Alice's guest on this podcast is Dr Olga Boichak, a Ukrainian-born sociologist who works as a lecturer in Digital Cultures at the University of Sydney.
Editor of the Digital War Journal, Olga’s particular research interest is the war-media nexus. She has spent years studying participatory warfare in Ukraine, looking at how civilians have used mobile media and open-source intelligence to engage remotely in military conflict; and also at how digital media have been facilitating grassroots activism, from local military crowd-funding to the development of transnational humanitarian aid networks. Her research helps us understand the symbiotic relationship between digital and real-world activities: not just how war and digital media shape each other, but how digitally-driven volunteer movements that emerge in wartime can have longer-term effects on civil society development and broader institutional change.
In the podcast, Olga discusses the 'reflexive control' that Russia has long tried to exert over Ukraine since its independence in 1991. She then reflects on the long history of 'productive resistance' that ordinary Ukrainians have engaged in, which over the years has helped to forge a stronger sense of collective identity and shared civic values. She discusses the many forms of civic participation in military activity that have evolved since Russia's annexation of Crimea in 2014, and this gets us talking about blurred boundaries between war and peace, about people's proximity to and distance from conflict, and about the ethical dilemmas surrounding involvement and non-involvement.
Along the way, we discuss the role that digital media have played in the conflict in Ukraine. Olga analyses Russia's use of social media from 2014 onwards, in particular their efforts to convince the wider world that people in Donbas have long had strong separatist leanings. She explains how social media activists in Mariupol helped to disrupt that message back in 2014, which is perhaps why Russia has been so determined to conquer Mariupol in 2022.
We also talk about the ways in which social media have facilitated a range of humanitarian responses to the war in Ukraine - and how social media have been shaping our understanding and perception of the conflict more broadly. In many ways, our twitter feeds are full of very conventional pictures of war (tanks, bombed out buildings, soldiers firing weapons), reinforcing long-established habits of visualising conflict. At the same time, more innovative forms of data visualisation (such as stats on the length of time people are spending in bomb shelters each day) are helping us to grasp the 'slow violence' of conflict on civilian populations. New trends in representation are emerging all the time, challenging the traditional metrics we have long used to assess the costs of war and offering us different conceptual frameworks for understanding what is going on.
Olga has family in Ukraine, so we talked a little about what they have been going through. If you are moved by anything you hear, please consider donating to organisations such as the Ukraine Crisis Appeal and UNICEF's Ukraine appeal.
For a version of our podcast with close captions, please use this link. For more information about individuals and their projects, please visit the University of St Andrews Visualising War website.
Music composed by Jonathan Young
Sound mixing by Zofia Guertin