but 40 minutes of the interview is free and you will learn a lot from it.)
Web3 is playing its part.
Web3 is so misunderstood by so many often equated with the metaverse or valued by the latest NFT craze. It is much more and just a couple of its key elements (Wallets and DAOs -- Decentralized Autonomous Organizations) are described by Packy McCormick in his amazing Not Boring substack:
"Ukraine Crypto Wallets
If you’re looking for a way to donate crypto, the Ukrainian government solicited donations in ETH and BTC on Twitter.
The addresses have been verified, and I donated without issues. Over $5 million[over 50 million since this piece was written]has been donated via ETH alone, and you can see the walleton Etherscan herefor live updates. (The amount on Etherscan is lower because they sweep out money periodically.)
UkraineDAO, organized by Pussy Riot and PleasrDAO, among others, is taking a slightly different approach to fundraising, more in line with ConstitutionDAO with a twist. The group set up aPartyBidon an NFT of a Ukranian flag so that anyone could contribute any amount. All contributors will receive $LOVE tokens which "have no utility nor value but are a beautiful testament and reminder of your contribution to a noble cause." UkraineDAO has raised $3.3 million already, and proceeds will go toCome Back Alive.
Lastly,this Notion dochas a long list of ways to help, financial and otherwise. It’s the most comprehensive I’ve found."
Watch this video of a speech that the President of Ukraine gave to the British Parliament. You will see what a leader and the ongoing power of William Shakespeare and the oratory of Winston Churchill sound like in combination.
The video is being watched all over the world millions of times a day. It can teach us all about why leadership matters, right matters, history matters and words matter. All of these combined with truth amplified by the power of new narratives has played and will continue to play a role the difficult days ahead.
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