Four years ago, during a visit to Kyiv, I bumped into some officials from Jigsaw, a research and development unit at Google’s parent Alphabet. I initially assumed they were selling the latest tech innovation. Not so: they had just returned from a risky fact-finding mission on the front lines of the war bubbling in Donbas, Ukraine, to study digital conflict and disinformation.
What they saw left them — and me — alarmed. One reason was that there was already extensive evidence that the Russians were using Ukraine as a laboratory to develop digital warfare, with both cyberhacking and social media manipulation, similar to what was unleashed in the 2016 US elections.
A US military report at the time, entitled “The Little Green Men”, pointed out: “Russian information warfare has emerged as a key component of Russian strategy.” The report’s title reflected the fact that the “unidentified Russian agents” who kept arriving in the Donbas “to organise and lead protests and paramilitary operations” — and then swamp the internet with manipulated material — were locally called “little green men”.
The other cause for alarm was that Ukrainian soldiers and civilians who spoke with the Jigsaw team seemed ill-equipped to fight those cyber attacks. “You had these soldiers with a few Sim cards on cheap phones but it was very unsophisticated. It felt like no match at all,” Yasmin Green, a Jigsaw official, recalls. Alphabet later offered digital tools to Ukraine, such as Project Shield, to help citizen groups counter cyber attacks that suppress or distort information. (Shield works by thwarting the denial of service attacks used by hackers.) Although the tech giants did not manage to do what digital critics wanted most, namely take down all the misinformation themselves.
Today, the world’s attention is focused on the bloody tragedy of the physical war in Ukraine. But, as the Alphabet team noted, a second fight has long taken place in cyberspace. And there the Ukrainians appear to have triumphed in a way that has astonished many outsiders.
One sign is that the Russians do not seem to have launched many successful cyber attacks (yet). Another is that in the information war, those digital “little green men” are missing in action: although disinformation is intensifying in Russia, it is more muted elsewhere.
Instead, Ukraine has deftly neutered Russian information attacks almost everywhere (except in a few places, such as Russia itself). It has also launched a successful information onslaught of its own, carefully segmented for different audiences. The population, for example, has been receiving morale-boosting, timely content designed to foster resistance and unity. Check out this week’s inspirational video messages of “ordinary” citizens getting married on the front lines.
Ukraine has also tried to push content into Russia, in spite of its controls. The RF200 Telegram channel, say, shows videos of captured Russian soldiers, as a piece of not-so-subtle information warfare. Meanwhile a blitz of English-language content has emerged that is targeting western audiences too. My favourite are the posts from Kira Rudik, a telegenic parliamentarian who has amassed a vast audience talking about life in her former shoe cupboard turned bomb shelter.
Is this content always accurate? No: there is cheerleading aplenty. Nor does it always abide by global norms. Amnesty International says the videos of Russian soldiers breach the Third Geneva Convention, which is supposed to protect prisoners of war against “insults and public curiosity”.
But the key point is that Kyiv has dominated the messaging war. That is startling given how successful Russian disinformation and manipulation campaigns were in the past decade, not just in eastern Ukraine — but in places such as America too. As Green at Jigsaw observes: “When I think of what I saw in 2018 and what has happened now, I feel quite choked up.”
What explains the turnabout? One explanation is that cyber and disinformation attacks work best during “grey” (or undeclared) wars; when fully fledged conflict erupts they become less important. No amount of propaganda is going to win the hearts and minds of a population sheltering from missiles. Another may be that Ukraine president Volodymyr Zelensky, along with some of his advisers, once ran a television production company, so he knows why content creation matters in today’s world.
But I suspect that a third clue is the reason why Alphabet was in Ukraine in the first place: the long-running war in Donbas made Ukrainian officials acutely aware of the country’s vulnerabilities — and keen to address them with any outside expertise they could find.
After several years of both kinetic and digital war, they were battle-hardened. That experience also taught them something important: fighting misinformation requires unified political will, not least because, as Jigsaw CEO Jared Cohen puts it: “There isn’t a simple technological solution to [disinformation].” Other countries with less political will should take note, including those in the west.
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