The Russia-Ukraine war amongst other things championed the use of an electronic social media platform by a political actor that for all intents and purposes should be branded as a villain.
Yevgeny Prighozin, the leader of the mercenary Wagner Group, which is doing a sizeable chunk of the fighting in Ukraine on behalf of Russia, would seem like an unlikeable figure to embrace social media platforms.
The emergence of Telegram, a social media platform that has found acceptance and popularity in Russia (and in Ukraine after the start of the war) and which while ensuring anonymity, is not controlled by the West, made Prighozin its unlikeable champion.
Many studies have taken place on how political communication is formulated and delivered in social media in Western society. It has even been suggested that such a platform as Twitter may serve as “a strong substitute mechanism in European parliamentary systems.”(Silva and Proksch 2022, 14)
Nevertheless, it is shown that politicians tend to be less self-censured and express more of their own personal views, rather than towing the party line while using social media platforms.
This behaviour has been shown in extremis by Prighozin in his bid to outmanoeuvre the Russian elite and chastise Russian military leaders in a state where media and the news cycle are tightly controlled and where dissension is neither an option nor a way to gain political favour.
Prighozin embraced Telegram to raise his political credibility, using a platform that has a very deep connection to Russian youth, where most content is not fact-checked, edited or adhere to any kind of publishing or journalistic standards.
Prighozin’s Telegram channel and many other satellite channels within the app that were and are willing to spread his messages, show him in the light of a military-political leader that does all the strong-man activities the Russian public expects.
Visiting Wagner fighters, and wounded soldiers, visiting active battlefields, and severely reprimanding senior Russian military leaders (something that in earlier years would have been unthinkable) allowed him to attain a certain status, a political and military gravitas that outshone that of the Kremlin.
Many scholars have argued that the real crux of the matter is the way political communication is produced and shared, rather than just the mere presence of personalised political communication (Farkas and Bene 2021, 5).
Prighozin’s use of Telegram puts a lot of weight behind the idea that production and sharing play a major role in successfully exploiting the viral popularity that a social media platform may give.
Prighozin’s attacks against Russian Defense Minister Shoigu, Chief of the General Staff Gerasimov, amongst others, were of such an unhindered force that speculation appeared that his attacks were approved by President Putin himself, in a power play that would allow Putin to survive the growing discontent for the war, while assigning blame to his subordinates.
Indeed such a tactic has been in the playbook of leaders around the globe in various manifestations.
The relationship between constructing a “reality” that is heavily tailored to the individual and the use of social platforms to promote that “reality” has been well established in research and has accelerated (Bennett and Iyengar 2008, 722).
When Prighozin attacked Putin’s informational framework as to why the war in Ukraine is taking place, and then carried on the unsuccessful revolt, probably hoping for political and military support from other Russian leaders weary of the war, Telegram was the way to bypass the Russian state’s information apparatus and directly reach the homes of many Russians.
While we are currently unaware of how and why the truce between Prighozin and the Kremlin took place, what matters is that political communication using the extended information infrastructure technology has provided us, may become a very effective and notorious tool for even the most unlikely sources, that do not necessarily have the polish and attention to detail that manufactured political communications enjoy.
Bennett, W Lance, and Shanto Iyengar. 2008. “A New Era of Minimal Effects? The Changing Foundations of Political Communication.” Journal of communication 58 (4): 707–31.
Farkas, Xénia, and Márton Bene. 2021. “Images, Politicians, and Social Media: Patterns and Effects of Politicians’ Image-Based Political Communication Strategies on Social Media.” The international journal of press/politics 26 (1): 119–42.
Silva, Bruno Castanho, and Sven-Oliver Proksch. 2022. “Politicians Unleashed? Political Communication on Twitter and in Parliament in Western Europe.” Political science research and methods 10 (4): 776–92.