The tweet thanked South African followers for supposedly sending letters supporting the Russian invasion. The German embassy in South Africa clapped back on Twitter, calling out Russia for “slaughtering innocent children, women and men for its own gain.”
“It’s definitely not ‘fighting Nazism’,” @GermanEmbassySA tweeted on Saturday. “Shame on anyone who’s falling for this. (Sadly, we’re kinda experts on Nazism.)”
The tweet, which has been largely praised online and shared over 15,000 times, is one of many posts from usually staid official government accounts that during the war have shed formality for a distinctly more casual and sharp social media tone, one that is generally more common between individuals or corporate brands snapping back at each other.
Sorry, but we can’t stay silent on this one, it’s just far too cynical. What 🇷🇺 is doing in 🇺🇦 is slaughtering innocent children, women and men for its own gain. It’s definitely not “fighting Nazism”. Shame on anyone who’s falling for this. (Sadly, we’re kinda experts on Nazism.)
— Germany in SA (@GermanEmbassySA) March 5, 2022
Ukraine has used its official Twitter account, @Ukraine, not just to share battle and safety information, but also to encourage citizens and people around the world to rise up against Russia online. Days after Russia invaded the country, Ukraine tweeted directly to supporters: “Tag @Russia and tell them what you think about them.”
People complied, tweeting President Vladimir Putin “must be stopped” and “not cool man” to Russia. But others also pointed out how remarkably Internet-speak the tweet was. “Never in my life did I ever imagine that a country would cyberbully an invading country,” one user wrote. “What a time to be alive,” another posted.
Social media has become a weapon for both Ukraine and Russia during the war. Ukraine has used it to rally troops, demand support from foreign governments and companies, and to try to stoke rage against Putin within Russia by posting often gory videos of captured soldiers.
It has already had an effect on encouraging Western companies to cut ties to Russia, recruiting soldiers and spreading memes and messages supporting Ukraine around the world. Russia, which is known for its tight control on media and propaganda within the country and for its cyber prowess, has not kept up with Ukraine’s acumen in gaining social media support during the war.
At the same time, however, misinformation from Russia and other sources has run rampant online, leaving social media companies to once again scramble to stem the tide on misrepresented posts of photos and videos.
Governments around the world have official accounts on Twitter. They usually have multiple accounts for everything from their executive offices to embassies to parks departments. The main accounts are often run by communications teams or foreign affairs departments. Sometimes, countries let ordinary citizens take over accounts to share their views of their homelands.
Twitter labels official government accounts with a small flag and note for accounts from certain countries, including Russia, the United States, other G-7 countries and some others, but Ukraine is not on that list. Instead, the accounts have just the familiar blue checkmark when Twitter has verified they are who they say they are.
The @Ukraine Twitter presence has been so conversational that some have urged caution, even though it has been verified by the social media company. When @Ukraine tweeted a call for cryptocurrency donations last week, one crypto leader told people to be wary until they verified the call was real. (It was real.)
The country’s digital transformation leader, Mykhailo Fedorov, has run a master class in the social media campaign in the past month, urging executives and companies directly to support Ukraine. He first tweeted about accepting crypto donations before the main account picked it up.
Ukraine’s flagship account has gained more than 1 million followers in less than two weeks, jumping to 1.7 million followers from about 347,000 on Feb. 24. The account has been posting memes and using Internet humor to reach followers for years. In 2017, the account was operated by three Millennials working with the government, Yahoo News reported. It’s unclear who is behind the official @Ukraine account now.
It also regularly engages with followers. On Feb. 26, it replied to a user asking why Ukraine follows the official account of the state of New Jersey. “cauz they’re cool,” the account wrote. The state is known for using its Twitter account to clapback at “haters.”
Governments and politicians have become more relaxed with their social media use in recent years, using the sites to talk with constituents in more conversational ways. And some elected officials, notably former president Donald Trump, had no qualms about using the forums to bash or call out political enemies.
One of the most popular tweets of the 2016 presidential election was a clapback from Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, who tweeted the common Internet rebuke “delete your account” to Trump when he posted a tweet disparaging her chances of winning. Still, the Internet rhetoric used so far during the war in Ukraine has been notable for its conversational tone and online slang.
“Obviously, social media is critical for the Ukrainians to use,” said Paul Argenti, a professor of corporate communication at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College, pointing out that the government was using the platform to communicate directly with citizens and the outside world while it lacks other tools for reaching people en masse.
But he cautioned, “You need to really think about your tone if you’re doing that. You can’t be flip. You can’t be glib.” The tweet from the German Embassy in South Africa used an inappropriately glib tone in referencing the German role in killing millions during World War II, Argenti said.
A spokesperson for the Embassy said Germany has learned from its past and today works to stand up for the values the country once let down, and that it felt a responsibility to post the tweet. A spokesperson with the American Jewish Committee tweeted support for the embassy’s post, calling on the embassy’s social media manager to be given a raise. Government agencies within Ukraine and Russia did not respond to a request for comment.