Volunteers register donations by local residents for people from Donbass in a university in Rostov-on-Don, Russia, on March 2 (XINHUA)
If we say the First Gulf War, from August 1990 to February 1991, was the first-ever live-broadcast military conflict in the television era, then the Russian-Ukrainian conflict in February can be considered the first mass combat scene of the social media era. Although the actual fighting occurs on Ukrainian territory, people on all continents are involved online—albeit intentionally or not. Social media has become a stretch of unrestricted battleground.
The scale of this warfare on public opinion is unprecedented. Both warring sides are playing out the war for the world on social media, using the latter as a tool for either publicity or propaganda, hoping to gain the moral command. At the same time, social media provides a platform for people from all walks of life to express their views: the clash of thoughts by no means inferior to the live ammunition fired across the frontline.
On February 15, when the situation in Ukraine was still unclear, Chinese netizens discovered a post on Weibo, China's Twitter equivalent, issued by the official "British Prime Minister" account, urging everyone to "engage in dialogue—the Russian Government should avoid making decisions that are catastrophically wrong for the country." Subsequently, the official Weibo accounts of the embassies of Ukraine, Russia and the U.S. in China chimed in on the topic.
At this point, the vast majority of Chinese netizens still held their position of onlooker, and simply believed the importance attached to the Chinese social media platform—by all parties to the conflict—to be a sign of China's rising international status.
As the situation evolved, China's mainstream media still tried to remain objective and impartial on the issue, but divergent standpoints had already begun sprouting across social platforms.
Compared with the "grand narrative" of previous war reports, what ordinary people see, hear and feel within the war zone can make its way to international eyes and ears in the era of social media, in a "micro-narrative" way. The fear and helplessness of the Ukrainians trapped by violence struck—and strike—an empathetic chord with netizens through the photos and short videos being uploaded across different Chinese platforms.
Many long-term China residents from Ukraine introduced their hometown situations in Chinese, expressing their grave concerns for their loved ones, deeply touching the hearts of the Chinese people.
China has always had a culture of sympathizing with the weaker, and it is human nature to care for civilians victimized by acts of war. Many had hoped to raise money for those in need, but were left disappointed when the Ukrainian Embassy in China announced on its official Weibo account Ukraine's National Bank was accepting donations, but the money would "support the Ukrainian armed forces."
The majority of the Chinese may be more emotionally supportive of the Russian side. Yet this is not entirely due to the friendly relationship between the two countries. General belief holds that the underlying causes of the Ukraine crisis are tremendously complex and far from black and white. These netizens consider the U.S. the principal puppet master behind many a regional conflict. In their opinion, Russia is caught in anger over the U.S. and its allies' disregard of its security concerns. And, they wonder, if Russia is being dragged down by the U.S., will China be next?
The era of social media at its very core is an era of respect for pluralistic ideas. Many may not realize that, in this day and age of ubiquitous judgment, every word can have far-reaching impact: The price of greatness is responsibility over each of our thoughts.
Copyedited by Elsbeth van Paridon
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