What Happens When A Russian Invasion Takes Place In The Social Smartphone Era

from the social-media-actually-working-for-good dept

Several days into Russia’s attack on Ukraine, we are already witnessing astonishing stories play out online. Social media platforms, after years of Techlash, are once again in the center of a historic event, as it unfolds.

Different tech issues are still evolving, but for now, here are the key themes.

Information overload

The combination of — smartphones, social media and high-speed data links — provides images that are almost certainly faster, more visual and more voluminous than in any previous major military conflict. What is coming out of Ukraine is simply impossible to produce on such a scale without citizens and soldiers throughout the country having easy access to cellphones, the internet, and, by extension, social media apps.

Social media is fueling a new type of ‘fog of war’

The ability to follow an escalating war is faster and easier than ever. But social media are also vulnerable to rapid-fire disinformation. So, social media are being blamed for fueling a new type of ‘fog of war’, in which information and disinformation are continuously entangled with each other — clarifying and confusing in almost equal measure.

Once again, the Internet is being used as a weapon

Past conflicts in places like Myanmar, India, and the Philippines show that tech giants are often caught off-guard by state-sponsored disinformation crises due to language barriers and a lack of cultural expertise. Now, Kremlin-backed falsehoods are putting the companies’ content policies to the test. It puts social media platforms in a precarious position, focusing global attention on their ability to moderate content ranging from graphic on-the-ground reports about the conflict to misinformation and propaganda.

How can they moderate disinformation without distorting the historical record?

Tech platforms face a difficult question: “How do you mitigate online harms that make war worse for civilians while preserving evidence of human rights abuses and war crimes potentially?”

What about the end-to-end encrypted messaging apps?

Social media platforms have been on high alert for Russian disinformation that would violate their policies. But they have less control over private messaging, where some propaganda efforts have moved to avoid detection.

According to the “Russia’s Propaganda & Disinformation Ecosystem — 2022 Update & New Disclosures” post and image, the Russian media environment, from overt state-run media to covert intelligence-backed outlets, is built on an infrastructure of influencers, anonymous Telegram channels (which have become a very serious, a very effective tool of the disinformation machine), and content creators with nebulous ties to the wider ecosystem.

The Russian government restricts access to online services

On Friday, Meta’s president of global affairs, Nick Clegg, updated that the company declined to comply with the Russian government’s requests to “stop fact-checking and labeling of content posted on Facebook by four Russian state-owned media organizations.” “As a result, they have announced they will be restricting the use of our services,” tweeted Clegg. In the heart of this issue there are ordinary Russians “using Meta’s apps to express themselves and organize for action.” As Eva Galperin (EFF) noted: “Facebook is where what remains of Russian civil society does its organizing. Cut off access to Facebook and you are cutting off independent journalism and anti-war protests.”

Then, on Saturday, Twitter, which had said it was pausing ads in Ukraine and Russia, said that its service was also being restricted for some people in Russia. We can only assume that it wouldn’t be the last restriction we’ll see as Russia continues to splinter the open internet.

Collective action & debunking falsehood in real-time

It’s become increasingly difficult for Russia to publish believable propaganda. People on the internet are using open-source intelligence tools that have proliferated in recent years to debunk Russia’s claims in real-time. Satellites and cameras gather information every moment of the day, much of it available to the public. And eyewitnesses can speak directly to the public via social media. So, now you have communities of people on the internet geolocating videos and verifying videos coming out of conflict zones.

The ubiquity of high-quality maps in people’s pockets, coupled with social media where anyone can stream videos or photos of what’s happening around them, has given civilians insight into what is happening on the ground in a way that only governments had before. See, for example, two interactive maps, which track the Russian military movements: The Russian Military Forces and the Russia-Ukraine Monitor Map (screenshot from February 27):

But big tech has a lot of complicated choices to make. Google Maps, for example, was applauded as a tool for visualizing the military action, helping researchers track troops and civilians seeking shelter. On Sunday, though, Google blocked two features (live traffic overlay & live busyness) in an effort to help keep Ukrainians safe and after consultations with local officials. It’s a constant balancing act and there’s no easy solution.

Global protests, donations, and empathy

Social media platforms are giving Russians who disagree with the Kremlin a way to make their voice heard. Videos from Russian protests are going viral on Facebook, Twitter, Telegram and other platforms, generating tens of millions of views. Global protests are also being viewed and shared extensively online, like this protest in Rome, shared by an Italian Facebook group. Many organizations post their volunteers’ actions to support Ukrainians, like this Israeli humanitarian mission, rescuing Jewish refugees. Donations are being collected all over the web, and on Saturday, Ukraine’s official Twitter account posted requests for cryptocurrency donations (in bitcoin, ether and USDT). On Sunday, crypto donations to Ukraine reached $20 million.

According to Jon Steinberg, all of these actions “are reminders of why we turn to social media at times like this.” For all their countless faults — including their vulnerabilities to government propaganda and misinformation — tech’s largest platforms can amplify powerful acts of resistance. They can promote truth-tellers over lies. And “they can reinforce our common humanity at even the bleakest of times.” 

“The role of misinformation/disinformation feels minor compared to what we might have expected,” Casey Newton noted. While tech companies need to “stay on alert for viral garbage,” social media is currently seen “as a force multiplier for Ukraine and pro-democracy efforts.”

Déjà vu to the onset of the pandemic

It reminds me a lot of March 2020, when Ben Smith praised that “Facebook, YouTube, and others can actually deliver on their old promise to democratize information and organize communities, and on their newer promise to drain the toxic information swamp.” Ina Fried added that if companies like Facebook and Google “are able to demonstrate they can be a force for good in a trying time, many inside the companies feel they could undo some of the Techlash’s ill will.” The article headline was: Tech’s moment to shine (or not).

On Feb 25, 2022, discussing the Russia-Ukraine conflict, Jon Stewart said social media “got to provide some measure of redemption for itself”: “There’s a part of me that truly hopes that this is where the social media algorithm will shine.”

All of the current online activities — taking advantage of the Social Smartphone Era — leave us with the hope the good can prevail over the bad and the ugly, but also with the fear it would not.

Dr. Nirit Weiss-Blatt is the author of The Techlash and Tech Crisis Communication

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Companies: facebook, google, meta, telegram, twitter

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Comments on “What Happens When A Russian Invasion Takes Place In The Social Smartphone Era”

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Anonymous Coward says:


…surprising that NO factual news emerged from this vast social media net about the actual battles between Ukrainian and Russian forces:
Where are the specific battle fronts?
Where is the intense fighting and troop movements?
Where are all the smartphone images of mass casualties, destroyed vehicles, decimated towns, etc.
Russian & Ukraine combat aircraft must have been everywhere but were somehow invisible to Ukraine civilians with smartphone video

Instead we get vaguie rumors about a 17 mile long (or 40) Russian military convoy headed to Kiev — but invisible to civilians nearby

Some simple propaganda videos from Kiev residents at home, and some general videos about refugees at the Polish border.
Surely all these refugees fleeing the Russian onslauaght have detailed first hand accounts of the fighting — but no, nothing shows up on social media or western news media/

Plenty of empty speculation and gossip about Ukraine on world social media — but no factual substance.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re. wip out smartphones.

When the bullets and shells are flying, ordinary people look for cellars or something solid to hide behind, or they are trying yo get away from the battle. A soldier on the other hand, if they have a good view of what is going on, has more important things to do, like shoot at the enemy, or report what they can see too to their commanders.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Consider this...

“We might not know for days or weeks or months about the actual course of the battles that are being fought right now,” said David French on Sunday’s “Reliable Sources” broadcast.

French’s rule of thumb is that in warfare, “the more specific the information, the bigger the grain of salt you should read it with.”

He said “right now, the more reliable reports, quite frankly, are going to be the more high-level, more vague reports. Things like, ‘The Russians are disappointed by their progress so far.’ That’s something that I think we can be pretty sure about.

Some report that says ’15 kilometers from Kyiv, there was a tank battle involving X number of tanks destroyed and X number of Russian soldiers killed,’ take that with a huge grain of salt because we don’t know.

We don’t have the resources to know. And in fact, we might not know for a long time exactly what happened where and when in this fight.”

James Burkhardt (profile) says:


There are no traditional “fronts” – Ukraine can’t fight Russia in a traditional engagement. THis is Russia’s Veitnam. Ukraine is engaged in holding actions while irregular forces harry russian forces on all sides. Communications are not reliable, because depriving your opponent of the ability to communicate is warfare 101. Civilians with cell phones are fleeing, or fighting. So all you see is propeganda films from the fighters, or reports of refugees whose phones died days ago because they were fleeing war.

The last 40 years you’ve gotten intel from a force in Russia’s position of power, now you see war from the perspective of the underdog. Its called the fog of war.

Wyrm (profile) says:

Re: Narrow view

You have a pretty narrow concept of how war is waged and what we should know about one currently in progress.

Sure, we have a chance to get bits and pieces of information in real-time thanks to smartphone cameras being everywhere… but that’s still just a fraction. Most civilians are busy running away from the bombs, non-military combattants will just not out themselves in real-time, and soldiers are not paid to film themselves (except the ones working to spread propaganda, so not so reliable).
So, you only get a tiny chance for random footage.

As for “fronts”, this doesn’t exist in such an unbalanced conflict. The ukrainian army is not going to just line up in front of the russian army, that would be plain suicide. Instead, you mostly get skirmishes and guerilla action from one side, marching army and bombardments from the other. Think Vietnam, not Gettysburg.

Then, there is some of the information that you ask for, but you immediately dismiss it.
“Troop movements”? A multi-miles long column of russian troops moving towards Kiev. Ah right, it doesn’t exist because no civilian decided to risk their lives to film it.
“smartphone images of mass casualties”? There is some, but it’s rare because civilians being bombed have mostly two reactions: running away or taking shelter. Plus, there is a good chance that they keep their phones charged for emergencies.
“Surely all these refugees fleeing the Russian onslaught have detailed first hand accounts of the fighting”? Not necessarily. Civilians try to run away before being caught in a fight. If you stay long enough, there is a chance you either die, or get locked in your current location.

And all of this comes before we even discuss the matter of psychological trauma, panic, grief, anger, etc. that might come in the way of a calm mindset of “Oh right, I have to document the action so that some anonymous coward can believe I’m in a crisis.”

War is tough, and getting information during a war is tougher still. Forget your naive idea of what a war looks like and go there yourself if you want first-hand testimony.

Another note about “fronts”, “troop movements” and the like. In previous wars, we tend to reconstitute all of this from documents and reports. We have a pretty unique position of being able to get a few bits of information in real-time thanks to the internet, but don’t expect accurate and reliable information when the major power in the conflict is doing its best to suppress it. If you want the same model as Irak, for example, remember that the actors, their motivations and their tactics are totally different. (Not to say that the US government was completely justified in their actions or honest in their communications either.)

Anonymous Coward says:

Tech-optimism even makes its way into the pages of the NY Times

For many of the companies, including Facebook, Google, Twitter, the war is an opportunity to rehabilitate their reputations after facing questions in recent years over privacy, market dominance and how they spread toxic and divisive content.

They have a chance to show they can use their technology for good in a way not seen since the Arab Spring in 2011 when social media connected activists and was cheered as an instrument for democracy.


Nemo_bis (profile) says:

Social media only helps some people; guess who

All of the current online activities — taking advantage of the Social Smartphone Era — leave us with the hope the good can prevail over the bad and the ugly

No, sorry. What’s going on has absolutely nothing to do with social media. Social media didn’t spur a wave of empathy for the suffering of people in Yemen, Syria, South Sudan or any other place where millions are displaced by war and thousands have been killed.

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