Laptop generals and bot armies: The digital front of Russia’s Ukraine war


Digital technology plays a key role in the armed conflict in Ukraine – as a tool for cyberattacks and digital protest, and as an accelerator for information and disinformation.

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Digital technology plays a key role in the Russian war against Ukraine – as a tool for cyberattacks and digital protest, and as an accelerator for flows of information and disinformation.

The battlefields of this war are on land, in the air and at sea in Ukraine – but they are also online, from where they can easily extend to multiple fronts. In the weeks and days before the Russian advance, Ukrainian government, military and financial websites were hit by two distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks, which overwhelm websites with false information requests. A data-wiping malware, which prevents computers from rebooting, was found on hundreds of computers in Ukraine and has affected Ukrainian government contractors in Lithuania and Latvia. The U.S. and UK governments and others attributed these attacks to Russia.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has unleashed immeasurable human suffering and it has ended the post-Cold War era, ushering in a new era of military, political and economic conflict. In all dimensions of this conflict, digital technology plays a key role – as a tool for cyberattacks and digital protest, and as an accelerator for flows of information and disinformation.

Experts expressed surprise that Russian attacks so far have been less sophisticated than expected, considering that the current war was planned long in advance and that Ukraine has suffered regular Russian hacking operations for almost a decade. But others warn that Putin may yet release his full cyber arsenal on Western countries in retaliation against the sanctions that have cut Russia off from international financial markets, by partially excluding the country from the international SWIFT financial messaging system, and by freezing Russian Central Bank assets in the United States.

“If Russia pursues cyberattacks against our companies, our critical infrastructure, we’re prepared to respond,” U.S. president Joe Biden said last Thursday. The White House pushed back on an NBC report that it had discussed options for pre-emptive cyber strikes with business leaders.

Ukraine: “We are creating an IT army”

Ukrainians, too, are prepared to fight the cyberwar, with all the outside help they can get. Several EU countries have activated a Cyber Rapid Response Team to help defend Ukraine, consisting of Lithuania, Croatia, Estonia, the Netherlands, Poland and Romania. The project is sponsored by the EU’s Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) defense and security initiative. Tesla CEO Elon Musk activated Space X’s Starlink satellites to provide stable internet to Ukraine even during power outages. Google announced that it has disabled some live traffic tools for Ukraine in Google Maps.

Ukraine did not stop at asking governments and global corporations for help. “We are creating an IT army,” vice-prime minister Mykhailo Fedorov announced on Twitter, asking volunteers to help protect critical infrastructure in Ukraine – but also to hack websites of Russia and its allies. More than 200,000 have since subscribed to a dedicated Telegram channel to receive instructions. The chaotic situation has brought a broad variety of actors to the scene, such as the hacker collective Anonymous, which has declared a “cyberwar” on Russia. The decentralized group has claimed responsibility for disruptions of Kremlin websites, and it was connected to reports that state-run Russian TV channels on Sunday had been hacked to broadcast Ukrainian music.

While these subversive acts have received applause on social media, some worry that uncoordinated offensive – rather than defensive – activities  by non-state actors risk setting off unpredictable escalations. The Germany-based Chaos Computer Club (CCC) warned hackers from attacking critical infrastructure – not only because of the dangers to civilian populations but also because it could give Russia’s president Vladimir Putin the option to choose whom to blame and “retaliate” against. “This would get dangerous very quickly since states react with military logic to such attacks,“ CCC spokesman Linus Neumann told the German digital policy news outlet Netzpolitik.

Anonymous and other hacktivists view their actions as a form of digital protest against Russian disinformation, not as attempts to harm the Russian population. „Putin, who uses hacker troops and troll armies against Western democracies, should get a taste of his own bitter medicine,“ the German branch of the Anonymous movement wrote in a blogpost.

Volunteers are not alone in fighting this information war. On Sunday, the European Commission banned Russia’s state-backed media Russia Today and Sputnik from airing in the EU. But the bigger battleground is on social media platforms, where Russian actors have been spreading disinformation and propaganda. Organizations like EU vs. Disinfo, a project of the European External Action Service’s East StratCom Taskforce, as well as the Internet Observatory at Stanford University, have examined and debunked Russian social media narratives that served as the fabricated pretexts for the attack on Ukraine.

“The justification for Russia’s war was built on Facebook”

As in other violent conflicts in recent years, the spotlight is on Facebook for allowing these actors to polarize public opinion by dividing users in like-minded “herds,” as whisteblower Frances Haugen said last week. The platform has now blocked access to some accounts of Russian state-run media outlets, and both Facebook and Google-owned YouTube have blocked these media from advertising globally. Twitter has suspended all advertising in Russia and Ukraine. Russia had partially restricted access to Facebook on Friday. According to Facebook’s parent company Meta this was in retaliation to the company’s refusal to stop fact-checking posts by state-owned Russian media.

According to critics, Facebook and others are not doing enough. According to the Center on Countering Digital Hate, Facebook is failing to label the majority of Russian propaganda. “The justification for the Russian war against Ukraine was built on Facebook,” the organization’s Chief Executive Iman Ahmed wrote on Tech Policy Press. Users are also experiencing the limitations of content moderation practices. On Friday, journalists at the German newspaper Frankfurter Rundschau reported that trolls and bots were flooding their social media accounts with pro-Putin messages. They could not manage this attack because Facebook limits the amount of comments that can be deleted to 10,000 per day.

Putin’s war in Ukraine is only the latest example of the dangers of a social media business model that rewards divisive content. Algorithmic promotion and monetization of such content has played a role in the persecution of the Rohingya minority in Myanmar, the storming of the U.S. capitol by an angry mob unwilling to accept Donald Trump’s election defeat on January 6, 2021, and in a vocal anti-science movement during the Covid-19 pandemic. The catastrophic events in Ukraine add to the urgency to the EU’s plan to regulate these platforms in the Digital Services and Digital Markets Acts. But until then, citizens have to rely on their own judgement to tell right from wrong amid an overwhelming real-time information current (see here for a guide on what you can do).

Propaganda has been a part of war since the beginning of history, but never before could it be so widely spread beyond an actual conflict area and targeted to so many different audiences (see the article “Russia lies in four directions” as well as a Tech Policy Press interview with its author Clint Watts). “CNN brought once-distant wars into our living rooms, but TikTok and YouTube and Twitter have put them in our pockets,” writes Veronica Irwin in the Protocol Source Code newsletter. At least in countries with a free internet, the platform economy gives citizens around the world unprecedented access to independent and unfiltered information, such as eyewitness accounts from Ukraine. At the same time, the deluge of fake and harmful content is a powerful reminder that human-made technology is never neutral.