The Weird Politics Of Wartime Selfies


The Russian army is cracking down on soldiers taking selfies after troops posted a string of pictures with captions suggesting they have been launching rockets into Ukraine.

“We shelled Ukraine all night long,” wrote Vadim Grigoryev, a young Russian soldier, below a photo of artillery he posted to his Vkontakte page last week. Days later, when the post went viral on the Russian social media site, he removed the word “Ukraine” and then completely deleted his account. While the original post has disappeared, another user reposted the content. Others scrambled to save a copy of his wall, which displays pictures of Grigoryev and his fellow troops camped out on the Russia-Ukraine border.

Grigoryev's picture of the artillery, reposted by another user.

Grigoryev’s picture of the artillery, reposted by another user.

In recent weeks, several Russian soldiers have been snapping selfies at war, leading some to hunt for clues about military tactics. While the evidence pulled from social media to suggest Russia has been launching cross-border attacks is far from conclusive, the U.S. also recently alleged Russian artillery has been firing into Ukraine.

Looking for a way to divert attention from the viral post, Grigoryev appeared on the Russian state-owned evening news and claimed his account had been hacked. A representative in the country’s parliament has now proposed a new law that would make it illegal for soldiers to post pictures posing with military equipment.

The Russia-Ukraine border isn’t the only conflict zone where selfies have been gaining a new political meaning. Selfies have taken on a new political dimension around the world as soldiers and civilians involved in various conflicts — from Israel’s invasion of Gaza to Thailand’s military coup — try to record their experiences and sometimes stir up controversy along the way.

Israelis have been snapping pictures of themselves to comment on their army’s latest offensive in the Gaza Strip. During past operations, soldiers in the Israeli Defense Forces gained a reputation for posting selfies. Instagram posts of IDF soldiers posing together and smiling have attracted both praise from supporters and criticism from opponents, who claim the images make light of a serious conflict and speak to the disproportionate force the IDF wields over their Palestinian adversaries.

Israeli civilians have also taken to social media to express their support of the IDF’s offensive. The Facebook page “Standing with IDF,” which was flooded with pictures of women posing partially nude with pro-IDF messages written on their bodies, went viral shortly after it was launched last week. Other Israelis started a trend of snapping selfies in bomb shelters. Around the world, people have been posting pictures of themselves holding their passports to express support for Israel and Palestine in competing Facebook groups.

Selfies also recently turned political in Thailand, after a military junta seized power in May. While many citizens were arrested for protesting the sudden end to elected government, other residents of Bangkok took pictures with soldiers on street corners. Soon, the hashtag #CuteSoldierBoy was trending among supporters of the coup. In response to harsh restrictions on free speech and the media, some Thai journalists also began posting selfies critical of the military regime.

Will Freeman is an intern with Think Progress.