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Social Media and the New Cyberwar

  • February 28, 2022
  • Clayton Rice, K.C.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine is an opportunity for social media giants to rehabilitate their reputations tarnished by invasive surveillance practices, the relentless harvesting of personal data and a collective indifference to social responsibility. Now seizing the chance to gain a higher ground they are pushing back against the Russian propaganda machine as they engage in a tricky dance with geopolitics and the new cyberwar.

1. Introduction

On February 24, 2022, Russia invaded Ukraine without a declaration of war in what many analysts call the largest conventional military attack since World War II. Following the Ukrainian Revolution of Dignity in 2014, Russia annexed Crimea and generated an eight year conflict in the region. The invasion has become a “defining geopolitical moment” for some of the world’s largest technology companies as social media platforms turned into a “parallel information war” becoming vital links of misinformation and disinformation. (here) Some advocates of an open, global internet fear it is this kind of conflict that could turn the prophesy of a fractious digital world into reality.

2. The Information War

Over the past five days, the propaganda war has eclipsed the cyberwar as stories emerged from the conflict blurring the line between truth and mythology. The information war has popularized several incidents that acquired instantaneous online appeal. The Ghost of Kyiv, the Last Stand at Snake Island and Putin Electrical Plugins are good examples. Two days after the invasion began, the Ukranian Minister of Digital Transformation, Mykhailo Fedorov, launched the “IT Army of Ukraine”, an invitation to the world’s hackers to align with his country and go on the offensive against Russia. Hacking, however, has been marginal so far as the IT Army and other groups “have all played into a roiling propaganda war touching not just Ukraine and Russia but the entire world.” (here)

The Ghost of Kyiv is a mysterious ace pilot who became a war hero after apparently shooting down six Russian fighter jets on the day of the invasion. The number increased to ten three days later. But he may be a myth. Although there have been reports of Russian planes being destroyed, there does not appear to be any reliable information that they were brought down by a single Ukrainian pilot. The Ghost of Kyiv has been credited as a morale booster as a result of wide circulation of the pilot’s exploits on social media.

The Last Stand at Snake Island generated a worldwide audience when a dramatic exchange between Ukrainian defenders on the Black Sea island and a Russian warship was circulated on YouTube. The exchange has a persuasive audio but there are numerous translations depending on the platform where the video appears. Here’s the exchange:

  • “This is Russian warship. Russian warship to Zminyi Island, this is Russian warship. I propose to lay down your arms and surrender to avoid bloodshed and needless casualties. Otherwise we will strike. Zminyi Island, this is Russian warship. I repeat. I propose to lay down weapons, surrender, otherwise you will be bombed. Do you read?”

(Well…fuck these too, right? Just in case…)

  • “Russian warship, go fuck yourself!”

All the soldiers on the tiny island were initially thought to have been killed in the attack that was confirmed by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. However, in a statement reported by CNN earlier today, the Ukrainian Navy said the defenders were alive and had been “taken captive by Russian occupiers.” (here)

In another example, laced with humour, Vice Media reported today that electric vehicle charging stations along Russia’s M11 motorway from Moscow to Saint Petersburg are not working because a Ukrainian company that provided parts for the chargers hacked them using a backdoor in the control systems. (here) The chargers display scrolling messages reading “Glory to Ukraine/Glory to the heroes” and “PUTIN IS A DICKHEAD”.

The stories, whether true or not, whether propaganda or not, whether misinformation or disinformation, show how Ukrainians are cleverly deploying social media to belittle the Russian invaders and boost their nationalist spirit in what will become the most media-accessible war in history. As real time videos flood social media platforms – Facebook, Twitter, Telegram and TikTok – the Ukrainians have outwitted the Kremlim propaganda machine and rallied the world behind them. They have created viral legends exposing an unprovoked war that Russia insists on calling a “special operation”. It is an information war that Russia cannot win because everyone with a cellphone is a participant.

3. Social Media Responds

Major social media platforms including Facebook, YouTube and TikTok have banned Russian state media outlets in Europe blocking Moscow’s biggest megaphone for influencing public opinion. The latest developments by the tech giants were announced following pressure by the European Commission and some U.S. politicians. “Due to the ongoing war in Ukraine, we’re blocking YouTube channels connected to RT and Sputnik across Europe, effective immediately,” Google Europe said in a tweet. “It’ll take time for our systems to fully ramp up. Our teams continue to monitor the situation around the clock to take swift action.”

Google’s actions came after Facebook and TikTok said today they will shut down access to Kremlin-controlled RT and Sputnik in Europe. Facebook’s announcement came in a tweet from its president for global affairs, Nick Clegg. The announcement came after Facebook disclosed yesterday that it had disrupted a Russian disinformation operation targeting Ukraine, one of the first confirmations of such a campaign since the invasion began. Facebook also said it blocked efforts by a hacking group that recently attempted to compromise the accounts of prominent Ukrainians. (here) The move came as Lithuania issued a statement with Poland and other Baltic states asking Facebook, Twitter, Google and YouTube to “suspend the accounts of the Russian and Belarus political leadership”. (here)

TikTok, a central influencer in bringing news and current events to a large Gen Z audience, soon followed. (here) TikTok confirmed its decision to The Washington Post today. And according to Yoel Roth, the head of integrity at Twitter, the social media giant will “add labels to accounts sharing links to Russian state-affiaiated media outlets” and was ‘taking steps to significantly reduce the circulation of this content on Twitter”. (here) Telegram, a widely used messaging app in Russia and Ukraine, threatened to shut down channels related to the invasion “because of rampant misinformation.” (here)

According to the Oxford Internet Institute at the University of Oxford, the pressure on social media companies mounted quickly after a proliferation of misinformation from Russian-backed media outlets including articles alleging that Ukrainian armed forces attacked civilians. At least thirty articles speculated that Ukraine may have started development of nuclear weapons and warned about “what nuclear bombs in the hands of the far right lead to.” Some articles alleged that President Zelenskyy had a “dangerous nuclear fantasy”. And Russian state media tried to paint the “special operation” as a preemptive strike against the Ukrainian Nazis regime although President Zelenskyy is Jewish. (here)

Last year, the Oxford Internet Institute released a report warning that “the level of social media manipulation has soared” with governments and political parties spending millions on private sector “cyber troops” to drown out other voices on social media. “Our 2020 report highlights the way in which government agencies, political parties and private firms continue to use social media to spread political propaganda, polluting the digital information ecosystem and suppressing freedom of speech and freedom of the press,” said Dr. Samantha Bradshaw, the report’s lead author. “A large part of this activity has become professionalized, with private firms offering disinformation-for-hire services,” she added. (here)

4. The New Cyberwar

The events in Ukraine are being closely watched by military experts, international lawyers and cybersecurity experts with a eye on how the Russian invasion may redefine the laws of war for the cyber age. The emerging debate focuses mainly on how NATO’s “collective defence” provision may be challenged as the conflict continues to unfold. The principle of collective defence is at the heart of NATO’s founding treaty and remains the enduring principle that binds its member states together. The principle is contained in Article 5 of The North Atlantic Treaty, known as the Washington Treaty, which states that, “an armed attack against one or more of [the Parties] in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all”. (here) It has been invoked only once in NATO’s history after the 9/11 terrorist attacks against the United States.

In an article published earlier today by Reuters, James Pearson and Jonathan Landay reported on an interview with an unnamed NATO official who identified concerns that “chaos in cyberspace around Russia’s invasion of Ukraine could spill over into other territories.” (here) The military alliance has maintained for years that a serious cyberattack could trigger the clause. “Allies also recognize that the impact of significant malicious cumulative cyber activities might, in certain circumstances, be considered as an armed attack,” the official said. “We will not speculate on how serious a cyberattack would have to be in order to trigger a collective response,” the official continued. “Any response could include diplomatic and economic sanctions, cyber measures, or even conventional forces, depending on the nature of the attack.”

5. Conclusion

The executives of the social media giants are making judgment calls on how to respond in a cyberwar characterized by a fast moving geopolitical environment. The blocking of too many services could isolate internal Russian support for the Ukrainian cause by cutting off ordinary Russian citizens from the “digital conversations that can counteract state-run propaganda.” Two days after the invasion began more than ten thousand Russian technology workers signed a petition calling on the Putin regime to cease its military operations in Ukraine describing the display of Russian force as “unjustified”. (here) Two thirds of internet-connected people in Russia use YouTube. Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have been important platforms for critics of the Russian government, including jailed opposition leader and anti-corruption activist Aleksei Navalny. The tricky dance must balance access by ordinary Russians to information and communication beyond their borders while at the same time counter state run propaganda that leverages the openness of free and democratic societies. In the long run, save the last waltz for counter speech.

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