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How Russia’s War on Ukraine is Challenging our Digital Norms

Many media outlets attribute Ukraine’s recent social media success to President Volodymyr Zelenskyy himself. Indeed, we cannot underestimate his role and his popularity; from the onset of the Russian invasion, Zelenskyy has been the person most mentioned in Ukrainian on Telegram channels and on Facebook

However, this cannot account for all the new developments in Ukrainian digital political discourse. There is an unprecedented level of digital support for Ukraine, not only domestically, but globally as well, with novel interventions that disrupt how we have previously upheld internet norms. Increasingly, we rely on private corporations to play a large role in political affairs, as the outsized role of social media and other tech platforms continues to influence the offline world. For example, in February, after the invasion began, Google temporarily disabled live traffic data in Google Maps (a staple of the open internet) in some regions of Ukraine, to protect Ukrainians from potential Russian attacks. 

Another move by the search engine service was to open access on Google Maps to Russia's military and strategic facilities. The extraordinary measures did not end there. Meta temporarily lifted its ban on hate speech towards Russian invaders. Under this policy, calls for the death of Russian President Vladimir Putin and Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko were allowed as “freedom of expression”. Soon, the platform was banned by the Russian government, despite its previous use by the Kremlin for disseminating disinformation and propaganda. The resulting absence of Meta has perhaps led to the surge in the use of Telegram since the invasion. While many experts agree that moderation and flagging of content on Facebook remains meager, Telegram, in contrast, is completely unmoderated or monitored due to end-to-end encryption. While this reduces risks of censorship, it can also create a breeding ground for disinformation, among other issues. 

Twitter introduced its new crisis misinformation policy to label false coverage and avoid the amplification or recommendation of content once it has been identified by fact-checking.

Besides the measures taken by platforms, average Ukrainians have also been responsible for remarkable changes to online political discourse since the onset of the war. Ukrainian bloggers and opinion leaders who also had audiences in Russia used their social media platforms to try to convey the truth about what was going on in Ukraine, and to appeal to Russians to take action to stop the invasion.

The activities of open-source intelligence (OSINT) communities reached a totally new level, for example, creating joint projects like the Ukraine Weapons Tracker for identifying and analyzing weapons that appear in Ukraine. Today, OSINT enthusiasts are using various methods to spread this information, despite attempts from the Russian government to keep it secret. That became possible mainly due to the development of high-resolution commercial satellite imagery and related products, such as SAR technologies for capturing and tracking small-scale movements on the surface of the Earth or uncensored tools for tracking aircraft, so even amateur open-source researchers may become extremely popular using the tools available today.

At the same time, we can see impressive examples in Ukraine of the partnership between the government and its citizens, leading to an effective decentralized system of digital resilience. Among other efforts, the Ministry for Digital Transformation contributed to the establishment of the IT Army of Ukraine. The initiative by Yegor Aushev, a well-known Ukrainian IT entrepreneur, and the former Minister for Digital Transformation of Ukraine, Mykhailo Fedorov, appealed to the country to start a Telegram channel to coordinate cyber countermeasures by various volunteers, aimed at helping to fight back against the Russian invasion (including, but not limited to DDoS attacks and the defacing of websites). The channel now has about 250,000 members. The graph below shows the skyrocketing membership of the channel from the time Fedorov posted it, on February 26.

Of course, we should not underestimate the power and influence of Russian propaganda, and especially its power to influence the war in the long run. The reach of its disinformation machine is particularly potent, as it plays on public sentiment, including with regard to fatigue from the war and decreasing engagement in cyber-activism, among other phenomena. In this way, time is on their side. Russia has spent billions of euros on its propaganda. This is especially true outside of the West. Mainstream Western media tend to promote an outpouring of support for Ukraine, but we see different trends when we zoom out globally. 

The graphs below illustrate the differences between the hashtags #IStandwithRussia and #IStandwithUkraine, where the former has a higher prominence in places like Brazil, India, Pakistan and Sub-Saharan Africa.

#IStandwithUkraine

Click on the image below to access an interactive version of the graph. 

#IStandwithRussia

Click on the image below to access an interactive version of the graph. 

Whether the activity behind #IStandwithRussia is authentic and represents the predominant views of these geographies, or whether they are inauthentic and coordinated activity by Russian social media campaigns, we cannot know. But they indicate the spread of pro-Russian work, whether true followers or people burdened by heavy misinformation. 

An obvious exception is the United States. And of course there is documented influence of Russian disinformation in the EU, such as the methods the Kremlin uses to influence news in Bulgaria, where, according to Bulgarian State Intelligence Agency, it was discovered that Russia had been paying about 2,000 euros per month to various politicians, journalists and other well-known individuals for spreading propaganda aimed at forming a positive image of Russia.

In this hybrid war, when actual military actions are accompanied by large numbers of offensive cyber-attacks threatening military and civilian welfare, along with numerous informational operations, Russia has also embraced new tactics, like the fake debunking of fake news. Here, they produce fake news, claim it originated in Ukraine or the West, and then ‘’debunk’’ it, in an attempt to undermine the trust in these news sources. Russia is heavily engaged in spreading anti-Ukrainian propaganda, anti-refugee narratives and anti-Western messages. Paired with the increase in the overall use of unmoderated platforms like Telegram for disseminating disinformation, many are concerned about an associated decrease in morale within and outside of Ukraine, although early evidence suggests the effectiveness of this approach has been limited.

Still, narratives about the conflict tend to focus on the perspective that Ukraine is winning the information war, however as many have suggested and the above graphs indicate, there is need for a broader perspective. For the sake of Ukraine, and to counter Russia’s attempts to undermine -even bring down- liberal democracies, and the idea of liberal democracy itself, monitoring political discourse and implementing online strategies to impact the war offline are vital to understanding the development of political events.

This high-profile war in Europe has provoked several unique responses by not only the warring governments, but also by global platforms. It has changed our perception of what is possible in digital discourse and digital intervention in real, offline political events. We are sure to see further developments of this kind long after this war ends.

Our next piece will be about Ukrainian perceptions of the Western allies and their roles in supporting Ukraine, in order to demonstrate how such perceptions are crucial for an understanding of the experience of Ukrainian social media during the war.

This work is supported by