How nongovernmental entities are tailoring their outreach to address nuclear escalation

By Clara Sherwood, Jamie Withorne | April 18, 2024

An illustration of three nuclear missiles exploding from a smartphone screen and labeled as facts, context, and engagement Illustration edited by Erik English; Rudall30 via Adobe.

The Russia-Ukraine war has demonstrated that open and reliable communication between nuclear experts, government officials, and the public is imperative. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has made the use of nuclear weapons more probable, and policy makers, scholars, and international organizations alike are warning that the risk of nuclear weapons use is on the rise. As Russia’s nuclear saber-rattling continues, it is important to understand that governments are not the only actors contributing to nuclear narratives.

While much attention has been paid to official government accounts’ online footprints, comparatively less research has focused on the role nongovernmental entities play in this digital ecosystem and how they are tailoring nuclear-related messages to address the public. Indeed, analysis shows there is little consensus in systematically categorizing and assessing the impact of nongovernmental entities on nuclear weapons issues.

Through our research on social media use, we sought to better understand how Western nongovernmental entities responded to Russian nuclear escalation in the aftermath of the invasion in Ukraine. We studied three episodes of escalatory nuclear rhetoric between February 2022 and June 2023, analyzing the Twitter content posted by individual experts, think tanks, and open-source accounts. We found that social media posts by nongovernmental entities can help inform the public and shape the narrative during periods of nuclear escalation—especially when those posts are corroborated by government accounts.

The rise of online expert communities. History shows that expert communities have played important roles in creating networks outside government silos. At the dawn of the nuclear arms control era, these networks fostered an international “shared understanding and practice of nuclear arms control” that later shaped superpower expectations during the Cold War. Expert communities were instrumental in directing public demands and in producing technical expertise required for arms control. Nongovernmental communities and government agencies were effectively full partners.

Although expert communities successfully brought arms control to public awareness in the past, the emergence of online platforms in the 21st century has created a forum for nongovernmental entities to now communicate even more directly with the public—interweaving expertise, public knowledge, and government processes in an unprecedented digital ecosystem.

The digital age has transformed the role of expert communities, particularly in nuclear policy. Dedicated experts on online platforms inform the public about foreign policy issues, including conflict and crises. Today, individual experts, open-source “investigators,” and other nongovernmental entities influence nuclear weapons policy through social media by helping to shape conversations around nuclear escalation. Nongovernmental entities differ from traditional media reports and government statements because they interpret events as they perceive them, imbuing sentiment rather than simply reporting facts or official positions.

Nongovernmental entities, such as nuclear weapons policy experts at think tanks, are an important source of national security interpretations and are at the forefront of initiating open conversations about arms control, nonproliferation, and nuclear risk reduction. Social media allows for active engagement between the public, nongovernmental entities, and official government institutions, creating a complex digital nuclear narrative.

For example, nuclear experts like Pavel Podvig have used the platform now known as X (formerly Twitter) to help non-experts understand terms such as “tactical” nuclear weapons.


At the same time, digitalization has created novel facets of nuclear escalation. Leading scholars argue that social media has the potential to exacerbate tensions during crises. While government officials can use social media to enhance nuclear weapons transparency, nongovernmental entities and potential adversaries can create confusion by providing false context and interpretations of events.

Evolving digital landscapes, information environments, and nuclear expertise have led experts to call for “new concepts… to understand and manage emerging escalation risks.” New understandings of escalation should consider how nongovernmental entities are tailoring their outreach to address the public and nuclear risk.

Nongovernmental entities in the digital ecosystem. Nongovernmental participation on online platforms poses both risk and reward. The diverse backgrounds of nongovernmental entities can offer different perspectives from knowledgeable groups, which in turn can help governments with official nuclear risk reduction activities. Unlike official government sources, nongovernmental entities offer more readily available public information on nuclear issues. They operate in an unclassified sphere that allows them to quickly publicize findings, alert the public, and generate policy attention to specific issues. By promoting transparency, acting as fact-checkers, and spreading awareness of nuclear weapons issues, nongovernmental entities can begin to help lower tensions in times of conflict.

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However, nongovernmental entities also have the potential to increase tensions by distributing incorrect findings. Without access to full information, nongovernmental entities can introduce bias and errors into important nuclear policy, potentially contributing to escalation and confusion during periods of crisis. Digital platforms can perpetuate a contested information environment wherein mis- and disinformation are regularly produced, circulated, and amplified.

The complex triangular relationship between governments, nongovernmental entities, and the public has been especially noticeable since the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine. Governments and international organizations have relied on “digital diplomacy” to escalate conflict, call for risk reduction, and advance nuclear weapons policy objectives. This has included everything from official institutional statements issued on Twitter reprimanding Russian policy choices, to Ukrainian government accounts posting memes about Russia.


Analyzing nongovernmental entities’ public outreach and engagement efforts during periods of escalation throughout the Russia-Ukraine war can begin to shed light on how social media is leveraged to affect digital nuclear narratives.

Tracking escalation in the Russia-Ukraine war. Relying on existing research, we identified key instances of nuclear escalation in the Russia-Ukraine war. A working paper by researchers at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs provides a chronology of Russia’s public statements, Kremlin nuclear-related statements, and ex-post revelations of Washington’s assessments of Moscow’s intentions. The authors labeled official statements as signaling escalation or de-escalation and identified three peaks of escalatory nuclear rhetoric between February 2022 and June 2023. The first period of escalation was categorized by Russian escalatory threats at the beginning of the war, the second was marked by Western escalatory statements, and the third consisted of several Russian nuclear threats.

This chronology provides an important source of empirical data on official statements during periods of escalation. Building on this existing analytical framework by adding nongovernmental entities’ responses and outreach, our research provides a more comprehensive understanding of reactions to nuclear escalation during the Russia-Ukraine war.

Relying on the three identified periods of nuclear escalation, we traced the Twitter content of 30 Western entities from three distinct categories—think tanks, open-source investigators, and expert individuals—to analyze their contribution to nuclear narratives. Because existing research has effectively relied on Twitter for data generation, we limited our scope to this online platform. We collected nearly 3,000 tweets, the majority of them published during the first period of escalation. We identified their written content and numeric metrics, measuring social media “impact” using likes, retweets, retweets with quotes, and replies. This approach allowed us to identify and begin to measure the effect of nongovernmental entities’ outreach efforts on nuclear escalation via digital platforms.

Our data mirrored existing research: Western nongovernmental entities produced more online response and outreach in the periods characterized by Russian-instigated escalation than during periods of Western escalation. Of the 30 tweets with the most engagements, all of the accounts except three were open-source “investigator” accounts like Bellingcat, Calibre Obscura, Tyler Rogoway, and OSINTtechnical. Open-source accounts likewise had the most followers, and their content generally focused on providing a large amount of aggregated real-time information, data, and attempts at fact verification through forms of digital media. This tweet by Tyler Rogoway is a notable example of providing nuclear context to open-source investigation:


Tweet metrics are useful for understanding audience impacts but limited in explaining how nongovernmental entities respond to nuclear escalation. Examining tweet sentiment can better describe responses to escalation than numbers alone. When analyzing our collected data, we coded tweet content according to sentiment, classifying responses categorically as providing context, interpretation, or assessing implications. Measuring impact through this type of semantic coding, we found individuals received less quantifiable tweet interactions (e.g., likes, retweets, etc.), but arguably helped to shape the content of nuclear conversations in the wake of the unfolding crisis. Most individuals’ tweets in response to Russian nuclear escalation offered an interpretation of the events on the ground, while very few individuals considered the broader implications of the unfolding conflict.

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Tweets that sought to interpret events had to walk a fine line between not instigating public panic while also providing general awareness of Russian nuclear strategic thinking. For example, some tweets took exact quotes from Putin and interpreted them with personal feelings of “nervousness.” These tweets did not seek to de-escalate the conflict, but rather mirrored governmental messaging at the time, expressing cautious reactions. Other tweets sought to interpret Putin’s alarming logic while also assuaging public anxieties about nuclear escalation. Individual outreach efforts aimed at interpreting the conflict did not necessarily directly cause escalation or de-escalation. Rather, they relied on personal sentiments and semantics to mediate the digital landscape, providing a middle ground for public engagement between escalatory government statements and open-source fact-finding missions.

While open-source accounts sought to provide real-time information throughout the war, individual accounts were less likely to tweet content that was strictly data-based or provided contextual awareness. Of those individual accounts that did tweet context, they provided basic facts and information about Russia’s nuclear weapons arsenal, rather than nuanced assessments of Russia’s military-strategic doctrine and unfolding approach to warfighting.

During the waves of escalation, there was an inverse relationship between the number of tweets providing information and those attempting to assess conflict implications. As more information populated Twitter, and received higher amounts of public engagement, few tweets synthesized this information to assess potential policy outcomes. In periods of escalation, open-source accounts provided vast amounts of information that experts could not sift through, verify, and thoughtfully consider in the immediate aftermath of the events on the ground. To explain the lack of content assessing implications, Heather Williams, director of the Project on Nuclear Issues at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, reflected on her own research in a tweet that concluded social media “can amplify dangerous narratives and create information echo chambers. So best advice, during crises: stop tweeting.”

Our research finds nongovernmental entities provide both quick information and expert opinion in response to conflict escalation, making complex situations more understandable to the everyday social media user. However, accounts engaged in tweeting should be wary of quickly crowding digital information spaces with large amounts of unverified information, rather than seeking to mediate escalation through nuanced public engagement.

Is social media the future of nuclear escalation? Our research shows government statements and policies directly dictate international conflict escalation, but nongovernmental entities are well-suited for providing broader public understanding and helping shape public conversations through rapid social media response.

However, social media platforms are changing, limiting the mediating potential they might have. Since Elon Musk’s acquisition of Twitter and transformation of the platform into X, disinformation has grown exponentially on the social media site, paired with a mass exodus of experts. For example, one of the accounts that we found to have the most engagement during the initial stages of the Russia-Ukraine war, has publicly announced they will be leaving the platform. Musk’s management of X has led to disengagement by many nongovernmental entities, while also making the information space more convoluted. Using X as a tool for escalation management has therefore become increasingly challenging.

Nongovernmental experts can only play a role in escalation management via social media if the platform they are using is not on the verge of implosion. Social media sites like X will continue to exist, and nongovernmental entities should continue to engage with users there. Collaboration and communication between nongovernmental experts on digital platforms can help prevent misinterpretation and disinformation from turning into mainstream nuclear narratives. Rather than leaving social media, nongovernmental experts should limit their posts and only “log in” to social media during times of crisis, when they can help contextualize ongoing escalation.

Social media will continue to affect nuclear escalation in the years to come, and it is crucial that nongovernmental entities be there to help shape the conversation.


Editor’s note: This work was supported by a fellowship from the Federation of American Scientists. The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not represent the views of the US State Department.

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