The digital battlefield – PRIO Blogs


Photos, stories and videos featuring victims of the war in Ukraine are spreading around the world on social media. This will change our perception of war.

The Ukrainian government is embracing social media platforms and doing everything it can to keep them accessible. Photo: Official website of the President of Ukraine / Reuters

So far, cyberattacks and cyberoperations have played a smaller role than expected in the war in Ukraine, social media, on the other hand, have been more prominent. Ukraine and global tech giants are exploiting each other for mutual benefit in this war.

Ukraine’s use of social media and technology shows the importance of building narratives by disseminating information. Indeed, we are witnessing a new form of “weapons of the weak”.

These new weapons provided President Volodymyr Zelenskiy with an effective means of bolstering resistance.

A black decade for social networks

The last decade started with optimism in 2011 with the use of social media as the Arab Spring approached.

Facebook and Twitter have become important platforms for coordinating and disseminating information about the protests. Social media has also been a useful means of keeping international news media informed. This helped raise international awareness of the protesters’ demands.

But the pendulum has swung. Social media apps have become surveillance tools for authoritarian regimes. By 2012, protests had been suppressed or turned into a civil war.

In addition, the genocide in Myanmar, attempts to influence voters during the Brexit referendum campaign in the UK and the 2016 election campaign in the US, as well as “fake news” and trends in the polarization have sparked strong criticism of the global tech giants. Perhaps now they have the opportunity to appear in a better light.

There has also been a significant evolution since the Arab Spring and the current situation therefore appears to be quite different.

In 2010, Facebook had 500 million users; today the platform has 3 billion. Instagram, YouTube and Twitter have experienced similar growth rates. In addition, new platforms have emerged such as Snapchat, Telegram and TikTok.

As a result, more people can create and view content. Another factor is that people all over the world, especially the younger generations, have become accustomed to receiving media coverage through social media.

Photos, stories and videos featuring victims of this war are spreading around the world and will help change our perception of war. It is often said that “history is written by the victors”. Now, however, the story is being broadcast live.

A major difference between the Arab Spring and the war in Ukraine is that there was no attempt by Ukraine to control or shut down social media. On the contrary, the Ukrainian government is embracing social media platforms and doing everything it can to keep them accessible.

Queuing to clear their names

Global tech giants are now lining up to engage in “the good fight”. It is here that Ukraine and social media platforms have found something that greatly benefits both of them.

Tech giants have had a decade of being blamed for everything from creating a “post-truth world” to growing loneliness. Now, in general, they help to create solidarity, stir emotions and boost morale not only in Ukraine, but also around the world.

During a meeting of the UN Security Council, the Ukrainian ambassador to the United Nations stood up and held up his phone, which he used to show video clips proving that the invasion of the Ukraine had started and the Russian ambassador to the UN was lying.

Ukrainian Minister of Digital Transformation Mykhailo Fedorov was born in 1991 and is therefore barely 30 years old. He belongs to the first generation of politicians who do not remember the world without the Internet.

Fedorov was Zelenskiy’s campaign manager when Zelenskiy won the presidential election in 2019. He knows how to use social media.

Currently, he communicates openly and directly via Twitter with top tech CEOs such as Elon Musk, Tim Cook, and Jeff Bezos, as well as the CEOs of PayPal, Netflix, YouTube, and Microsoft. The tech giants have chosen their side. They block Russian propaganda, protect Ukraine from cyberattacks, provide intelligence and suspend sales to Russia.

On February 26, Fedorov sent a tweet to Elon Musk: “@elonmusk, while you try to colonize Mars – Russia tries to occupy Ukraine! While your rockets are successfully landing from space, Russian rockets are attacking Ukrainian civilians! We ask you to provide Ukraine with Starlink stations and invite sane Russians to stand up.

Musk replied the same day and two days later a new tweet appeared from Fedorov: “Starlink – here. Thanks, @elonmusk. “You’re welcome,” Musk replied.

Fedorov’s call for help on Twitter also had a symbolic effect. It was a powerful contribution to a global narrative of Ukraine as a modern country mastering digital technology; is concerned with transparency and the free flow of information; is on the same team as the tech giants; and generally represents the future.

What’s going on in Russia?

Russia has one of the most powerful armies in the world and for many years has been developing weapons to deploy in cyberattacks. But Russia has not started the information war on what is happening in Ukraine well. Maybe they started too late, or maybe they never had a chance to start.

The open release of information by Western intelligence agencies and the posting of real-time updates on Russia’s invasion plans on self-organized channels on Telegram and Reddit, have won and proven correct.

Russia is the opposite of Ukraine. Media channels are subject to strict controls and censorship. Social media platforms are blocked. Alternative media exist, but their number continues to decline. And the Russian narrative seems to have little impact in large parts of the world, including, perhaps, among young people in Russia.

Mutual benefits

The narrative being broadcast live on social media appears to be about two countries, each standing on their side of history – old versus new, archaic versus modern, dictatorship versus democracy, transparency and free-flowing information versus scrutiny and censorship.

On the one hand, global tech giants provide Zelenkskiy and his Minister of Digitization with effective tools.

On the other hand, the tech giants can show how they’re upholding “the good fight” in this war, by clearing their names after a decade of digging pretty deep in the dirt.

  • Niels Nagelhus Schia is a senior researcher at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs (NUPI) and directs the Center for Cybersecurity Studies at NUPI.
  • This article was first published in Norwegian on NRK Ytring on March 9, 2022: “Den digital slagmarken”
  • Translation from Norwegian: Fidotext

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