On Saturday morning Russian President Vladimir Putin vowed to punish those behind an “armed uprising” after the leader of the Wagner Group mercenary unit seized control of military facilities in two southern Russian cities. Tensions have been building between Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of the private military contractor force, and the Kremlin for weeks—and it apparently reached a breaking point, with Prigozhin taking to the Telegram social messaging platform on Friday to voice his frustration.
A very public feud has simmered for weeks—with the mercenary chief often using the social media platform to call out Russia’s military leadership for failing to keep the Wagner fighters supplied, while he also made allegations that the Kremlin has squandered gains made at the cost of his troops. Prigozhin further claimed that the Russian Army fired on Wagner Group positions, and he then ordered his forces to take control of Russian military positions in the south of the country.
“This is not a military coup, but a march of justice,” Prigozhin declared via Telegram on Friday.
“The evil embodied by the country’s military leadership must be stopped,” he added while accusing Russian Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu of ordering a rocket strike on Wagner Group field camps. “This scum will be stopped.”
Prigozhin has since used the messaging app to provide real-time updates of the situation with his forces.
“We are inside the (army) headquarters, it is 7:30 a.m. (0430 GMT). Military sites in Rostov, including an aerodrome, are under control,” Prigozhin said in a video shared on Telegram on Saturday morning.
Live Updates Trending On Social Media
There is now what can only be described as an extremely fluid situation within Russia, and social media is proving to be a vital line of communication on the ground, just as it had during the 2011 Arab Spring protests.
“Social media will likely be even more important than it was during the Arab Spring,” suggested technology analyst Susan Schreiner of C-4 Trends. “As a consequence of the Ukraine War, Putin tried to silence social media—but over time social media is proving that it is the source of truth and information. In the next few days, we expect even more Russians to turn to social media.”
However, what makes the situation in Russia a little different from the Arab Spring, and even more recent protests around the world, is that in the past social media was largely employed by the protesters—while the government forces in the respective countries only undertook efforts to cut the lines of communication. It is now apparent in Russia this week that pro-Kremlin commentators are also using the platforms to share their own updates, and on Saturday, a number of videos were posted showing Russian military units being sent to confront the Wagner Group forces.
As a result, it is almost impossible to verify a lot of what is now being shared on social media as the situation unfolds in Russia. There also seems to be no shortage of misinformation and even wild conspiracy theories being spouted.
“This type of social media reporting has been well-studied since the Iranian protests in 2009, and then of course hit a new level in 2012 with the Arab Spring,” explained Cliff Lampe, professor of information and associate dean for academic affairs in the School of Information at the University of Michigan.
“It’s also a common finding that social media provides quick, often incorrect, information during natural disasters. There’s a whole field called ‘crisis informatics’ that looks at this phenomenon,” Lampe added. “In times of crisis, whether they be natural or man-made, people seek to cut through the confusion by learning about what’s going on. Social media provides an immediate channel for that desire to be informed when chaos makes our internal state uncomfortable.”
As a result, these new platforms can serve as a conduit of information, even as actual media reporters can’t get there. Social media can offer information in a crisis, but just as often the information is either accidentally or maliciously bad, warned Lampe.
“Journalism matters more than ever because they have the methods of verification,” he noted. “And we need to help people pause when they consume information from unverified online sources.”
In other words, the old thinking “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” isn’t so apt today. This potential Russian Revolution is being practically live-streamed on social media, but the truth is already its first casualty.