With millions of people worldwide using tech platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram to monitor the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, social media has become one of the most effective tools – used by both sides – on the cyber battlefield.
The Ukraine-Russia conflict has been one of the most controversial and prolonged conflicts in recent times. The conflict, which began in 2014, has displaced nearly one-third of Ukrainians, with nearly seven million people in just the past year.
Since the Russian invasion February 24, 2022, there have been at least 21,000 civilian casualties, over 8,000 reported killed and the rest injured, according to the United Nations Human Rights Office.
Along with the physical violence, the war has been fought on an ideological front as well.
“We are witnessing a cyberwar play out in a way that will influence military doctrine around the world for a long time to come,” said Eric Noonan, CEO of CyberSheath security firm.
Big tech companies have become increasingly involved in the Ukraine-Russia conflict, both as tools of propaganda and as facilitators of communication and collaboration.
“It’s unprecedented in the history of the world and akin to the appearance of tanks or airpower on the battlefield,” said Noonan.
With millions of people in Ukraine and Russia, as well as around the world, using social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, the conflict has been documented and analyzed in real-time, with both sides using social media to push their agendas and influence public opinion.
Social media has become one of the more effective tools and played a significant role in shaping the narrative of the conflict, while also providing a platform for information sharing across the world stage.
This vital tool also provides a platform for mobilizing support, documenting war crimes, and facilitating humanitarian aid to those in need.
On the other side of the coin, social media can be blamed for contributing to an atmosphere of propaganda, misinformation, polarization, and distrust for those directly and indirectly involved.
Propaganda and disinformation
One of the most significant ways in which Big Tech has influenced the Ukraine-Russia conflict is through propaganda and disinformation.
Both Russia and Ukraine have been accused of using social media platforms to spread false information, influence public opinion and policymakers, and even impacting military operations themselves, although Russia is the clear aggressor on this front.
Besides discrediting opponents, disinformation campaigns are a form of psychological warfare, creating a sense of fear, confusion, uncertainty, or doubt among the targeted population.
“If successful, there is a psychological benefit of weakening the resolve for a war that Ukraine didn’t ask for but has so bravely fought,” said Noonan.
This tactic is not new; it has been used in conflicts around the world for years.
However, the sheer scale of social media use in the Ukraine-Russia conflict is unprecedented, and the impact has been significant.
“There has been an increased level of coordination around missile strikes, cyberattacks, and information operations, in an attempt to inflict maximum damage across several domains simultaneously,” said Noonan.
Social media platforms have allowed both sides to reach a large audience quickly and easily.
This has enabled them to shape public opinion and influence the international community’s perception of the conflict.
For the first time, these “tactics, techniques and strategy have been battle tested in a live conflict with global participation,” Noonan said.
The Russian propaganda machine, which has been targeting Ukraine since 2014, is a constant barrage of fake news stories and accounts, conspiracy theories, doctored images, and manipulated videos that have become more effective through social media.
For example, in 2014, Russian state media used social media platforms to push the false narrative that the Ukrainian military was responsible for downing Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17.
Moreover, in preparation for the 2022 invasion, Russian state media started pushing the false theory that the US had a secret bioweapons lab located in Ukraine responsible for harboring the COVID-19 virus.
The false rumor also spread quickly among many American conspiracists on social media.
Microsoft teams identified more than 300 Russian-sponsored websites that published the conspiracy theory within two weeks of the invasion, even though the story had been on the internet for at least three months prior, according to Microsoft’s June 2022 report Defending Ukraine: Early Lessons from the Cyber War.
For these campaigns, the Russian government has their own intelligence teams called Advance Persistent Manipulators (APMs), used to exploit social media services.
“They are pre-positioning false narratives in ways that are similar to the pre-positioning of malware and other software code,” Microsoft president and vice chair Brad Smith said in the report.
One major challenge to combating disinformation is the thousands of new pieces of propaganda content being generated every day.
“Russian cyber-influence operations successfully increased the spread of Russian propaganda after the war began by 216 percent in Ukraine and 82 percent in the United States,” said Smith.
Another challenge is the difficulty of identifying propaganda content, which can be highly sophisticated and difficult to distinguish from legitimate information.
Russia has proven to be adept at adapting its tactics to evade detection and reach its intended audience.
Meta’s Facebook, Twitter, and Google luckily have seen some success in trying to weed out these false narratives through the use of machine-learning algorithms and human fact checking.
This allows the sites to reduce distribution, remove offender posts and accounts, add warning labels, and identify and prioritize trustworthy sources of information, while demoting misleading content from search results.
Unfortunately, it is impossible to catch everything, and if a controversial or sensational piece gets through, social media algorithms can wind up boosting engagement instead giving it more visibility.
Finally, there is the issue of political leanings, with accusations of censorship and bias being leveled against big tech companies on both sides of the conflict.
“The very fact that these companies are being used for profit motive rather than as agenda-free communications platform makes them inherently susceptible to corruption, manipulation, and penetration,” said Irina Tsukerman, a geopolitical analyst and president of Scarab Rising, a media and security strategic advisory firm.
“This means each platform is only as good as whoever is running it; furthermore, the risk is amplified manifold by group-think among the types of people running these companies in messaging, policies, and agendas,” Tsukerman said.
Tsukerman, also a human rights and national security lawyer, cites the capricious nature of Twitter, before and after Elon Musk, as one example.
“Accounts were banned or allowed to run in violation of the terms of the services, hired moderators were linked with inherent biases, the codes itself promoted conflict and extremist viewpoints and clashes, and the moderators themselves were driven less by objective policies and more by personal agendas, according to whistleblower testimonies in Congress as well as relevant trial transcripts.” Tsukerman said.
“With Musk himself pushing Russia-linked conspiracy theories and making the job of those fighting disinformation that much harder,” she added.
Communication and collaboration
It’s not all bad. Let us remember that Big Tech has also played a significant role in facilitating communication and collaboration between governments, the public and private sectors, as well as citizens worldwide.
“It’s truly unprecedented how countries like the United States, NATO allies and public corporations like Microsoft and others are working in concert to enable Ukrainian cyber defense,” said Noonan.
Social media platforms have allowed activists and journalists to connect with each other and share information, even when traditional media outlets are restricted or biased.
They’ve been a source of news and information for those on the ground in Ukraine, allowing loved ones to check in and keep track of each other no matter where they’re located.
Next, without social media, the Ukrainian government’s call for an all volunteer hacking army may never have happened.
The IT Army of Ukraine is made up of roughly 200,000 pro-Ukrainian supporters with the unified goal of helping to protect the county’s critical infrastructure from Russian cyberattacks.
The all-volunteer IT Army is also tasked with performing offensive cyber initiatives on the Kremlin, its latest success causing Russian state media to go down during a speech by President Vladimir Putin.
Social media has also been used to document human rights abuses and and expose corruption.
Bellingcat is just one of the online organizations that have supported Ukraine through the use of Open Souce Intelligence (OSINT) to fight propaganda and hold perpetrators accountable for war crimes.
These groups scour the open internet, including social media, to gather clues and other actionable intelligence on the current happenings of military attacks, bombings, protests and civilian movements.
And last, one of the more important functions of social media is the moral, financial, and humanitarian support given to the victims of the conflict.
The humanitarian reach has been unprecedented, highlighting important resources, such as ways to donate, different charities, fundraising efforts, and in-kind help services such as free Airbnb stays and Uber rides in Ukraine.
With the rise of social media comes myriad concerns about data privacy protections, free speech and the implications of both – even in wartime.
“Data sharing is when Big Tech, in this case, sells the sensitive information they have collected on its users.
“TikTok is by far the most worrisome example; aside from rapid mass dissemination of poorly vetted content with dubious agenda, it collects biometric information and keystrokes that the Chinese government has access to,” Tsukerman said.
This data can be used by TikTok “as part of its official intelligence gathering efforts and profiling, which can then be used to design public psy-ops campaigns via content, give information to state-backed hackers, or used to design individual and mass agents of influence recruitment,” she explained.
Tsukerman believes TikTok’s data collection practices could lead to Chinese involvement in the conflict over the long run.
“Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is becoming globalized by the likely involvement of China and ongoing involvement of Iran in providing Russia with various types of assistance,” said Tsukerman.
The problem seen here is that its almost impossible to run Big Tech without any geopolitical and financial conflicts of interests.
They all “have investments linked to China meaning they are essentially conflicted on all relevant issues and can be playing a deliberately negative role of pushing one side indirectly even in the Ukraine war by providing certain types of voices with favorable algorithms, shadow-banning or banning critics, or not interfering with outright disinformation due to risk of losing these investments,” Tsukerman said,
The last challenge to address according to Tsukerman is to shift focus from enforcing internet liability protection laws – such as Section 230 – and instead focus more on the activities of these giant tech platforms.
Section 230, part of the Communications Decency Act of 1996, prevents civil suits against social media platforms for what its users say.
When section 230 was passed in in 1996, there were only about 40 million people using the internet worldwide. That number is comfortably above four billion today, according the Electronic Freedom Foundation (EFF).
EFF is a non-profit digital privacy and free speech watchdog whose mission statement supports Section 230, among other protection laws.
It’s time for groups like the EFF to stop worrying about Big Tech’s liability for misinformation and hate speech, and start publicly examining its collective of “financial conflicts of interests, fraudulent [activities] and outright agenda-driven lawsuits,” said Tsukerman.
“Many of these lawsuits are driven by media campaigns linked to individuals and organizations whose role in the Russia-Ukraine conflict is dubious at best,” Tsukerman explained.
“The Pegasus-related lawsuits by Big Tech, for instance, can have a direct implication on the Russia-Ukraine conflict by depriving NATO allies of a powerful software used to track Russian activists,” said Tsukerman.
Pegasus, a spyware developed by the Israeli tech firm NSO, was dubbed by the New York Times as the world’s most powerful cyber weapon.
The controversial spyware is currently being used in over 45 countries and has been purchased by law enforcement agencies in the United States and Europe, according to The International Association of Privacy Professionals (IAPP).
The US stopped using Pegasus in 2021 over the controversy.
In 2019, Microsoft, Google, Apple, and WhatsApp, whose software fell victim to hackers using the spyware, filed a suit against NSO, claiming the product was too dangerous and posed a fundamental risk to human rights fearing rogue governments would abuse the spyware.
“If a particular form of spyware can be discredited by a Big Tech lawsuit and media campaign, it inevitably favors other [spyware brands] and can give advantage to the sides that have one but not the other, or to take an advantage away from one of the sides that was largely reliant on that form of spyware,” Tsukerman said.
Big Tech banded together and also blacklisted NSO from legally purchasing any Windows operating systems, iPhones, and Amazon cloud servers at the time.
After all this, Israel wound up preventing Ukraine from buying Pegasus at the start of the invasion, for fear of damaging relations with Russia.
“Russia, which does not have access to that spyware, gains advantage if that spyware is off the market, and if other forms of spyware that are less regulated and can be sold to China or to Russia-linked non-state actors, for instances, becomes the weapon of choice instead,” said Tsukerman.
NSO, backed by the Israeli government, claims it is not responsible for how the spyware is used.
The case against NSO finally got the go-ahead to move forward in the US Supreme Court later this year.
Future of Big Tech
Social media platforms will continue to be used as tools of propaganda and disinformation, and individuals and groups involved in the conflict will continue to rely on technology to communicate and collaborate.
However, there are also future opportunities for big tech to play a positive role in the conflict moving forward.
One if these initiatives is education.
Big tech companies could help fight against disinformation campaigns by investing in digital literacy programs.
Internet users, especially from from less educated or developing counties, are not as social media savvy as the first world on how to identify and avoid false information and disinformation.
These programs can teach people to recognize the signs of false information, such as sensational headlines, poorly sourced stories, and images that have been manipulated.
Digital savvy will also help people be more critical of the information they are freely ingesting on social media, ensuring they will verify the accuracy of information before sharing it.
Another future possibility is using social media to promote peace and reconciliation between the factions, by facilitating dialogue between individuals and groups with different perspectives.
If the war goes on for the long haul as predicted, winning the hearts and minds of the people may prove one of the ways to help resolve the conflict.
The Ukraine-Russia conflict is a complex and multifaceted war, and the role of Big Tech is just one aspect.
However, it is clear that technology will continue to shape the war and the region as a whole, both positively and negatively.
As the conflict continues, it will be essential to monitor the role of the tech giants and explore ways to mitigate its negative impact, while maximizing the benefits.
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