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.
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