In a since-deleted article published on February 26 by the prominent state-owned domestic news agency RIA Novosti entitled “The Recreation of Russia and the New World,” the author laid out a manifesto meant to reflect what was to be a swift and decisive victory over the Ukrainian government:
“Russia is restoring its unity. The tragedy of 1991, the terrible catastrophe in our history, its unnatural dislocation, have all been overcome. Yes, at a great cost, indeed, through the tragic events of what is practically a civil war, because now brothers, divided between the Russian and Ukrainian armies, are still shooting at each other. But there will be no more Ukraine as an anti-Russia. Russia is restoring its historical fullness, uniting the Russian world and the Russian people together in its entirety…If we had abandoned this, if we would have allowed this temporary division to take hold for centuries, then we would not only have betrayed the memory of our ancestors, but would have also been cursed by our descendants for allowing the disintegration of Russian lands.
A multipolar world has finally become a reality – the operation in Ukraine is not capable of rallying anyone but the West against Russia. Because the rest of the world sees and understands perfectly well – this is a conflict between Russia and the West, this is a response to the geopolitical expansion of the Atlanticists, this is Russia’s return of its historical space and its place in the world.”
This, at least in part, delineates the story Vladimir Putin hoped to construct as his casus belli against Volodymyr Zelensky’s democratically elected Ukrainian government. Yet, in the weeks since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Putin’s aim of a fast military incursion has not only been frustrated by significant opposition from the Ukrainian people themselves, but also by the rapid transmission of information (and disinformation) over social media and messaging platforms. These use cases of social media have demonstrated just how much the Internet has altered the ways in which governments and private actors alike can shape global public opinion and project their narratives to the rest of the world.
As these trends continue, the war in Ukraine will likely reverberate at the national and international level, impacting numerous facets of online interactions from social media platform content moderation to the future of Internet governance as a whole. Regardless of how the conflict evolves, these changes will disrupt future attempts by authoritarian governments to control the narrative of conflicts they instigate for years to come.
Following a string of dubious claims meant to justify a military incursion, Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, 2022, with the aim of toppling the country’s Western-leaning government. Moscow has long relied on disinformation, state-controlled media, and censorship to assert the legitimacy of its claim on Ukraine’s territory, dating back well before the invasion of Crimea in 2014. In this current conflict, Russian disinformation campaigns across online platforms have focused on achieving two aims: galvanizing support among Russians at home and pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine and creating dissention abroad to fragment the Western alliance.
Within Russia, Putin has leveraged his government’s control of Russia’s domestic Internet to severely hinder the free flow of information online while propagating his own narrative, which paints the invasion of Ukraine as a defensive “military operation” that ultimately serves the purpose of protecting Ukrainians who have been victims of Western-fuelled aggression. Abroad, Russian actors have uploaded doctored videos showing Russian military victories and Ukrainian surrenders to demoralize the opposition and confound and divide would-be international opponents in the hopes of deterring a united response. Domestically, Russian censorship has reached such meta levels that even fact-checking purported Ukrainian disinformation reported on Russian state television has in turn been proven fake.
What Putin may not have accounted for was the opposition’s adept ability to turn these tools against Russia and spin their own narrative. Ukraine has expertly marshalled modern social media to raise international awareness and draw condemnation of the invasion. President Zelensky has frequently posted videos of himself and his cabinet on the streets of Kyiv to bolster morale, and his government has constructed its own viral content, such as clips of Zelensky signing a formal application to join the European Union (EU) and impassioned speeches by the Ukrainian Ambassador to the United Nations.
Forces opposing Russia’s invasion have also spread their own disinformation. Stories posted on Twitter of the fabled “Panther of Kharkiv” and “Ghost of Kyiv” have been proven to be hoaxes, and claims that Ukrainian border patrol officers shown defiantly yelling obscenities at an approaching Russian warship had been killed were also later found to be false. Misleading content has also at times been at odds with the narrative Ukraine has sought to build itself. A clip purporting to show Zelensky having coffee and meeting with soldiers after the invasion, for example, turned out to have been taken beforehand.
How the War in Ukraine Could Shape Online Platform Regulation
As disinformation has exploded on online platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, Telegram, and others, it has become more apparent than ever to Western governments how little power they could exercise over Big Tech companies to compel them to remove content. In the days following the invasion of Ukraine, social media platforms reacted cautiously as government officials from the Baltics and Poland publicly pleaded for them to do more to control the spread of Russian propaganda. Some companies responded to this call: Twitter announced it would mark Russian state-affiliated media and Facebook began taking down state-sponsored Russian content more aggressively from its platform. However, Putin ultimately had the final say by unilaterally blocking access to them in Russia.
These events will likely galvanize countries’ efforts to pursue legislation to regulate and censor online platforms to prevent such a compromising situation from ever happening again. Social media reform has been the subject of a longstanding debate in the West for years. The EU’s Digital Services Act, which was originally proposed in 2019, would require the largest tech companies to, among other obligations, extensively disclose information regarding their content moderation processes and suspend users that frequently post illegal content.
In the United States, there have been multiple attempts at amending Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which provides a legal liability shield that protects online companies from facing legal repercussions from illegal content that users post on their platforms. Most of these attempts have failed to make significant headway, but there is a newfound push to pass the EARN IT Act of 2022, which creates an exception to Section 230 for the “advertisement, promotion, presentation, distribution, or solicitation of child sexual abuse material.”
Regulatory conversations regarding encrypted messaging apps (EMAs) are also likely to resurface in the wake of the war in Ukraine. The conflict has highlighted how EMAs with end-to-end encryption, such as Whatsapp and Signal, can be used to amplify truthful narratives while also potentially serving as vectors for disinformation, as content shared across encrypted platforms cannot be moderated or censored. Encryption thereby represents a double-edged sword, and while it can provide crucial protections for the sensitive data of journalists and activists, combating fake news spread on encrypted platforms continues to be difficult despite the attempts of public and private-sector anti-disinformation campaigns, or changes to the platforms by their own operators.
Regardless of what its net affect might be, the central role of encryption in this conflict is undeniable, making it an important topic of consideration for countries as they seek to rein in Big Tech. That could add credence towards passing laws like the EARN IT Act, which includes language that would effectively make tech companies civilly liable for employing encryption on their platforms and services.
Beyond the many other potential consequences that could follow online platform regulation, it is likely that the social media ecosystem will ultimately become an unfriendlier place to authoritarian governments following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The increased scrutiny brought by recent events has highlighted the need for Big Tech to better police their platforms, with a particular emphasis on non-English content. Even if companies are unwilling take up the mantle themselves, the war in Ukraine has only increased the likelihood that proposed regulations in the West will pass, in turn pushing operators of online platforms to increase visibility and due diligence towards curbing the spread of disinformation.
The Silent Battle for International Internet Governance
While social media hampered Vladimir Putin’s ability to control the narrative on the war in Ukraine in the short-run, his decision to invade could have long-term effects on the ability of authoritarian governments to control online information flows and the broader future of Internet governance. Long before its annexation of Crimea, Russia—and China–have been waging a silent war against the United States and its allies over how the Internet should be governed on a global scale.
At the international level, the US has for decades been the leading advocate of a global Internet operated under a “multistakeholder model” led and managed by industry experts and generally free from political, top-down government interference. Conversely, Russia and China support what they call a “multilateral model,” where the nation-state has key control over the management of Internet protocol (IP) networks, monitoring and controlling what the general public sees and hears.
The battle between these two ideological approaches has been on full display for several years at the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), an expert body of the United Nations. The Geneva-based body oversees the development of technical standards and regulations for networks and devices, assists developing nations improve their connectivity, and serves as the global registry of frequency spectrum for both terrestrial and satellite networks.
Whereas the multistakeholder model seeks to keep the ITU as a single piece of a broader mosaic of international Internet regulation, an opposing bloc of countries headed by China and Russia has sought to consolidate authority over Internet governance under the ITU, thereby excluding other independent stakeholders and making it easier for nation states to control their domestic Internet space.
China’s Zhao Houlin has been Secretary General of the ITU since 2015, and during his tenure, has significantly influenced the direction of Internet governance towards greater consolidation under that body. At the ITU’s upcoming 2022 Plenipotentiary Conference (PP-22) this September in Bucharest, the UN body will convene its highest policymaking body to elect a new Secretary General.
As fate would have it, the two candidates for the job are from the U.S. and Russia.
Hence a great ideological duel was to take place this Fall, with the winner slated to have a significant influence on the direction of Internet governance on the international stage that would percolate down to regional groups such as Latin America’s CITEL and the African Telecommunications Union (ATU) before impacting states themselves. But before that fight could begin, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine may have nipped its election prospects in the bud.
A strong sign of Russia’s dwindling chances of at the ITU Secretary-Generalship came on the first day of an important precursor event to PP-22, the 2022 World Telecommunication Standardization Assembly (WTSA-20). During this conference, it was decided that Russia would be barred from election to any position in ITU study groups and all vice chair positions at WTSA-20 itself. Following suit, the European Conference of Postal and Telecommunication Administrations (CEPT), a body which coordinates efforts by European state telecommunications and postal organizations including at the ITU, might also be looking to remove Russia from the regional group. These decisions are important bellwethers for Russia’s chances at winning the ITU election later this year.
Barring unforeseen geopolitical developments, Russia will likely remain isolated from the international telecommunications community for the foreseeable future. Without a Russian victory at the ITU, China will also find it much more difficult to push for greater government control of the Internet, making it harder to curtail the spread of information on social media platforms. In the meantime, many experts are focused on the upcoming World Telecommunication Development Conference (WTDC) in Kigali, Rwanda in June, which could offer more insights ahead of the election at PP-22.
For now though, Vladimir Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine may have backfired far more than he realizes, with rippling consequences for both Moscow and other authoritarian governments seeking to control their own narratives likely to take shape for years to come.
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