In Russia’s short, brutal invasion of Ukraine, one of the most iconic images has been Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky standing defiantly in front of the presidency building, flanked by his senior aides, telling the world, “We are here. We are in Kyiv. We are protecting Ukraine.” The video has served as a rallying cry for Ukrainian citizens and has galvanized Western democracies in support of Zelensky’s beleaguered government. As Megan Garber writes, “statecraft, often, is stagecraft,” and Zelensky “understands that better than most.”
Twenty years ago, Zelensky’s bold missive against Russian imperialism might not have made it past narrow foreign ministry corridors. Certainly, its millions of views and ensuing global outrage would not have been possible. But Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has turned into a watershed moment for digital platforms and internet technology.
It is true that this is not the first time social media has played an influential role in shaping wartime perceptions. Many experts consider the 2012 Israel-Gaza conflict to be the world’s first “Twitter war”—Israel announced its offensive on social media, and throughout the conflict, Hamas and Israel used social media to rally world opinion to their sides. Subsequent years have seen warring actors progressively incorporate social media into conflict narratives, from ISIS spreading fear and mobilizing supporters through social media broadcasts of extreme violence to Armenian and Azerbaijani authorities using social media during the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh conflict to highlight their positions, mobilize domestic populations, and provide updates to the conflict.
But the role of digital platforms in the Russia-Ukraine war is proving to be especially unique.
Even before the start of the invasion, photos, videos, and satellite imagery of Russian tanks and armed units were disseminated widely on social media, undermining claims by Russian President Vladimir Putin that he was simply amassing troops for military exercises. In one notable example, researchers from the Middlebury Institute of International Studies noticed a “traffic jam” on Google Maps (generated from civilian smartphones sending location data to Google servers) caused by Russian armor on the highway linking Belgorod, Russia, to the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv. Further detail about the Russian mobilization could be found on TikTok, where onlookers “uploaded hundreds of videos showing sophisticated Russian weaponry and military vehicles speeding by on railways, highways and local roads toward positions near Ukraine,” according to reporting in the Washington Post.
Ukraine subsequently leveraged social media to make a compelling case against the Russian incursion and to rally global publics against Putin. Ukrainians have used memes (such as the “Ghost of Kiev” ace fighter pilot), slogans, and humor to mock and humiliate Russia and to boost Ukrainian citizens’ morale.
But perhaps the most crucial digital technology moment came from a simple device: internet-enabled video conferencing. Near the end of Sunday’s major EU summit meeting about the war, Zelensky appeared by videoconference to plead for assistance with the assembled heads of state. As one European official described the call, “it was extremely, extremely emotional. . . . He was essentially saying, ‘Look, we are here dying for European ideals.’” Zelensky ended the video call by stating that this could be the last time the leaders saw him alive. His appeal led to the imposition of draconian sanctions intended to bring the Russian economy to a standstill.
These efforts have given rise to what the Washington Post deems “the most Internet-accessible war in history,” and U.S. tech companies have been at the forefront, cracking down on Russian disinformation and propaganda. Twitter announced it will label all content coming from Russian government media outlets as such. Meta and TikTok are blocking access to Russian state media in the EU, following a request from EU members. Google, YouTube, and Facebook are prohibiting Russian state media from running ads. And the restrictions extend beyond social media to the broader tech sector: Apple has suspended all product sales in Russia, SpaceX has delivered a truckload of Starlink satellite dishes to help Ukraine maintain internet connectivity, and Microsoft has played an active role assisting Ukraine and NATO members in counteracting Russian cyber attacks. To be sure, Russian disinformation efforts have not completely stalled, and tamping down Russia’s disinformation machine remains a work in progress. But it is hard to imagine that these companies would have taken equivalent actions to counter Russian aggression if they were headquartered in nondemocracies rather than in the United States.
Indeed, amid growing pressure to crack down on Big Tech’s dominance, U.S. firms have argued that there is an intrinsic national security value to allowing American companies to maintain market dominance in their sectors. Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg, for example, has asserted that breaking up Big Tech would relinquish control of a major American lever of geopolitical influence. Many argue that Zuckerberg is making use of theoretical Chinese threats to unjustly protect Meta’s excessive market power, but in the context of Russia’s invasion, Zuckerberg’s arguments appear slightly sounder.
Some commentators claim that an unintended consequence of Russia’s war—and tech companies’ responses—has been to accelerate the fracturing of the internet, leading to a wider split in internet governance. In this respect, they are only partially correct. Internet fragmentation is a very real trend, but it predates the Russia conflict by a considerable margin. As I wrote in 2021, democracies as well as autocracies are imposing increased internet controls, leading to the creation of so-called splinternet jurisdictions with distinctive restrictions of online content and user behavior. In addition to classic authoritarian states like China, Iran, and Russia, an emerging group of countries—such as Brazil, India, Nigeria, and Turkey—are enacting new internet regulations in accordance with their sovereign interests, even if they contravene universally accepted norms. The war in Ukraine has merely put a finer point on these developments.
On a more positive note, Russia’s conflict is finally incentivizing Western governments to coalesce around shared principles to preserve democracy. Technology reporter Casey Newton notes that misinformation often requires “a holistic response to the challenge. Well, here is a holistic response to the challenge! And I imagine it could be quite effective.” The United States, the EU, and their allies are drawing much clearer lines about acceptable content and platform responsibilities to stand up to authoritarian disinformation and deceptive messaging. Consequently, Russian propaganda outlet RT has lost most of its access to Western information markets. Other peddlers of Russian disinformation, such as Sputnik News, have been similarly banned from major platforms—and even from Apple’s app store—representing a significant defeat for Russia’s information operations.
Russia’s invasion has shown the power of internet platforms to elevate democratic voices and undercut authoritarian agendas. But they are not substitutes for diplomatic or military action; in the short term, they can do little to stop Putin’s war machine from inflicting violence and brutality on the Ukrainian people. In the longer term, the incapacity of Russia’s digital propaganda machine and the corresponding global outrage provoked by social media against Putin’s assault will bring grave consequences for Russia’s interests. The Russia-Ukraine crisis affords internet platforms a unique opportunity to demonstrate how they can support democracy and advance the public interest. This will mean staying firm against Russian pressure even when Moscow directly threatens their interests and future viability in the country,