Ukraine: The Digital War on Tanks and Propaganda

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The war in Ukraine is a war in real-time transmission, a war for information. And it is a war that raises two questions: Can an aggressor in the information age be forced into a quasi-digital military retreat? What good are the promises of the tech giants?

The power of shared images
Images have power, information is effective – that's nothing new. Just how great this power can be is being demonstrated again and again these days – in both good and bad ways. This has mainly to do with the fact that in many cases it is unclear how much images can be trusted. Too often, there are posts that are manipulated, taken out of context, or just plain wrong. One of many examples is a video purporting to show the "ghost of Kiev." It shows a Russian plane being shot down. However, it is actually from a video game. Just recently, a video of the Ukrainian president apparently calling on his own soldiers to lay down their arms made the rounds. It quickly became clear that the video was a deepfake – fortunately not a very good one.

Taken as a whole, however, it is almost a harmless example of a war that has become a war in the information age. The attack on Ukraine began long before Vladimir Putin sent out the first tanks. Misleading information was the first decisive step towards the invasion of Crimea and the Donbass as early as 2014. Deliberately used to bend reality, not only with regard to Ukraine, but with regard to the entire world.

Russia has long dominated the information war
For years, Russia has dominated this information war. This was also made possible by the social networks and their failure, indeed their refusal, to take action against this kind of disinformation. Only now, against the backdrop of the military offensive, have the platforms reacted. Late, too late as many say, but perhaps with some effect. Because in the end it is precisely these networks on which the images can also develop their effect.

Selensky's communication battle against Putin
The more or less direct communication of Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Selenskyj alone could not be more different. While the Russian president, even when talking to his own ministers, only shows up at absurdly long tables (the background, by the way, is reportedly Putin's downright panic about a covid infection), Selenskyj can literally be experienced directly on the front lines. With every photo, every video, the images of the aggressor acting from the palace and the heroically resisting attacked person solidify. Selenskyj, meanwhile, already spoke directly to the people of Russia in an impressive way at the beginning of the war. That deepfakes are used as a means to discredit Selenskyj's powerful images comes as little surprise.

The importance of sovereignty over information channels should not be underestimated. It is not least about international support, whether in politics or business. Above all, however, the messages are directed at the people in the affected countries; it is about the morale of the soldiers, the willingness of the citizens to suffer. The Russian government is well aware of this. It is not for nothing that the Putin regime has now blocked Facebook, Twitter and a number of Western media sites. The official reading, in which, among other things, the term war is banned, is to be enforced by force. Nevertheless, more and more people in Russia are using social networks to inform themselves about the war against Ukraine. Protected network connections (VPN) are widespread in Russia, through which access to Facebook and Twitter is still guaranteed – even if this is often not legal locally.

Best documented war in human history
The development also has to do with the fact that the conflict in Ukraine is likely to become the best-documented war in human history, as described by expert Daniel Johnson. Johnson writes, "What is coming out of Ukraine is simply not possible on this scale without citizens and soldiers across the country having easy access to cell phones, the Internet and, by extension, social media apps. A large-scale modern war is being broadcast live to the world minute by minute, battle by battle, death by death. What's going on is already horrific, if you look at the information that's already been released on the first day."

In this regard, the Ukrainian government is using social media in particular with a speed and virtuosity that does not make Putin's official propaganda spectacle look good. Selenskyj himself, in particular, has risen to the status of social media war hero in a very short time. Of course, he uses his experience as an entertainer, actor and director, and the staging (if it is one) always looks authentic: Selenskyj still gave his first speech in a suit, but he has long since been seen primarily in a military shirt. His videos are internationally oriented, he shoots in Ukrainian, Russian and English, with clear words without political clauses. As a result, the president gains hundreds of thousands of followers every day, and more than five million people already follow him on Twitter.

The impact of this presence should not be underestimated. Selenskyj increases the moral pressure on foreign countries and fights in his own country the false information deliberately spread by the Russian side, for example, about an alleged escape of the president.

Tech companies ask for help
But it's not just politicians who are using their channels to draw attention to the situation in order to mobilize support for Ukraine. The country is also home to some well-known tech providers that have taken initiative in their own way.

Readdle comes from Ukraine and has apps such as PDF Expert or the Spark mail client, which is particularly popular with Apple users, among others. These days, Spark users repeatedly encounter a screen with the hashtag #StandWithUkraine and a request for support for the people in the country when they launch the app.

Mac Paw has gone one step further with its Cleanmymac suite. The menu icon now includes a Ukraine flag. The news info for the latest version says: "With this version we stop selling our products to users from Russia and Belarus. Ukraine is our homeland, and we want to protect it in any way we can. Despite the war, Cleanmymac is stable, and our team is safe. We try to keep calm, stay focused, and are optimistic that Ukraine has a peaceful future ahead of it in independence. And we are deeply grateful for all the incredibly encouraging news you have sent us."

Truth should save lives
Another tech initiative is focusing on information. Consulting group One Philosophy and IT company Empat, with the help of volunteers, have launched the "We are Ukraine" website – a "collection of truthful information, facts, examples of Ukrainian resilience, and opinions from Ukrainian and world democratic leaders about the Russian invasion of Ukraine." The posts are designed to be shared as often as possible.  The motto: "Save lives by spreading the truth about the Russian war on Ukraine."

The same approach is taken with different means by the Call Russia campaign. With the help of the website, Russian-speaking people living abroad are to be put in touch with Russians on the ground via telephone, so that they can then talk to them about what is happening in Ukraine. A guide for the conversations is provided, because they are unlikely to be particularly easy. "The call will be very difficult. People have been exposed to Putin's propaganda for too long, and it's not easy to change their minds," the website says.

The role of tech giants
The longer the dispute goes on, the clearer it becomes that fundamental change will only be possible if the people of Russia force it themselves. For that to happen, it will almost certainly take the anger of the oligarchs, for whom sanctions are ruining business. But it will also require a lot of information among the population, information beyond Putin's propaganda. At this point, the tech giants and social networks in particular have a duty. They must now show what their promises of commitment to democracy and against disinformation are worth.

Google plays a role in this process that should not be underestimated. Google search results for Russian queries related to Ukraine have so far been dominated almost exclusively by a handful of well-known Russian pro-Putin propaganda publications such as Izvestia, Russia Today and Ria News, many Russian speakers complain.

Admirable actions such as those of Russian journalist Marina Ovsyannikova on linear television are the absolute exception. For Russian speakers, many of whom already feel isolated in information bubbles full of propaganda and conspiracies justifying the war, it is crucial that they have access to accurate, verified, and balanced information about the war if they seek it, writes SEO expert Olya Ianovskaia, for example. This, she says, is not the case at the moment. This is another reason why Putin's state narrative dominates the Russian Internet.

Other tech giants, meanwhile, have become more active. Facebook has restricted access to the accounts of major Russian media outlets such as Sputnik, Russia Today and gazeta.ru. Tiktok, for example, has begun removing video content posted on the platform by Ria News, one of Russia's largest news outlets.

Twitter is launching a version of its site as a Tor Onion service, optimizing it for the network to protect privacy and circumvent censorship. The Tor network has also been added to Twitter's supported browsers page.

Telegram plays a special role, if only because of its strong distribution in Russia and Ukraine. The company, founded by exiled Russian billionaire brothers Pavel and Nikolai Durov, has become "a key weapon in a digital propaganda battle," analyzes the British Guardian. The app has established itself as a leading news source outside of state-controlled media during the Ukraine war, becoming a 24-hour news channel for civilians, journalists and even the military. "We don't want Telegram to be used as a tool that exacerbates conflicts and incites ethnic hatred," Pavel Durov lets it be known, but otherwise leaves it at rather general advice: "Check the data posted on Telegram channels at this difficult time, and don't believe them."

Public pressure must grow
If it were that simple, I'm sure we'd have fewer problems. But it isn't. Of course, someone like Pavel Durov knows that. The past shows that only public pressure by users can really bring about change. If the fight against disinformation is not to be left to the thoroughly commendable initiatives of pop singers and athletes, then this pressure must grow. In the best case, this will help to end the war in Ukraine more quickly. In the very best case, it even ensures a lasting change for the better. From today's perspective, that certainly sounds naïve. But there is a chance. And opportunities are there to be seized.


Bruce Jacobs

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