First, a health warning. This is a column about a row on Twitter. Well, kinda.

So let me say sorry in advance. I know how tedious social media stories are for those of you who – quite rightly – have better things to do than doom scroll though junk-grade politics on your phones.

But there was an internet storm involving Nicola Sturgeon this week which I think is worth your time reading about.

Because, I’m afraid, it reveals some telling problems with the state of Scottish online discourse, the digital news it generates and our national knowledge of the outside world.

The story begins with a tweet by the Ukrainian Ministry of Defence. For months this account has been publishing regular updates on the losses it claims to have inflicted on Vladimir Putin’s invading armies, including, this week, the “elimination” of more than 41,000 personnel since February.

READ MORE: Sturgeon deletes tweet

The Ukrainian military – which is pretty PR-savvy – started their message with a few admittedly anglicised lines from Robert Burns’s Scots Wha Hae. “Tyrants fall in every foe, liberty is in every blow, let us do or die,” they tweeted.

That caught they eye of Nicola Sturgeon. I can see why. This, after all, was a Scottish nationalist poem, the anthem of her party no less, being mobilised in defence of Ukrainian sovereignty.

The First Minister quote-tweeted the original post, adding a little strong arm emoji and the bicolour of Ukraine.

Cue rage. Various online tribes instantly accused Ms Sturgeon of “glorifying” the death of Russians, especially “conscripts”.

For Yesser critics of the FM’s pro-Nato, pro-EU and anti-Putin foreign policy, her strength emoji was evidence of her militarism, even imperialism.

For some of her more mainstream unionist foes and even allies, her tweet simply showed poor taste. Maybe, on reflection, the SNP leader agreed. She deleted her post.


This made the news. Journalists, including at The Herald, quickly hammered out stories on the row.

One online tabloid headline summed the story up: “Nicola Sturgeon,” it declared, “deletes tweet 'celebrating deaths of 41,000 Russian conscripts' in Ukraine.”

It is true people on Twitter were saying this. But there is a problem: they were wrong; massively so.

Have 41,000 Russians died in Ukraine? Well, maybe not. We don’t know. Figures for casualties vary. Western intelligence agencies this week put the death toll at 20,000, half the Ukrainian claim.

Have 41,000 conscripts died? Definitely not. Despite all their well-documented screw-ups in recent months, Putin’s invaders are professional. Or at least – and this is really important – they are supposed to be.

We are eight years in to Putin’s war and still lots of people seem to assume the Russian army in Ukraine is conscripted. I am afraid this is not just a problem of Twitter knuckleheads. Heavyweight political pundits have made the same claim. Why is this myth so resilient?

Well, first, because some of us seem to like the rhetorical device of “innocent” draftees. And, second, because a fair few of us are just not paying attention. Me? I think it really matters who is fighting in Ukraine and how many of them have died.

READ MORE: We keep getting Russia wrong

If we already assume all or most of Putin’s combatants are national servicemen a lot of important stories from the war are not going to make any sense.

For starters: the actual mass mobilisation of conscripts in Ukraine would be a historic big deal.

We might need a bit of very basic background on the Russian military to explain why.

At the risk of oversimplifying, the country has two kinds of servicemen. The first are kontraktniki – professional regular army soldiers who voluntarily sign up for a fixed period. The second are srochniki, drafted kids who serve a year.

Putin made it clear at the beginning of his “special operation” in Ukraine – the euphemism for the February escalation of his war – that this was a conflict for the pros. Srochniki should not be in combat. Yet there are credible stories in international and what is left of independent Russian media that a few conscripts have, by mistake or negligence, wound up in Ukraine. This has proved highly controversial, even inside Putin’s increasingly closed society.

A story about 600 srochniki crossing in to Ukraine made it big earlier this year. It was even raised in the Russian parliament.

There is also a lot of concern about conscripts being strong-armed in to signing contracts, becoming kontraktniki.

But the big picture is that Putin has not fully mobilised Russia for war and he has not poured existing conscripts in to Ukraine en masse. This is no minor detail. His doing so would mark a dramatic escalation in Europe’s biggest land war for nearly 80 years – and have a profound and unsettling effect on his home front.

Instead, the latest reports suggest private mercenary firms are recruiting convicts from Russian jails to fight.

Ukraine, meanwhile, has mobilised, calling up its reserves. So have the two Putin proxy regimes in eastern Ukraine, the unrecognised “republics” of Luhansk and Donetsk. There are alarming reports coming out of these occupied parts of Ukraine, including suggestions the relatives of men avoiding the draft face intimidation.

I don’t know or care if the First Minister intended to celebrate Russian deaths. Though I doubt she did. Or that very many people would.

The horrible reality, of course, is that Ukraine can only repel invaders by killing some of them. Ms Sturgeon supports this effort. As do most of her online critics.

So this row is, at its heart, meaningless. But I think it raises a difficult question: do we really way to indulge social media spats which distort the reality of a major war?