A screen grab taken from surveillance camera footage the Zaporizhzhya...

A screen grab taken from surveillance camera footage the Zaporizhzhya NPP published on YouTube shows a flare at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, Europe's largest, during shelling in Ukraine on Friday. Credit: Zaporizhzhya NPP/HANDOUT/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

There are moments in military history that stand out even beyond their battlefield importance.

So it was in Crimea in the 1850s, when William Howard Russell made his bones as one of the fathers of war correspondence. His vivid, graphic reporting about mismanaged troops and terrible conditions for British soldiers resulted in more than fine writing.

Soon, a horrified Florence Nightingale was inspired to bring her nursing skills to Crimea. Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote his immortal poem of death and valor, "The Charge of the Light Brigade." And British politics was thrown into turmoil over the nation’s military stumbles.

An archival photo of ships and tents at the Port...

An archival photo of ships and tents at the Port of Balaklava between 1854 and 1856, during the Crimean War, in the Crimean Peninsula, and part of the city of Sevastopol. Credit: Universal Images Group via Getty Images/Sepia Times

All of it owing much to one man’s jarringly unflinching, mass-distributed dispatches.

Now, in the same corner of Eastern Europe, a faraway conflict’s brutality is again vividly presented to the world. In Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, not only is another clash of ideologies consuming the continent, but history is again repeating itself in terms of how we experience war — though we have yet to determine whether our world will change because of it. What we do know is that fundamental shifts in the distribution of information are changing the balance of power.


In World War II, combat photographs from the front were published in weekly magazines. Fighting in the jungles of Vietnam was shot on film flown to Tokyo to be developed, then sent on to network studios in New York for broadcast on the evening news. In America’s battles in the Middle East, powerful videos spread rapidly on the still-growing internet, a prelude to the chronicling of the current conflict.

Information is no longer mediated by official sources and credentialed news organizations. Facebook, Twitter, and TikTok are now providing myriad images and eyewitness reports of the human suffering wrought by the Russian attack. Never before have smartphones and social media apps been so vital and influential in the course of a conventional ground war.

Shocking real-time documentation of a Ukrainian nuclear power plant enduring shelling and fire, cities turned to rubble, bloodied corpses, residents sealing their windows against explosions and preparing Molotov cocktails, and frightened children being rushed to safety have enraged the international community, resulting in a stunning, rapid and powerful response to slow the Russian advance.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s under-fire updates on social media have upstaged Russian President Vladimir Putin. Zelenskyy’s plea for help to European leaders, teleconferenced in from embattled Kyiv, nudged Ukraine’s neighbors toward tougher anti-Russian sanctions. Leaders from around the world cannot disregard the calls to action from their citizens who are watching and sharing the raw scenes scrolling across the screens of their phones. Complicating the urgency is the difficulty of verifying the unfettered images, which can be shaped and used to form questionable narratives about what is actually happening in Ukraine, where Russia is clearly wielding its overpowering military hammer.


The Ukraine conflict is already reshuffling the sclerotic post-Cold War norms of international affairs. We may be seeing the rise of the European Union as a more cohesive, active entity that will levy sanctions and fund weapons in the face of a rising Russian threat. NATO, which lost its focus as the Soviet Union faded, finds its mutual-assistance bonds strengthening and possibly expanding as a sizable conflict on European soil threatens to return the powder keg-primed continent to the disastrous wars of the 20th century.

The old dance of nuclear signaling and prevention is just one theater of the current conflict. Now, too, nations must be vigilant to detect cyberattacks and the social media spread of propaganda. The superb work of U.S. and Western intelligence services and the shrewd decisions by those nation’s leaders to call out the Russian military maneuvering before the invasion denied Putin a motive for his land grab.

Leaders of the enormous technology companies also find themselves playing a new role on the international stage, whether that is Elon Musk offering help with satellite dishes and internet connections, Facebook disabling Russian propaganda sites, or others patrolling the theater of social media. The likes of Meta, Twitter and YouTube are struggling to determine their role in content moderation, no simple task in swiftly changing, violent moments where right and wrong can be difficult to determine and where a nation like Russia has moved to block full access to social media. What type of material should be allowed about a Ukrainian military unit with neo-Nazi tendencies, for example, that Facebook has previously tried to restrict?

The bureaucratic work of diplomacy will and must continue. There are many scenarios for an endgame and a negotiated cease fire. But history may show that social media-driven public opinion played a big and surprising role.

Such is the new reality of armed conflict. The world still tries to avoid the suffering of military tragedies, but learns more quickly than ever about the horrors of war — horrors that remain as unspeakable as the "jaws of Death" described by Tennyson some 170 years ago.

MEMBERS OF THE EDITORIAL BOARD are experienced journalists who offer reasoned opinions, based on facts, to encourage informed debate about the issues facing our community.

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