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Subject and subjectivity: tech and truth in Ukraine

Posted by Ben Musgrove on 14th April 2022

We live in an age where we often have to sift through reams of bullshit in order to establish truth. In all aspects of public life, truth and reality have an increasingly spurious relationship, more reflective of what people want to be true than what is.

This phenomenon is heavily tech-xaggerated. Social media puts you, theoretically, on an even platform with everyone else, so meaningful conversations tend to get lost in the noise. People hone their timelines or subscriptions to reflect their own world view and interests. They seek validation, not challenge.

This isn’t just driven by ego, but also by access. We have the technology to speak to far-flung countries at the flick of a switch, in crystal-clear audio/video. The audiences craving reaffirmation are bigger than ever.

As a result, many popular figures on social media are more bothered by results than integrity. Doctored videos go viral. Elected officials lie, brazenly and earnestly, to their core bases. Extremist groups use Twitter as a recruitment tool.

Their results reflect the world at large and, currently, that world is dominated by war in Ukraine. We are afforded surreal privilege to sit at home with a cup of tea and watch 4K multi-camera footage of actual combat, in actual Europe, where you actually live.

Tweets depict Russian prisoners of war with cups of tea, calling their parents on a Ukrainian captor’s smartphone. Ukrainian influencers are teaching you how to drive abandoned Russian vehicles on TikTok. Helicopters are being shot down on your Reddit feed, and on the front page of the Daily Mirror.

These awesome, awful images aren’t immune to the truth-warping that we’ve examined. We’re encouraged, by a thousand audiences, to think of these events as justification for parts of their world view.

Contrast the above footage with the fans of Chelsea FC interrupting a minute’s applause for Ukraine by chanting the name of Roman Abramovich — not because they hate Ukraine, but because they don’t feel like they should be punished. It’s not something to do with them, even as Abramovich’s ties to the Russian regime are made clear on paper, and even as the war is consumed in their homes.

As Charlie D’Agata’s casually racist description of the war for CBS suggests, the war is a “relatively civilised, relatively European” conflict. If you have a sense of the European collective, it is happening to us — and yet our relationship with the truth will give us a different sense of proximity to it. We can only conquer this through honest introspection.

Amongst the horror and the outpouring of sympathy that we should be feeling, therefore, we should bear in mind that our interpretation of such a monumental moment is inherently flawed.

When we’re privy to scenes of life and death in our own little bubble, it could not be more important to remain vigilant against our own biases.

Ben Musgrove

Bringing a can-do attitude and an exceptional work ethic to any project, Ben joined the Wildfire team in 2017 as an intern, following a role as a business operations executive with the award-winning tech startup Housekeep. Ben has a literary brain, having gained an MA in Literature & Culture from the University of Birmingham. When his nose isn’t buried in a book he can be found heckling officials from the terraces of Woking FC and trying not to upset the neighbours too much with his electric guitar.