The members of TheScottishKoala’s server were obsessed with highly realistic military combat simulation video games and their depictions of military vehicles, planes, and weaponry. On February 24, 2021, this interest inspired the creation of a channel dedicated to discussing minute-by-minute updates on the movement of Russian troops and Ukrainian defenses in the region.

Within hours after the first bombs were dropped in cities across Ukraine, the users shared links to flight tracker apps, live video feeds, and social media posts from within Ukraine, often commenting on the types of planes and other military equipment seen in these feeds and posts. It was in this channel that the Ghost of Kyiv meme and myth were born.

“[A] Friend told me that one mig29, ghost of kiev, grounded some flanker and kamov before he went silent,” Discord user MrFisherman#1238 wrote on February 24, at 11:26 am Eastern, becoming the first to coin the phrase. Later in the chat, as well as in an interview we conducted via private message, the user clarified that they had, in fact, been the first to use the nickname that would eventually go viral on Twitter and TikTok and would be adopted by the Ukrainian military as a sort of mascot. After the first mention of the pilot, channel members both challenged and contributed to the legend by suggesting that he had been killed in action or had shot down additional Russian planes, all without providing any sources or evidence for this claimed knowledge.

Users on both the Thug Shaker Central Discord and the server where the Ghost of Kyiv was fabricated were interested in the overlap between gaming and actual war. The groups also shared a culture of competitiveness and one-upmanship. The New York Times, as well as other outlets, have reported that Texeira and other Discord users used the leaked documents as evidence to win various online debates or disagreements about US military intelligence, US involvement in Ukraine, and other highly sensitive topics.

Clearly the norms that develop in niche online communities have direct and powerful impacts on the real world. The cultures of clout-sharing and competition and the allure of illicit information that motivated the dissemination of these leaked documents and the myth of the Ghost of Kyiv exist across social media and messaging spaces. And they are incentivized and enabled by the platforms and chat groups that encourage the sharing of information without any concern for fact and elevate individuals to powerful positions of influence based solely on their ability to outrage and excite. In these communities, where kids interested in video games mingle with adults with top secret security clearances, the lines between truth and reality and heroes and traitors are increasingly muddled.

The question of what to do about the cultural norms these groups perpetuate and the impact they can have on the real world is not easy for tech companies or policymakers to answer. You can’t outlaw adolescent behavior. You could ban individual apps, as the US government is increasingly considering doing with TikTok, but no one can put social media back into the genie’s bottle. A new group or site will pop up to replace the last. And much would be lost if these apps were banned. For example, the chat app Telegram, along with Discord, has become a crucial organizing site for Russian dissidents and other pro-social movements. 

What we, as individuals, can do is be aware of the dynamics at play in these communities. We can advise our adolescent children about the risks of one-upmanship in niche communities. We can warn them about the potential impacts of sharing unverified information. We can educate them about how these systems operate and try to inoculate them against the desire to engage with sensitive or fabricated material. After all, as another saying goes, sunlight is the best disinfectant.

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