Twitter Joins Ukraine’s War Effort

As military conflict between Ukraine and Russia escalates, so do fears of an unprecedented and destructive cyber war. Western technology firms have begun restricting Russia’s access to money and audience, while Western governments and media platforms have been removing Russian TV channels. 

Now,Twitter has entered the conflict and says that it won’t show advertising in Russia and Ukraine and also will curb tweet recommendations that appear in users’ timelines from accounts that they don’t already follow, in an effort to limit the spread of misleading and abusive content

In Ukraine the Digital Minister Mykhailo Fedorov is working from an underground shelter in Kyiv waging a digital war on Russia and has opened a new front in the fight against Russia. Using his preferred weapon, social media, Mykhailo Fedorov has been urging chief executives of big businesses to cut ties with Moscow. He's also taken the unprecedented move of setting up a volunteer "IT Army of Ukraine" to launch cyber-attacks against "the enemy".

 As 31 year old millennial, Fedorov has shaped his government role around his life-style, he lives through and on his mobile phone. Before the war, his main goal was to create a "state in a smartphone", where 100% of government services would be offered online. Now that project is on hold, with every muscle strained on the digital war effort.

In particular, he has been busy bringing pressure to bear on leading multinational companies to boycott Russia. Apple, Google, Meta, Twitter, YouTube, Microsoft, Sony and Oracle have all been included in an official government information campaign.

Fedorov  posts his letters on social media so the world can see, plus some of the replies. It's impossible to say whether this has influenced the companies' actions, but most have changed their policy towards Russia in subsequent days - either stopping products being sold there, like Apple, or halting operations. PayPal recently said on Twitter that it was suspending services in Russia  before it was reported in the media. So too did news that Samsung and Nvidia are stopping all business with Russia, something he publicly called for on his social feeds.

One tweet from Fedorov to Elon Musk soon after the invasion began brought quick results. Within 48 hours the billionaire tech mogul had adjusted his constellation of Starlink satellites and sent a shipment of Internet-ready terminals to Ukraine. The service is a potential lifeline for the government if Internet and telecommunication networks are damaged or destroyed, though Musk has since warned that the satellite dishes could become a target for Russian missiles and should be used with care.

Fedorov has more than half a million followers in total across Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Telegram and uses them all to get his message across. "Each platform is very important to us now and we are using every opportunity to attract large companies to this horror happening now in Ukraine. We are trying to bring the truth to the Russians and make them protest against the war," he told the BBC via email. He speaks mostly in Ukrainian online, but since the crisis unfolded he's switched to English on Twitter, where he is having the most impact. "Twitter has become an efficient tool that we are using to counter Russian military aggression. It's our smart and peaceful tool to destroy Russian economy," he says.

Using persuasive skills to create and promote Ukraine's propaganda message is a highly effective  tactic of warfare. But since social media companies entered the equation in the 2000s "they have changed the calculus due to the speed and breadth with which people can disseminate their messages". 

The Ukrainian government officially welcomes illegal cyber attacks on Russia from all groups, including the Anonymous hacking collective, because "the world order changed on 24 February" when the invasion started.

Hacking is also being carried out against Ukraine by people on Russian’s side, but currently Russia seems to be coming off worse. “President Vladimir Putin has plunged Russia into an information dark age by criminalising independent reporting of his war in Ukraine. Mention of the word “invasion” in a report could now get a journalist sent to jail for years”, says Robert Mahoney Executive Director of Committee to Protect Journalists.

Coinciding with its invasion of Ukraine, Russia has unleashed a lot of smaller hacks, starting in January when more than 70 Ukrainian websites were defaced and separate cyber attacks knocked out government websites including the ministry of foreign affairs and the education ministry.

While these attacks have been “significant and unprecedented”, according to Aaron Turner of US cyber security firm Vectra Networks, they have “not yet been catastrophic”. That is largely because no international power yet wants to be the one to be responsible for inititiating  in cyber third world war.  “We have most likely reached a sort of detente, where both sides understand that catastrophic cyber attacks will most likely result in mutually assured destruction of systems,” Turner said

FedorovMykhailov / Twitter:   Nieman Lab:    BBC:    Guardian:    LiveMint:    Independent:     NDTV:   

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