A War of Digital Firsts

The War in Ukraine has been substantially impacted by digital technologies. In fact, it has been a war of many digital firsts, and there is little doubt that Ukraine’s innovative use of digital technologies will alter the nature of modern conflict. Ukraine’s approach during the war has not rested on employing new technologies but, rather, on using existing technologies in innovative ways. Moreover, the Ukrainian government is not the only actor to employ technologies in new ways. Media actors and social media networks have also proven innovative during this war. In this blog post I review a few of these “digital firsts”.

First use of Zoom by a besieged head of state– Since that War in Ukraine started, President Zelenskyy has been active on social media spreading videos and messages of hope from the besieged city of Kiev. These videos are far more than mere rallying cries for Ukrainians- so long as Zelenskyy tweets Ukraine remains unconquered and Russia cannot declare victory. Yet over the past week Zelenskyy has also used Zoom in a way unseen before. In one instance, Zelenskyy addressed protests in several European capitals. In another, he used Zoom to brief US members of Congress and both houses of the British Parliament. The old days in which a besieged President could be cut off from the world by another state have ended. Russia’s attack on television building and infrastructure have proven ineffective in the age of smartphones and Zoom.  

Both the BBC and Twitter join the DarkWeb– Recent legislation in Russia has made it a criminal offense to negatively depict it’s violent actions in Ukraine. This has prompted media institutions such as the BCC and the New York Times to evacuate their journalists from Russia. Moreover, Russia has blocked access to key social media sites such as Twitter, while social media sites have sanctioned Russia by deleting accounts spreading propaganda. The problem is that these have all led to a reality in which Russians cannot access information that may negate state narratives. For the first time ever, both the BBC and Twitter have moved to the DarkWeb, which may still be accessible to tech savvy Russians. This is an important shift given that the DarkWeb is often used for crime.

Activists in Lithuania create an anti War hotline– A global group of IT experts, headed by individuals in Vilnius, have created a database of 40 million Russian telephone numbers. This group invites Russian-speaking volunteers to access the database and use it to phone Russians and dispel Kremlin propaganda. This is but one more attempt to fracture the Russian government’s tight control over communications in the country. By accessing the www.callrussia.org website, volunteers can be assigned a phone number in Russia, while also given practical advice on how to present Russians with information that negates state narratives.  

New virtual diplomatic protocol– Throughout the War in Ukraine, leaders and foreign ministers have relied on Zoom and virtual platforms to coordinate joint action. While NATO leaders and foreign ministers also meet physically, Zoom has become central to the managing this crisis that involves many states and organizations such as the EU. It now seems that America has created a new diplomatic protocol for such Zoom meetings. A recent tweet showed President Biden virtually meeting with his German, British and French counterparts. Importantly, the image shows the flags of all four nations. This new diplomatic protocol is part of the increased digitalization of diplomacy and crisis management.

Moldova crowdfunds support for Ukraine refugees– Since the beginning of the War, Ukraine has been crowdfunding its efforts. Many ministers, and ministries, have shared national bank accounts on Twitter  while the Minister of Digital Transformation announced that Ukraine is also accepting donations in crypto-currency. Other nations have followed suit. For the first time, Moldova is crowdfunding its support of Ukrainian refugees. The Moldovan ministry of finance opened an account for global donations. Here again is the use of existing technology, such as Twitter, yet in novel ways.

Ukrainian Minister of Defense calls for discretion– Throughout the War, news pundits, journalists, academics and activists have tweeted about possible arms shipments into Ukraine. At times activists upload images of such weapons shipments. Other times experts analyze images shared on Twitter while identifying which new weapons are being used by Ukraine’s military. Earlier today, in a digital first, the Ukrainian Minister of Defense urged Twitter users not to do so as they risk sharing sensitive information. While Ukraine has relied on digital publics to carry its messages far and wide, it is now also asking publics not to share too much information.     

Intelligence reports underscore the importance of digital connectivity– Russia has long since realized that the Ukrainian government relies on social media to communicate with the world and offer its own narration of unfolding events. Notably, British intelligence reports, now published regularly on social media, have underscored the importance of digital connectivity in Ukraine. Securing internet connectivity is now almost as important as securing a key road into a city.

Smartphone soldiers– As part of its attempt to highlight military success, Ukrainian military units use smartphones to document successful attacks against Russia’s military. In the video below, shared by activists, a Ukrainian military unit now clearly includes a commander, a group of armed soldiers and one soldier tasked with documenting events on his smartphones. Never before have publics had such frequent and unrestricted access to military units. Notably, these videos are no longer captured or shared by media institutions, but rather serve as a form of unmediated communications between combat units and digital publics.  

This post has reviewed but a few of the digital innovations brought about by the brutal Russian war in Ukraine. Yet these digital firsts will soon be emulated by states, activists and armed groups across the world over. As Hannah Ardent famously stated: everything that has a precedent is destined to be repeated.  I shall be discussing other digital innovations in a special webinar on Tuesday, March 15, at 2 PM UK Time. See details below, and register at this link- https://www.eventbrite.com/e/panel-and-qa-discussion-digitaldiplomacy-and-the-war-in-ukraine-tickets-293638910887

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