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Looking through the sights: weapon camera footage in the war in Ukraine Part II

The new online norm

As the war went on, more and more of «Bayraktar»-style footage was published After Russia’s retreat from northern regions and stabilization of the frontline, war turned to trench warfare with sides racing to accumulate forces for opportunities to capture more places, and short-range «tube artillery» and mortars were used more and more. Artillery strikes require reconnaissance and coordination: knowing where the target is,how to hit it, where the weapon is aimed at, etc. This is often done using small commercial drones, as they are hard to shoot down and are equipped with cameras. They’re just as useful to watch over assaults with soldiers storming trenches and even taking prisoners.As such, footage from these drones is continuing to be published by both sides.Same goes for «FPV» or «first-person view» fast racing drones being used as improvised loitering munition.Another distinct category of drones which has been used extensively in combat and propaganda are improvised «strike drones» used by both sides to drop munitions such as grenades or mortar mines directly on enemies.

This kind of footage is so prominent, especially in Ukrainian discourse, that there is now a comedic video game inspired by these drone-dropping videos called «Death From Above» where the player controls a munition-dropping drone operator, which is yet another cultural link between video games and drone-assisted warfare.Of course, contrary to the narratives, stories created by these videos (often accompanied by patriotic music) and posts, these drones are in fact not invincible and do get shot down very often and are only in use for «mere days.This creates an issue of survivorship bias: if a drone gets shot down, video never gets uploaded by soldiers. So the only videos we see are the ones where soldiers make mistakes, don’t notice the drone, etc, which can make these videos go viral like any other, if something particularly «amusing» happens there. One drone-filmed video of a Russian soldier running away and barely escaping falling grenades went viral and was parodied by a Moldovan blogger Nekoglai living in Moscow on TikTok, which caused an overwhelmingly negative reaction from Russian media and authorities. He was eventually tortured by Russian police and deported, with his report on it gaining over 5 million views on Youtube.

Videos from these weapons (as well as «helmetcam» first-person videos) are being extensively posted online, by major media channels, independent military bloggers, by combat units with their own social media.Videos from some individual combat units such as Ukraine’s K-2 combat group of 54th separate mechanized brigade consistently gaining millions of views. They even have series of videos depicting frontline changes on individual positions with, for example, K-2 group’s «battle for T-shape» series has 5 videos. Videos where infantry gets blown to pieces with howitzer strikes work as almost TV-series with a slowly developing plot. International and English-language military content creators publish «reaction content» (where the author watches and gives commentary on content published by others) to brutal «helmetcam» videos of assault. Thousands and thousands of posts on various social media platforms. Sometimes videos from enemy’s side get posted and users give condolences,but most commonly they cheer, ask questions to clarify and get responses.Sometimes they challenge videos presented and allege it’s actually from the other side which s not uncommon as both sides use a lot of similar Soviet-era equipment.

This kind of first-person combat footage has flooded social media. If previously an average person would’ve likely never stumbled on videos with people dying and getting mutilated, now it’s not even fair to see this content in the same light as older combat footage from Syria and other wars. It has become «normal», ordinary online content. Combat unitsand commanders have popular blogs where videos of them giving comments are posted along with drone videos of their enemies dying or getting their equipment destroyed. There are «funny» posts, sad posts, optimistic posts, «reaction content», etc. If I remember correctly, there was at least one instance of footage of the same fight being posted by both sides, from helmets of soldiers,and from a drone coordinating an artillery attack on them. While the same spectatorship positions persist as they did in old-style «gore content», it seems like a qualitative change on social media stemming purely from the ubiquity of this content and existence of consistent military and media infrastructure to spread it in line with propaganda discourses such as Russia having overwhelming military power and destroying entire cities with extremely powerful thermobaric munition systems to these systems getting destroyed by Ukrainians using conventional means.It remains a question how social media would react to this phenomenon in the long run: at the moment videos on Youtube are often age-restricted and on Twitter they sometimes require confirmation, yet otherwise they are almost normalized and integrated into wider social media apparatus just as well as any other content.

Also, imagery from these drones is often used online to promote fundraising events, often for soldiers to buy more these exact drones. Usually you can find contacts on profiles of military units and media. Both sides rely on fundraising to buy different kinds of equipment,often the kind that is relatively cheap to be bought using raised funds but important. Of course, while there were fundraising events for «Bayraktars» but this is more of an exception as usually it’s small commercial drones, tourniquet-style bandages, thermal cameras allowing soldiers to see at night, etc. While in big official mainstream Russian media there are, of course, not many links to help the soldiers raise funds for equipment, in Ukraine there exists an official initiative intended to coordinate international fundraising campaigns and prevent scams but individual units also collect funds by posting their card numbers and cryptocurrency wallet addresses.

Value of footage: documenting war and atrocities

Not only has the first-person view footage from weapon and helmet cameras become integrated state propaganda discourses and a ubiquitous category of violent online content for users to be engaged with in a common social-media-like fashion, they also became a source of valuable information to analyze and weaponize in various ways.

Drone and «helmetcam» footage is an important part of military analysis, allowing both state-affiliated and independent military analysts to piece together the course of the conflict. Considering the extensive use of drones for reconnaissance and abundance of the videos and photos, it becomes relatively easy for analysts to identify what and when is happening. Services like «Liveuamap» working since 2014 are posting updates live basing territorial changes and events using posts that often include drone footage. A common practice is «geolocation», discovering precise locations of filmed events which is made easier with availability of satellite imagery from services such as Google Maps and Bing Maps, and social media allow to make claims supported by evidence. «DeepState» makes update posts along with updating the map.Dissident Russian group «CIT» makes daily situation reports, geolocation andsocial media searches of obituaries of fallen soldiers and officers.This seems to be common among both pro-Ukrainian and pro-Russian analysts.

Along with geolocation, an important use of this ubiquitous footage, conducted by amateur online groups, is counting losses. Two prominent accounts are Dutch «Oryx» and Russian «LOSTARMOUR» compiling lists based on identified equipment losses based on photos and videos, which involves looking at new losses, identifying what equipment it is,making sure it’s not the same footage or footage of the same losses, etc. Angwith geolocation it allows to piece together the course of the conflict, making it probably the most well-documented major war in history. It is important,however, to remember that while it is the most filmed war (not in small part because of cameras in weapons), it’s important to recognize these biases in reports as, as it’s been mentioned, the institutional structures that allow this in the first place are subject to state control, so the picture presented might be incorrect. There were instances of allegedly authentic wartime footage being elaborately fabricated, such as the instance of dashcam (cameras that are commonly used in cars) video of Ukrainian soldiers harassing and threatening a woman, that was posted by Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs on social media but turned out to be staged on Russian-occupied territory. It is also notable that states enforce control over footage filmed and posted even by civilians, for example, using dash cams in Ukraine is prohibited since March 2022 and there are many instances of people being charged with crimes for spreading Russian long-range strikes as the footage is valuable and serves the same purpose as reconnaissance drone footage, correcting enemy fire

Another use of first-person footage specifically from helmet cameras that seems to happen, is use of videos taken from cameras of dead or captured enemy soldiers as well as in general made by the other side and presenting it in unfavorable light. I will not go in detail about videos that depict war crimes against civilians but it’s an important part. These videos often cause outrage and sympathy to victims online and often trigger accusations of fraud on the side of supposed perpetrators. One first-person video depicting the execution of a Ukrainian soldier saying «Glory to Ukraine!» went viral on social media and caused the later-identified soldier to be given Ukraine’s highest award.There are many videos involving various kinds of crimes, usually against prisoners of war, being shared by both sides. One of such videos depicting soldiers with Russian identifying signs executing civilians that was allegedly picked up from a phone of a presumably dead Russian soldier. A video presumably uploaded by a Russian soldier being unexpectedly shelled went viral in pro-Ukrainian media circles with the soldier’s face becoming an internet meme. So-called «trophy videos» are being frequently uploaded, however, by both sides.

One major paramilitary unit fighting in Ukraine on Russian side is «PMC Wagner», also previously being involved in conflicts around the world.In particular, in Syria they filmed a video of them executing a man with a sledgehammer, then dismembering his dead body. Since then, the «Wagner sledgehammer» became a prominent symbol in Wagner propaganda.They sent a sledgehammer inscribed with their symbols and smeared in fake blood to European Union parliament, and gifted it to parliamentarians. It was also used in a recent video of execution of supposedly Wagner member who had betrayed the group, as the unit admitted that it was practicing death punishment.While it’s unclear whether the original video was filmed intentionally and in ended to be distributed, it has become part of «Wagner»’s brand in a broadly unusual case of reclaiming accusations of atrocities, unlike previously mentioned cases where first-person execution videos were used to consolidate users against presumed perpetrators.

Conclusion

In this essay I explored how footage from cameras of weapons (and soldiers’ helmets) is extensively used in different social and cultural contexts. I analyzed the change of dominant major media discourse around this war associated with specifically emergence of this kind of footage, portraying Ukraine in propaganda not as a quickly overpowered victim but rather as a secretly powerful, almost supernatural, witch-like forceable to see clueless enemies with its «evil eye» and strike them from above when they aren’t looking, while also using Russia’s own cultural memory of guerilla war against it, despite the, in general conventional nature of the Russia-Ukraine war.

In the second part I attempted to analyze the impact of this footage on social media and military analysis of the conflict.Online photo and video content use of which was previously largely limited to military analysis, mass media coverage, limited state propaganda, gore websites, is now, because of a robust structured online presence of the militaries of both sides, a common kind of content existing at the moment under largely the same rules and associated with the same media practices as any other content on social media, be it sports, cinema or anything else. This phenomenon has also proven useful for technical analysis of the war and bringing atrocities to light.

It would be interesting to study the social impact of analysis which is based on publicly available combat footage and its ability to challenge narratives presented in traditional media. It would also be interesting to do a more detailed study of war-related imagery using the framework of visual anthropology, as well as go into details on the impact of and changes in social media that are connected with this war and associated imagery. In any case, there are many social and cultural aspects of both the conflict and its representation in the media that are open to be studied.

Part I: https://www.kulpologika.hu/posts/looking-through-the-sights-weapon-camera-footage-in-the-war-in-ukraine

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