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Biopolitical Incursions of Self-Fashioning and Revaluing Life through Social Media in the Context of the War between Russia and Ukraine.
University of Bucharest, Faculty of Philosophy
Immersive storytelling: competitive narratives about the war between Russia and Ukraine and their biopolitical potential
It is important to notice that scholars evaluating the role of social media in shaping propaganda and resistance in Russia and Ukraine link current events with those from 2014, related with Crimea’s annexation. The general framework seems to be not that of a particular community – Crimea or Donbas – but that of the former Russian empire that will regain its former borders as democracies of the Western world will fall one by one. “In internet discussions, several frames, in which to place the current Ukrainian-Russian conflict, recur continuously. The fundamental frame, describing the relationship Russia has with the outside world, is that of a decadent trans-Atlantic civilization trying to impose its liberal values on the whole world.” (Szwed 2016: 6)
Pro-Russians flooded the media in 2016 with the idea that Fascism conquered Ukraine, a decadent state: nowadays, the shift is from Fascism to Nazism. There are three-phases that shape the interventions of trolls in spreading such propaganda: “luring, taking the bait and hauling in” (Szwed 2016: 7). Social media was then, as it is now, a tool to portray conflict: the myth of the Great Russia is reengaged in public narratives and supported by a virtual framing developed through images, texts and memes. Whenever propaganda spreads, it means that “pluralistic ignorance, the spiral of silence and the bandwagon effect” (Szwed 2016: 8) are tools of controlling public opinions online. Notwithstanding, as we seek to accommodate media and non-media realities, we discover that their framing is what supports the gap between truth and falsity. The weaponization of media is related with the so-called “information war”, that is not only constructing awareness on vulnerable actors, but also supports the conflict between civilization systems. According to Nissen, “As contemporary conflicts are also characterized by being ‘wars of choice’, perhaps ‘necessity’, but not ‘wars for survival’ (for liberal democracies, less so for some authoritarian regimes) and by that they are fought ‘amongst people’ resulting in many spectators and audiences to the conflict, who all have a say in its outcome.” (Nissen 2015: 32)
The biopolitical approach lies on these two paradigms: conflicts by choice and wars for survival. In the Russian rhetoric, “war” is avoided: it is a “special military operations” to secure the life of Russian residents from Ukraine. It means that they prefer a biopolitical scenario, but in order to justify a so-called liberation from immunization. Content and narration analysis, by visual and semiotic means, reveal that propaganda functions wherever users prove “pluralistic ignorance” (Szwed 2016: 39), lack of historical education, rejection of Atlantic civilization and models of foreign leadership. Sometimes, users prove to be not pro-Russia but only against-USA or convinced that Ukraine is “the puppet of the EU” (Szwed 2016: 47). Furthermore, the insights of the 2022 war reveal that there is a “fog of war”: conflicting opinions and current competitive narrative overlap with those circulating during the Crimea conflict. Civilians abroad tend to behave as Arendt observed: when everybody lies to you – and this is a state of fact in social media – the consequence “is not that you believe the lies, but rather that nobody believes anything any longer” (Arendt 1973). This truth whole became a loop that Russians’ took advantage from, not to impose their own narrative, but to raise awareness on the defiance that one should have on the opposite stories. Pavlik’s analysis shows up that the biopolitical scenario of Russia vs. Ukraine has been presented by journalists as different from that between “Iraq or Afghanistan” because it is a conflict of the “civilized” world. The most difficult part seems to be “what images of war to show” (Pavlik 2022: 8). Competitive narratives are somehow handled by digital tools that allow us to confront, by recourse to Google maps, places of conflict that can easily be authenticated. An example provided by Pavlik is relevant in this regard.
“In one case, a Twitter user examined a video shared on Telegram. – He found a landmark – an Orthodox church with four golden domes. He located it in Irpin, using Google Maps and a file photograph from the Associated Press to generate its precise coordinates. A scan of Discord, Reddit, and Twitter revealed chatter from witnesses of the bombing. Twelve minutes after spotting the footage, he felt confident the video was real, and posted the work on his Twitter account (Verma, 2022).” (Pavlik 2022: 10)
But an information war supported by social media augments the uncertainty developed by the real conflict. Texts and images are pieces of subjective experience, not facts. Therefore, moral boundaries are always awaiting to be settled and proved in this regard. To prove aggression means to expose what turns a community to an inoperative status, namely collective death.
“On March 6, The New York Times featured a photograph of a family killed in Russian shelling near Kyiv (Huggins 2022). Award-winning photojournalist Lynsey Addario took the photo. Guardian news editor Joanna Walters called the decision to publish the photo brave. Walters added that it is – always an agonised debate, how to depict war, how to get the balance right.‖ Publishing uncensored images of the dead is uncommon. The Times has done so on some occasions, including after a 2019 attack at a Nairobi hotel. In a statement to the Poynter Institute, The Times defended its decision as balancing the need for sensitivity and respect with our mission of showing the reality of these events. The Times added – We want to be respectful to the victims and to others affected by the attack.” (Pavlik 2022: 9).
The particularity that arises in this biopolitical scenario is that social-media entangles competitive narrative based on a different, contemporary process, that of immersive story-telling. “Satellite imagery” (11) is used to check if Ukraine’s harmed infrastructure indeed existed before the conflict and has been harmed recently by Russians, journalists combine textual and visual narratives to explore the situation of civilians, whereas immersive journalism concentrates the narratives of more than 6 million refugees belonging to compromised, aggressed communities. Geolocation, “high resolution digital photos”, techniques of “photogrammetry and 3D mapping” are used to argue the destruction of Ukraine’s territories (12). In this struggle, influencers become a war agency.
“This is something pretty common that comes from both Ukrainian and Russian influencers,” says Roman Kolodko, chief operating officer of eastern European influencer marketing agency Mediacube, which represents a number of Russian and Ukrainian creators. Kolodko spoke as he fled Ukraine for Poland. “Many big influencers are in Ukrainian cities that have been and are being attacked right now, and they need to spread their word,” he added – and those who aren’t have family there” (Stokel-Walker 2022) 
The Civic Media Observatory’s report concluded that as Facebook banned pro-Russian trolls, propaganda moved to Instragram, Telegram and Vkontakte, platforms Russians-friendly. Content has been reduced to “polarizing narratives” that insist on patriotic reactions. Authors of such contents have a blue checkmark from Instragram next to their accounts but share nationalist narratives after initially being against-war. “A popular hashtag here is #мненестыдно (#iamnotashamed)” (Civic Media Observatory 2022) . This recalls of Esposito’s argument that fear and pride are two core-feelings of a biopolitical attitude. People embracing such attitude insist on depicting a “munus” that stands for common values, for patriotic convictions. They are engaged differently into competitive narratives on war and communities, as it follows:
Narratives of pride: Former Duma Deputy and actress Maria Kozhevnikova created content arguing that she is not ashamed of being Russian; the moral problem is not related to the origin of civilians or politicians, but with their feeling about Russia’s actions, as individuals of a community are a constitutive body of the nation-state and yet can have different opinions or willings.
Narratives of shame: Mainly on Facebook, less on other networks, definitely non-existent on Russian platforms such as Vkontakte, Russians criticize war although they risk being arrested. “This narrative is promoted by a diverse set of Russian feminists, human rights activists, economists, businesspeople, actors and authors, some of whom are in exile or facing threats and prosecution. The extent of their audience varies from the thousands to tens of thousands”. They all have in common the ethics of care as part of their life-experience, that declined aggression. The Bucha case has been discussed by influencers such as Mitya Aleshkovskiy, a former director of a large charity, stated that all Russians bear personal responsibility for the war in Ukraine – and argument similar to Jasper’s text on blame and collective responsibility that we all have, in a metaphysical sense, for the genocides that Nazis raised against Jews.
Narratives of direct-aggression on Ukrainian influencers turned to disinformation and suspicion. A particular example is represented by Marianna Vishegirskaya, a pregnant woman, victim of the Mariupol aggression on the public hospital. The disinformation campaign started by Signal and spread by Telegram had at its core the idea that the victim is not credible, as she is a model and a popular beauty blogger from Mariupol, on whose pregnancy was poor information before the attack. The Russian Embassy in UK “tweeted a number of times, claiming that Vishegirskaya played two different women photographed at the hospital. Interestingly, the Russian Embassy also referenced Vishegirskaya by her maiden name, Podgurskaya” . Twitter removed the account of the Russian Embassy in UK for misinformation, also after spreading the word that the victim has a realistic makeup that helped her image in sufferance. It proved out that “The pregnant woman, now a mother, can be seen in photos walking on foot through the rubble. She survived and gave birth to a daughter in the days after the bombing. A completely different pregnant woman is viewed in the photo from the hospital bombing, injured and being stretchered out. Sadly, multiple news outlets have confirmed with doctors on the scene that the unidentified woman on the stretcher did not survive. Neither did her unborn child” (Binder 2022) . This example reveals that a capital of influence can be manipulated by weakening the core-expertise behind it as resource capable to falsify facts.
Visual narratives of counter-riposte. France 24 had a campaign of interviewing artists – such as Vlodko Kaufman, who insist to “fight with image”  against propaganda and disinformation. Another example is revealed by Alevtina Kakhidze who portrayed herself “between gifts of arms and good wishes from friendly nations and a battery of Russian weapons”. She declared that “If before the war started I criticised the society of consumption, after 2014, I completely changed the focus. Unprotected shop displays in the windows became for me a sign of peaceful life.” (Biedarieva 2022) .
Performances broadcasted on social-media became an alternative immersive story-telling, valuable as it has artistic content and social reflections embedded on behalf of the Ukrainian society: it remains representative the Ukrainian-Russian artist Aljoscha who staged an anti-war protest in front of Kyiv’s Motherland Monument. Artists around the world started to expose in public urban art, graffiti and installations, that supported Ukraine: civilians took a picture and disseminated them online, as a gesture synthesized by the tag #standtoukraine (Jeffery 2022) . Relevant examples are: A resident walks past mural painting by Bulgarian artist Stanislav Belovski depicting Russian President Vladimir Putin holding his own body in Sofia, on March 15, 2022; TvBoy, the Italian artist living in Barcelona, installs a new collage on the war in Ukraine in Plaza de Sant Jaume, representing three children installing a flag of peace on a Russian tank; or a TvBoy’s piece of art that depicts Russian President Vladimir Putin in prison, in Barcelona on March 31, 2022. We see both civilians and militaries taking pictures of such artworks and uploading them on social media, for an artistic resistance. Relevant remains the photography of Ukrainian soldiers uploading on internet the picture of a mural titled ‘Saint Javelin’ dedicated to the British portable surface-to-air missile has been unveiled on the side of a Kyiv apartment block on May 25, 2022 in Kyiv, Ukraine. The artwork by illustrator and artist Chris Shaw is in reference to the Javelin missile donated to Ukrainian troops to battle against the Russian invasion .
Within Russians borders, the biopolitical dilemma is that between silence and exile: as the government imprisons civilians peacefully protesting against the war, social-media confronts the lack of reaction of many Russians who disapprove aggression but are afraid to react. They also suffer from Russophobia as people tend less to argue that Russia’s agression is not reducible to the Russians’ convictions. Others chose to talk implicitly: Sasha Skochilenko is known for getting arrested as she replaced price tags from a grocery store with reports about bombing from Mariupol (Kishkovsky 2022) . Russian performance art group “Party of the Dead” hold anti-war protests against the invasion of Ukraine, dressed and disguised and skeletons and peacefully exposing messages from a Russian cemetery, whereas an unknown activist protested Russian atrocities in Bucha, Ukraine, posing outside landmarks in Moscow (Dixon et al. 2022) . These are efforts invested both by artists and civilians, whereas experts in VR try to reconstruct part of the damages left by the war through immersive storytelling: in order to believe a visual content, it has to be resented as if you were there. Why, from all these methods and competitive narratives, previously discussed, immersive storytelling might have a different biopolitical potential? First, they allow the navigator to navigate “a fixed universe” evaluated through interpretative relationships that mix reading and viewing (McErlean 2018: 120). It provides multiple “ways of seeing” (2018: 121), that transgress both aspects of biological and nonorganic life. Second, the sense of empathy is higher if a content is consumed through immersive story-telling. It is not “a complete sensory experience” but it performs a certain simulation of a real situation (2018: 121). At the core of immersive story-telling is proprioception, a process that tells us where the boundaries of our bodies are: so immersive story-telling embodies “reduced kinaesthetic loops”, and another sense of pursuing spaces in digital environments. Thirdly, a technocentric approach of this kind requires different aesthetics and other regimes of “attention”, that contribute to the spiritual practices of self-constitution and virtual fashioning of life. In this regard, is relevant McErlean’s reading of St. Ignatius of Loyola’s spiritual exercises, that can be understood as “a meticulous description of the mental operations that lead to immersion in a textual world” (2018: 127). Landscapes must be blended with textual geography, experiences such as “hell” must be “described in terms of the senses”: thus, any reality must be apprehended as sensitive as possible until it performs a memory place for itself. Consumers of digital content are, in this context, behaving as Schlegel’s ideal spectator: it interacts with the characters as real human beings, it performs narrative functions, it enables the collective experience of story-telling with observing presences. Last but not least, such biopolitical potential leads to a perspectivist approach, that divide immersive-storytelling between expositional and expressive narratives: the former involve “strict rules and narrow margins of decisions”, whereas the latter are “more like architecture as the visitor can roam freely and the specifics of the plot are less defined” (139). The greatest advantage of such immersive story-telling is that they do not manufacture realities, but expose them in a mixed setup of technological instruments that “deal with life itself as a primary concept” (147). There are authors, such as Sunderland et al who consider that immersive storytelling makes the invisible visible: narrated content is transformational and help audiences to clarify an anticolonial perspective (Sunderland et al. 2020, 1). The biopolitical potential is more relevant and sharper: “digital storytelling’s original aim was to amplify the voices of people who experiences social disadvantage and exclusion” (Sunderland et al. 2020: 2; Lambert 2013). The aim is to engage social change as reaction toward peripheral or discriminated communities, so that users as consumers develop self-reflexivity relationships and create “counter-narratives to stigmatising discourses” (3). By this, we have a biopolitical puzzle for immersive story-telling, based on the following five observations:
(1) Contents provided virtually tailor the identity of aggressed communities and their victims: it develops an ongoing culture of visual depictions of peripheries and centres, that has at its core life as a limited and compromised resource.
(2) It develops, at its turn, “communities” of followers that share the same values and beliefs: the internet is spread between pro-Russians and pro-Ukrainians with their ideological and moral commitments and nuances. However, mutual banning or tactics of removing accounts that disinform – even these dominant regional uses of certain networks that prove to be more correct with Ukrainians, such as Facebook, and more committed to Russian propaganda, such as Telegram – reveals immunization processes performed by such virtual communities. For different reasons, they isolate, and allow within their boundaries a narrative that has its own truth mechanisms and fictional practices.
(3) These consequential immunizations arise resentment, so the Nietzschean logics behind this biopolitical framework remains representative. Masses of manipulated individuals – that used to have no will to power or to discover truth – began to counter-react to prefabricated contents. They other exclude themselves from certain communities or become authors of their own version of truth.
(4) The biopolitical categories discussed by Esposito – fear (of death and aggression), blame (a negative experience that opens the politics of sacrifice), law (as the only tool that distinguishes the real from the ideal community), the extasy of being part of this world and the historical experience of this world (marked by destitutions and death of the others) are equally invested in the creation of the content belonging to immersive narratives, and into the boundaries or moral standards of different virtual communities. There are Russians who fear for their future, Europeans who fear for security issues, Russians who blame themselves for not reacting early, Ukrainians who blame not only Russians but also Europeans abroad for sanctions or public reactions, so on and so forth. So, the setup continues to be biopolitical, but the communization and immunization practices depend on immersive storytelling for a higher credibility.
(5) The boom of artistic resistance that floods social-media and surprises civilians abroad who consume artistic content related with war is one of the two symptoms that perform the aestheticization of existence. The other one is represented by the increased temptation to spread not only brute and immediate content, but also processed testimonies, memories, images, so that social-media circulates content which is far from being “ready-made”. These mechanisms support, however, a counter-culture that faces war as a state of exception and a peaceful riposte based on solidarity raised through images and texts. If in real life critiques do not reach targeted audiences, in virtual life there is always a chance left to be better informed or to see an alternative to your world.
After this war, not only Russians and Ukrainians, but human beings from all parts of the world will perform a higher sense of biopolitical virtual cultures and imagery. Poets lie too much – both back in Nietzsche’s times and nowadays – but overcoming akrasia is part of a civilisation process in which social-media makes a difference. In a digital commonwealth, different communities that experienced aggression, hate speech, violence and historical trauma will continue to impose their will to truth: Nietzsche’s idea that we all explore life as people who cultivate, discipline and raise up our taste on reality and authenticity will never be dropped from the immersive reality. Users will cross metamorphoses and influencers will assume, by more or less capitalist slogans, that you have to become who you are, albeit two millenniums ago this was Socrate’s saying and nowadays is Coca Cola’s slogan. What changed is that narrative self-constitution used to encapsulated exclusively aestheticized mechanisms of evaluating life and creating appearances. After this conflict, that happened in the midst of a civilised world, life becomes a resource worthy to be explored and criticized in social-media otherwise than simply aestheticizing it. Politically, sovereignty and negotiation of boundaries will remain concerning topics, but what happens with human life beyond those who master such liberties and power subjections is a question of biopolitics. Social-media is one of the most important pillars of democratic behaviours nowadays: it has the capacity not only to (dis)place individuals in territory, who mark themselves safe after a conflagration or partisans of a certain political movement by their flags from Facebook or Instagram. In fact, social-media gains a capital of power in creating social-cohesion, tolerance and solidarity, which inevitably lead to inclusive or exclusive social mechanisms, meaning to strengthened communities or immunized social groups. Digital cultures of resistance offer a new chance to construct a sustainable heritage, by recording memories, testimonials and live recordings of resistance, involuntary immigration or destructed homelands. There is less than a century since people used to confront orchestrated death silently, into extermination camps. Nowadays, they get to spread the word about their trauma and this is should be one of the many advantages that virtual environments offer: the opportunity to avoid, in time, forms of genocide, ethnic discrimination and social harm. If influencers would behave more as narrators, the matter of credibility and trust might turn to a new social-contract between users and content providers: until then, social-media aestheticizes life and self-constitution practices that will progressively extend from individuals to communities. #JeSuisCharlieHebdo or #JeSuisUkraine are more than just virtual reactions of solidarity: they immunize individuals in front of agression and raise a community that is no longer that of ostracized people, but that of all human beings that believe its story and share its values or convictions.
* Paper supported by UEFISCDI research project PN-III-P1-1.1-TE-2021-0439, “Be You” (A fi tu însuți în era rețelelor sociale – o abordare a esteticii autenticității din perspectiva ontologiei virtuale), TE 64 din 12/05/2022.
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 An article on pride and shame, available at: <https://globalvoices.org/2022/05/12/pride-or-shame-russian-influencers-on-the-war-in-ukraine/#> , visited on August 29, 2022.
 See further details available at: <https://mashable.com/article/pregnant-ukraine-instagram-influencer-russia-disinformation> visited on August 29, 2022.
 See further details available at: <https://mashable.com/article/pregnant-ukraine-instagram-influencer-russia-disinformation>.
 See information available at: <https://www.france24.com/en/live-news/20220424-shaken-by-war-ukrainian-artists-fight-with-images> visited on August 29, 2022.
 An extended version of the article is available at: <https://www.ft.com/content/870f753b-2a6a-4dd3-878a-facddda9d8c9>, visited on August 30, 2022.
 An extended version of the article is available at <https://www.cnbc.com/2022/03/30/artists-support-ukraine-as-russia-invasion-continues.html>, visited on August 30, 2022.
 Extended details available at: <https://www.cnbc.com/2022/03/30/artists-support-ukraine-as-russia-invasion-continues.html>.
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