Is there too little oversight of private tech companies in the Russian-Ukrainian conflict?
Since February 2022, Ukrainians have been producing live video feeds of the war, including missile launches, explosions of critical assets and the horrific effects of Russian military aggression on civilians. Such collective documentation has appealed to the humanitarian empathy of those who watch and share these vignettes on television and social media platforms, while reflecting an apparent lack of diplomacy and conscience by Russian leaders. Modern communications have historically been used or manipulated to share the blatant nature of military action or the posturing of political fanatics, from the war in Vietnam that aired on television networks to videos showing the aftermath of chemical attacks in Syria. . Likewise, social media and other technological tools not only provide real-time narration of the Ukrainian conflict to heighten viewers’ disapproval of Russian President Vladimir Putin, but also display calls for public diplomacy, which have been exposed in recent video calls. by Ukrainian President Zelensky before the US Congress and US media. The fact that private tech and telecom companies are also creating rules for how technology is operated during the Ukrainian-Russian conflict is also interesting, especially since there has been little or no government oversight of their digital businesses. In this blog, we address three areas where private industry has been busiest in technology – social media, internet infrastructure and content moderation – and offer questions about how the approach of laissez-faire technology during war or serious global confrontations can impact future diplomatic efforts.
The role of social media in the Russian-Ukrainian conflict
Prior to invading Ukraine, Russia ramped up its disinformation and propaganda capabilities on social media to push false narratives supporting an invasion of Ukraine, talking about the need to “denazify” the country and reporting Ukrainian aggression. At the start of the invasion, Russian state media were quick to reframe the conflict; blaming their brutality in Mariupol on neo-Nazis “hiding behind civilians like a human shield”; attacking an area with a nuclear complex pretending to protect it; saying that it was Ukraine, not Russia, that had indiscriminately attacked residential neighborhoods in Kharkiv; and more. Although the Ukrainian government has not actively launched comparable mis/disinformation efforts, some war stories, such as the confrontation at Snake Island and the Ghost of kyiv, have skirted the boundaries of fact and fiction.
Outside of the two countries, global citizens have also flooded social media with stories of destruction from other conflicts in recent weeks, including Russia’s previous annexation of Crimea, the ongoing conflict in Syria, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, etc., which makes it difficult for the average online user to know the authenticity of the content they see. Supporters of America’s far-right have also been involved in spreading misinformation, including debunked plots of US-funded biolabs in Ukraine that Russia invaded to take over.
As the Russian-Ukrainian conflict continues, social media platforms, such as Meta and Twitter, have identified and declassified inauthentic activities and campaigns. While these companies have sought to increase moderation of their content, they have also been criticized for not acting faster on potentially harmful content. For example, Facebook has been criticized for failing to root out US-funded biolab plots in Ukraine promoted by Russian and Chinese state media, and for ignoring misinformation in Spanish. In response to misinformation on Tik Tok, the Biden-Harris administration has recently stepped in to prepare influencers for their biggest questions regarding ongoing events in Ukraine.
With much of the activity taking place on private platforms, the broad debate is expected to focus on the greater responsibility of private tech companies to step up their fast-moving event content moderation strategies, and whether governments should provide more oversight. Examining the proactive role the EU played in the immediate banning of Russian media suggests a role for the government, but also sets a new precedent for the management of technology at this time.
Here in the United States, political battles have raged over the monopolistic and deceptive controls that platform companies exercise in our democracy, especially via social media. While the slight increase in the platform’s removal of divisive content has been beneficial in disarming unnecessary divisiveness, it requires further investigation into whether these private online companies should be solely responsible for making such decisions. , especially in real time during international crises. Or should social media companies consider government input under First Amendment limitations in setting standards for content hosted on their platforms?
Along with the increased use of social media, the availability and use of internet backhaul has been a key aspect of this international conflict. Following Russia’s invasion, Ukraine asked ICANN and the RIPE NCC, two key internet organizations tasked with maintaining the core technologies that allow the world’s computers to communicate with each other, to shut down internet services Russians from the rest of the world. Both organizations ultimately refused Ukraine’s request, saying that despite the war, their primary missions were to facilitate communications, not to restrict access to parts of the Internet. Similar calls from Ukrainian officials and activists for Cloudflare and Akamai, two key web infrastructure and webpage content delivery companies, to cease operations in Russia have also been rebuffed. Echoing the sentiments of ICANN and RIPE, both companies said they would continue to operate in Russia so that ordinary Russians can continue to receive a secure way to access open and accurate information about the conflict.
Private infrastructure actors have also played unexpected roles in this conflict. Billionaire SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has responded to calls to quickly deliver Starlink satellite internet access terminals to Ukraine. Although Ukrainian usage of the service is currently unknown, the companion app used to access the internet became the most downloaded app in the country in March 2022. In response to efforts to boost backhaul and internet connectivity, Russian forces reportedly attempted to jam signals from satellite terminals. Similarly, a cyberattack on Viasat, a satellite internet service provider and Western defense contractor, which occurred in the early hours of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, attempted to permanently disable terminals access in Ukraine and other parts of Europe, with some success.
While cyber experts had anticipated widespread cyberattacks from Russia, the country had only carried out limited attacks on Ukraine’s communications infrastructure and the scale was small. This demonstrated the limits of cyber warfare in modern warfare, showing that warfare will remain physical and bloody. Wartime infrastructure issues will also continue to focus on who should and should not have access to international resources to stay connected, even if some type of compromise is reached between the two countries. And with private sector companies becoming emboldened to respond to Internet connectivity sabotages, growing national security concerns surrounding these new developments will continue to surface.
Following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, many Western companies began to pull out of the country. Western tech companies have also limited their operations in Russia and imposed restrictions on what Russian internet users can do on their platforms. For example, YouTube blocked all Russian state media globally, while TikTok blocked users in Russia from posting on the platform. In return, Russia blocked access to Facebook, Twitter and Instagram in retaliation for actions taken by the platforms. The country has also passed a law criminalizing the uploading of “false information” regarding the invasion of Ukraine.
As Russia’s internet isolation grows, many have begun to wonder if the Kremlin will create controls similar to China’s Great Firewall. While the Kremlin was able to establish surveillance filters and trigger short-term internet blackouts, the transition from a free internet to a more restricted internet could be difficult. Russia’s attempt to ban Telegram in 2018 was largely ineffectual, an order that even government officials failed to heed. Already, VPN usage in Russia has increased in recent weeks, while government attempts to block external access have had limited success. Either way, these developments raise important questions going forward about the role of a free and open internet in times of global conflict, and how authoritarian countries may attempt to co-opt sovereignty over their space. digital, resulting in increased online political propaganda or further restrictions on human rights. rights and other freedoms.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine has raised many important questions about the role of technology and the tough decisions that need to be made to ensure openness and accessibility for citizens. In the past, wartime decisions to disable power or financial grids passed through the hands of the government and the military. Now, the content of social media and internet infrastructure is left in the hands of these private actors, adding another dimension to diplomatic decision-making. This can result in two potential pathways. The first will strengthen the closed Internet architecture and communication systems that contribute to global unrest. The other will enable information exchanges that condone both passive and overt acts of aggression, while engaging the public in the outside world as observers. As Congress debates national arguments about the role of technology in democracy, it may wish to reflect on what it means to democratize Internet governance and hold corporations accountable for decisions made during this international crisis.
Thanks to James Seddon for research assistance.
Facebook and Google are general, unrestricted donors to the Brookings Institution. The findings, interpretations and conclusions published in this article are solely those of the authors and are not influenced by any donation.