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Ukraine Leverages Drone Footage on Social Media

A pilot practices with a drone on a training ground in Kyiv region on Feb. 29, 2024. GENYA SAVILOV/AFP/GETTY

On a dirt road in Ukraine, a Russian soldier lays motionless. No tanks, trucks, or fellow soldiers are around to see or help. The only evidence of his fate, like many others, was caught on enemy cameras. 


The scene, filmed by a drone, is a reality many soldiers in the conflict have come to dread. The unexpected: the popularity of their final moments on social media. 


In the internet era, it is widely acknowledged that drones are multifaceted weapons. They conduct reconnaissance, gather intelligence, and can be weaponized to blow things up. But they are also playing a role in propaganda – trying to embolden one nation and dispirit another. Just like Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky used Facebook and Instagram early in the war to galvanize national fervor, drone footage is now utilized to demonstrate strength and boost morale.


Drone footage provides the world a visceral view of the front lines. “That’s a good thing, in that it improves our awareness of what is happening, and how awful and terrifying this type of war can be,” Hal Brands, senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and Bloomberg columnist, wrote over email. But Brands and others are urging spectators to view with caution. “The caveat is that … people and countries release FPV footage for a reason – so you have to treat this footage with all the caution you’d treat any info released by a belligerent.” 


Now more than ever, videos of active warfare are surfacing from battlefield conflicts. Unlike previous conflicts, national governments are the ones posting the footage to the internet. In Ukraine in particular, footage from drones known as first-person view (FPV) drones are capturing this footage. The drones have been instrumental in the conflict – so much that Zelensky formed the Unmanned Systems Force in February. The launch was part of the Brave1 initiative, in which the Zelensky administration has brought together technology companies to collaborate on strategic weaponry. The latest arm of the nation’s military is wholly dedicated to the advancement of Ukraine’s growing drone sector. 


First-person view drones transmit video via a lightweight camera to a display, typically a tablet or digitized goggles. Nearby pilots can switch between viewing methods to avoid interference from signal jamming. The feedback allows the pilot to maneuver the device in real time from a remote location. Last year, Ukraine’s military expanded its drone network over a hundredfold.


“We are witnessing the next stage of the so called phenomena of a ‘CNN War,’” wrote Oleksiy Melnyk, co-director of the Razumkov Centre, an international studies think tank in Ukraine. This next stage does not require traditional media outlets to air the content. Today, anyone with internet access can watch countless people die and mass destruction on social media. Moreover, anyone who watches this footage can comment on the videos and “like” them. Social media platforms do not vet the videos. Casualties have become casual. 


On X, a popular page which posts FPV content is Defense of Ukraine (@DefenseU) – with over 18,300 posts and more than two million followers. This page claims to be the “official page of the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine.” Two videos, with a combined 300,000 views, show the bombing of manned Russian tanks, capturing the final moments of soldiers’ lives amid billowing plumes of smoke. Comments on one video include "absolutely stunning!", "Those secondary explosions ... are just goddam beautiful” and “... Leave nothing but trails of destruction.” 


But in a video destroying Russian artillery, some comments take a quite different approach, such as, “Can we have a peace treaty?,” “I never thought a day would come when we will be proud of destroying each other” and “This is pretty vile when you think about it. Taking joy in the death of others.


P.W. Singer, a strategist at the think tank New America and author of numerous books on warfare, acknowledged the propagandistic nature of the posts: “The FPV video only shows what the poster wants you to see, akin to someone posting only the best parts of their life on Instagram or TikTok.” 


Former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Steven Pifer said that “Ukrainians make a lot of drone footage available … to show that they can hold their own against a larger and better equipped Russian army.” The videos, he believes, are directed toward citizens and governments of Western nations. 


What seems clear is that the footage is popular because it portrays a spectacle previously unseen. Singer noted that the videos promote a new type of “perverse fandom” of war. In stark contrast, however, Pifer emphasized over email that while “these are not video games” and “real human beings are getting killed,” the reality is that “war is inhumane.” Both statements serve as grim reminders of what is behind the footage – human suffering.


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