Huge teams of journalists, producers, fixers and broadcasters are holed up in Ukraine’s increasingly besieged cities, distilling the cut and thrust of a countrywide conflict into nightly news broadcasts that summarise the day’s events.
Those programmes are watched by millions, and require enormous amounts of effort from a network of professionals operating at the highest levels in their respective fields. TV news broadcasts are attracting large numbers of viewers: The BBC’s rolling news channel’s viewership increased 57 percent compared to the average week in 2021.
But that’s not where a significant chunk of people is getting their information about Ukraine. Instead, it’s on social media, where the niche Twitter expert – and their favoured method of communication, the viral tweet thread – dominates.
Names such as Rob Lee, a PhD student at the department of war studies at King’s College London; Trent Telenko, a retired civil servant from the US Department of Defence; and Kamil Galeev, a researcher at US think tank The Wilson Center, have become must-follow accounts as they parse the minutiae of war, interpreting small tremors in the way Russian forces are advancing – or not – through Ukraine and amplifying them to millions of followers. (Lee and Galeev did not respond to requests for comment.)
Galeev has gained 94.2 percent of his 264,000 followers in the last 30 days or so; Telenko 96.2 percent of his 88,300, and Lee 76.9 percent of his 479,100 followers in the last month. They’ve done so off the back of effortlessly expressed expertise, often starting a thread with a brief nod to their prior experience in the field before weaving a compelling narrative about why a little-known doctrine adopted in 1986 by a Soviet general, for instance, might mean ruin for Vladimir Putin’s invading army today. Some, like Galeev, have even generated threads of threads, an ouroboros of opinions about geopolitics. All have seen huge engagement. You will, most likely, have already seen their content retweeted into your timeline.
It’s a significant moment – but one we’ve been through before, with the propulsion of celebrity epidemiologists and virologists into the limelight following the arrival of COVID in the last two years, largely on the basis of their ability to distil their decades of knowledge into a multi-part thread that doesn’t rely too much on Jennifer Lawrence GIFs.
“It’s about the changing shape of expertise, and who has access to an audience,” says Nick Anstead, associate professor at the London School of Economics’ media and communications department, and the author of a book on fake news.
He equates it to being a public intellectual of old, but points out that it can be difficult at times to know the legitimacy of the knowledge invoked by the viral Twitter expert. “We did see during COVID some quite prominent figures within the denial or antivax camp who were medical professionals, but when you dug into their CVs, they actually weren't experts on the things they were commenting on,” he says.
Others, such as Harvard epidemiologist Eric Feigl-Ding, were criticised for choosing to embellish their CVs, with colleagues in the same department at the same university calling them out as a “charlatan exploiting a tenuous connection for self-promotion”. Feigl-Ding, who did not respond to a request for comment for this story, has notably pivoted away from posting about coronavirus towards posting about the Ukraine invasion in recent weeks. Confusingly, Feigl-Ding also appears to be moonlighting as a journalist, branding some of his tweets with the word “SCOOP”.
“There are a lot of ‘TED talk’ intellectuals floating around online,” says Anstead. Yet he thinks that worrying about oversimplification of complex topics on social media isn’t something to be unduly concerned about. “We need to find ways of communicating complex ideas into public discourse. The challenge is how to amplify genuine experts or those who can make a positive contribution to the plurality of public debate.”
And there are plenty who have. Intricate knowledge of the durability of the tyres on Russian armoured vehicles has become the latest must-have bit of expertise as we try to contextualise why Russia’s advances through Ukraine have slowed. Telenko has become one of the most improbable examples of it, using his decades of experience in vehicle maintenance to post a viral thread on the 2nd of March.
“I was flabbergasted,” he says. “I got 30 million views on Twitter for one thread talking about tyres. But the thing that made it so popular is the familiar. Everyone who owns an automobile has to do preventative maintenance to make it run, and explaining the Russian army didn’t had the shock of the familiar.”
Other niches that have become unexpectedly relevant in the last few weeks include airline leasing practices. Jan Nedvidek, who has significant experience in the area but asked for his employer not to be linked to this story, dashed off a 12-tweet thread about how the Russian aviation industry will collapse by the end of the month between reps at his local gym on the evening of the 1st of March.
“I woke up the following morning with 25,000 retweets, and interview requests from CNN, the BBC, CNBC, Deutsche Welle and Forbes,” he says. “Had I not had the restraint I had, and had I not consulted this with my firm, I could have been on the world news pontificating about a topic that I know something about – but would I describe myself as the world’s leading expert? Certainly not.”
In fact, Nedvidek was intimidated by his viral fame (he even received an endorsement from Telenko in the replies). “I do certainly think that there are some very big questions to be asked about who we consider an expert in the modern social media environment, and how easily people are elevated into the position of an expert,” he says.
His concerns are valid, and highlight the way in which the social media-fed journalism ecosystem has exacerbated the issue of learning about hundreds of years of geopolitics and military history, or the complex development of respiratory viruses, in the form of 280-character posts.
Just as disinformation spreads, the spark of social virality is often started by accident, with the flames fanned by the imprimatur of traditional media. From there, the intoxication of interactions – likes, retweets and the jackpot-like sight of a soaring follower count – can drive people to post further threads, including perhaps some that are less rigorous than the initial one that sent them viral.
Provided that people aren’t gaming the system – and there is an increasing understanding that Russian disinformation campaigns are misrepresenting reality – there is a benefit to the scientist or military expert who has been toiling in the bowels of academia on their particular micro-niche being given time to shine.
“I think you always have something to say, but it just feels like most of the time nobody’s listening,” says Deepti Gurdasani, a veteran of the viral social media expert cycle. Gurdasani, a senior lecturer at Queen Mary University of London, has been tweeting about epidemiology since 2007 to an audience in the low thousands. Then COVID arrived: Now she has 133,000 followers, and most of her tweets have a level of engagement many would dream of.
She began tweeting about COVID out of a sense of frustration and worry about its impacts. “Social media was sort of a medium by which to sort of communicate and voice that frustration,” she says. She began to feel more heard, but also endured plenty of brickbats. “The side effect of all of this, I think, is that people start thinking that it's almost like a job,” she says. “For example, now, when I tweet about something else, which is something I used to do a lot pre-COVID, I'm told to stick to COVID. Which is bizarre, because it’s my Twitter account.”
As someone who has been through the rocket-fuelled arrival into the limelight, Gurdasani says that the newly-recognised experts on all things Ukraine may soon rue wading into the social media conversation. “I kind of miss the times I had a following of 6,000 people or less,” she says. “It’s much harder to communicate now. There’s a lot more scrutiny into what I put out, and I have to be very, very careful that nothing I say can be taken out of context.” The issue of potentially being decontexualised is an issue at the best of times, but when it comes to talking about troop movements or military casualties, it has real-world ramifications.