User-generated content has been essential to coverage of the war in Ukraine since it began in February. Soldiers, civilians, aid workers and other witnesses have posted footage of fighting and destruction in real time, making this war one of history’s most visually documented.
“With such prevalent access to the internet, it means that soldiers can upload things to show people the experiences they’re having right now,” said Matthew Moss, a weapons historian who uses open-source material — data posted publicly on social media and other digital platforms — to track modern warfare.
Widespread access to cellphones and the internet means virtually anyone can find an unvarnished look at the war from the point of view of residents and fighters.
“This isn’t the news videotaping this; a lot of what you guys are using for your footage is from people like me, from a cellphone,” said Paul Smith, an American-born soldier in the Ukrainian army. Online, he goes by Yuri.
Smith regularly posts combat videos to Instagram, YouTube and other platforms. His content has garnered millions of views, and ranges from front-line perspectives of firefights to lighthearted clips set to Fleetwood Mac music.
Maria Kurinna helps to manage the ZMINA Human Rights Center’s pursuit of verified footage in the hope that it can be used as evidence in international courts. To Kurinna, an international advocacy adviser to ZMINA, the high volume of footage represents a new era in accountability.
“It’s very good momentum to restore justice and [close] this gap with impunity,” Kurinna said. Several countries have launched criminal investigations into potential war crimes in Ukraine.
For front-line footage to hold up in court, stringent standards have to be met.