The social media culture war many of us have participated in over the past decade or more is bearing its fruit in a real blood-and-bullets war. Those incendiary posts and hate-filled comments are exploding in the hospitals, universities, apartment buildings and nuclear-power plants of Ukraine. The millions of people displaced from their homes, the lives destroyed or irreparably disrupted – all are collateral damage when an overwhelming power identifies the principles of truth, equity and democracy as an implacable enemy that must be eliminated.
Each missile, bomb and bullet Russia is raining down on its neighbours started as a word. Words have power, sometimes to build, or, as now, to destroy. And from Kyiv to Ottawa to Washington, D.C., the negative words are hitting their targets of division, destruction and ruined lives.
Russian dictator Vladimir Putin – I think by now we can drop the pretense that he is an elected president – is displaying a classic disconnect with reality. It’s almost as if he believes his own words when he says that Russia is not indiscriminately shelling Ukrainian cities, or that he is only trying to “deNazify” Ukraine.
His hallucinatory statements recall those of the protesters in Ottawa and elsewhere a few weeks ago as they stamped their feet like three-year-old children crying for “freedom”. A year ago, more untrue words led thousands to attempt to overthrow American democracy by storming the Capitol in Washington, D.C. The hatred, narcissism and infantile selfishness of online disinformation echo chambers have led to a mass psychosis across the world.
All are explicitly anti-democratic. They are fed by a steady stream of misinformation from Russian and other social-media black-ops teams that so successfully sow discord and division in the democratic West. To wit: Russia is defending itself from Nazis in Ukraine (whose president is of Jewish descent); that Covid-19 is a hoax, being asked to wear a mask is tyranny and vaccines are tools of genocide; that Donald Trump actually won the election in 2020.
In Russia itself, the nightmare has come full circle. Last week Putin shut down all independent media organs. Now, not to publish or broadcast lies is a crime in Russia. Any attempt to tell the truth in public is illegal and is met with immediate repression. Just ask the thousands of protesters arrested on Russian streets over the past couple weeks for denouncing an unprovoked war of aggression against a peaceful neighbour.
If there is a silver lining in this horror, it is in the utter determination of the Ukrainian people to stand for truth, human rights and democratic self-determination. They have done so again and again: in 1991 in gaining their independence from the Soviet Union, in the pro-democracy Orange Revolution of 2004, and in the 2014 overthrow of a pro-Russian puppet president. They are an inspiration to humanity in the face of what we can now see clearly as implacable evil.
There is also hope in the relative unity of democratic nations to stop pretending that Vladimir Putin’s politics – or those of his equally genocidal ally, Chinese President Xi Jinping – belong in the civilized world.
We are at a crossroads. We can hear and see the jackboots marching in our own streets. The future they will create is becoming reality in Ukraine. We need to fight back, with more than words.