Social Media and War
This post will discuss the role that social media are playing in the conflict in Ukraine. We will not start, however, with what is happening today in the streets of Kyiv, but with what happened 10 years ago in the Middle East, during the so-called Arab Spring. That was the first time that people around the world were able to access, in real time, high-quality pictures and videos of war events taken from mobile phones. Previously, media depictions of such events were primarily provided by governments and traditional outlets in highly edited form. Occasionally, smuggled pictures or videos might emerge, but those too would go through the editorial filter of traditional media – journals, magazines or TV – which, ultimately, were in charge of distributing them to the public. In 2011, for the first time, what was happening in Egypt, Tunisia or Libya could be witnessed by anyone with a laptop or phone without any editorial filter from the New York Times or the BBC. Equally importantly, anyone with a laptop or phone could rapidly share and re-tweet those images, once again bypassing traditional channels of distribution. Big Tech companies quickly seized the opportunity to generate the myth of a “Facebook Revolution” or “Twitter Revolution”, presenting themselves as platforms for political resistance and activism.
As we now know, this picture turned out to be not quite accurate. Since 2011, bot armies and troll farms have proliferated on social media, providing support to authoritarian regimes and undermining trust in democratic institutions. The assessment of the exact role played by companies like Facebook in this process is obviously complex, but it’s safe to say that if the goal was to develop “the social infrastructure for community – for supporting us, for keeping us safe, for informing us, for civic engagement, and for inclusion of all”, then something must have gone wrong at some point. The picture painted by media experts is certainly more sobering, with some arguing that if we tried to design a media system to support authoritarian leaders, we would be hard pressed to come up with something more effective than Facebook (Vaidhyanathan 2018).
It was clear from the beginning of the war in Ukraine that the impact of social media in this conflict would be very significant, even more so than during the Arab Spring.
Cut now to 2022 and to what’s happening in the streets of Kyiv. It was clear from the beginning of the war in Ukraine that the impact of social media in this conflict would be very significant, even more so than during the Arab Spring. This is for three reasons. One is that the number of social media users has grown exponentially since 2011. (The number of Facebook users has triplicated, for example.) Secondly, and more importantly, it is now much more common to access news contents via social media than via newspapers or tv. Whereas social media were initially used primarily for entertainment and to socialize, today they are for most people the main access point to the news. Indeed, while traditional media obviously continue to operate, they now need to present their content in a format that can be easily reposted and shared via social media if they want to reach their intended audience. So, the content produced by traditional media outlets is also ultimately accessed via Facebook, Twitter or YouTube. Finally, it is now customary for politicians and public figures to use social media to communicate directly with their supporters. Zelensky has repeatedly done this during the conflict, frequently posting short videos on Facebook meant to show that him and his cabinet are still in Kyiv and alive.
Unsurprisingly, Russia has tried hard to silence social media, so as to take control of the narrative of the war. Soon after Russia invaded Ukraine, Facebook and Instagram were shut-down in Russia, and access to Twitter was restricted. This process, however, has been only partially successful. Some of these companies have bypassed Russia’s block by launching privacy-protected sites on the dark web – a response that poses a serious problem for Putin, since it interferes with his effort to control the perception of the conflict at home, which in turn affects the ability of the Russian government to pursue its plans. This point is very important. We know that there are strong reasons to avoid a direct military intervention from the West in Ukraine, in light of the fact that Putin could resort to employing chemical and even nuclear weapons. Because of that, the most promising way to end to the conflict at the moment seems to be a scenario in which Putin loses the support of his own people. Being unable to control social media at home is one of the most significant threats to him on that front.
The way in which social media are currently allowed to operate has the potential to significantly weaken international peace and security.
In light of this, it’s tempting to see social media, once again, as a force for good. They provide direct access to the brutality of the human rights violations being perpetrated in war zones, which is essential to mobilize both the local and the international community in response to humanitarian emergencies, and they have the capacity to disrupt the control that autocrats like Putin try to impose on the narrative of the events at home. Surely this role is to be welcomed? We should be careful, however, not to slide back into the rhetoric that accompanied the Arab Spring, which enabled Big Tech multinationals to brand themselves as platforms for activism and resistance. Here, I will limit myself to flagging two worries.
One is related to the fact that strategically important decisions that will have a significant impact on how the conflict unfolds are made by the CEOs of these multinationals, rather than by democratic governments. The problem is that whereas the declared goal of democratic governments is to preserve peace and security, the declared goal of CEOs is to maximize profit for their shareholders. So, one question we must ask is how much freedom companies like Facebook and Twitter should have in making decisions that are likely to have a such a momentous impact on the conflict, given that their mission is ultimately to make a profit rather than protect human rights. To the extent that decisions about the form of their current presence, if any, in Russia are likely to affect the outcome of the war, should these decisions be left entirely in the hands of Big Tech CEOs?
The second worry relates not to the role that social media are currently playing in the conflict, but rather the role that they have played in the process that has led to it. Social media like Facebook and Twitter have been a crucial resource for Putin’s strategy of strengthening Russia’s position in the international arena and weakening the capacity of other countries to curtail his agenda. It is through years of online disinformation and misinformation that Russia has managed to polarize the public discourse in the West, spreading conspiracy theories and fomenting the most divisive kind of identity politics around contested issues such as race and immigration (Cassam 2019; DiResta 2018).
Consider the striking fact that even after the beginning of the hostilities, several conservative political leaders close to Trump, as well as a number of leading conservative commentators (primarily from the Fox universe), have to a significant extent condoned, or openly praised, Putin’s actions. (Trump called Putin’s decision to declare two regions of eastern Ukraine as independent states and move Russian armed forces to them “a genius” move.) This attitude would have been unthinkable only a few years ago. That this is no longer the case is largely the product of the fact that actors like Putin can easily exploit social media to stoke scepticism, polarize public discourse, and discredit traditional forms of authority, such as scientists, experts, and journalists.
The effects of the tactics of polarization and aggression that are deployed in the online world do not manifest themselves only in that world. They are directly connected to the tactics of aggression pursued in the physical world.
So, what can be done about this? And why are we being so slow in addressing the problem? One issue is that the problem is typically framed as a free speech matter. Surely, the argument goes, people’s right to free speech is not limited to expressing reasonable, let alone, true views. If so, then the right to express misinformed views about critical race theory or immigration is covered by our right to free speech, even when the views in question are unreasonable. To be sure, in certain jurisdictions (though interestingly, not in the United States) there are limits to free speech when there is a substantive risk that certain content will lead to serious harm. But establishing the link between a particular speech act and harm is often difficult, and understandably there is significant caution in restricting free speech even among those who are in principle open to this option (Howard 2019).
What the conflict in Ukraine shows, however, is that framing the problem exclusively in terms of free speech is misleading. The way in which social media are currently allowed to operate has the potential to significantly weaken international peace and security. It leaves democracies vulnerable to “information operations”: influence activities executed by state actors in pursuit of geopolitical goals. If so, this is no longer only a free speech matter. It’s also a security matter. The effects of the tactics of polarization and aggression that are deployed in the online world do not manifest themselves only in that world. They are directly connected to the tactics of aggression pursued in the physical world. Thus, if we are interested in preserving international peace and security, we need to pay more attention to the regulation of social media, not only in times of war, but also in times of peace.
 From a manifesto published by Mark Zuckerberg on his Facebook page in 2017.
Cassam, Quassim. 2019. Conspiracy Theories. Cambridge, UK: Polity.
Di Resta, Renée. 2018. “What We Now Know About Russian Disinformation” The New York Times, available at https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/17/opinion/russia-report-disinformation.html
Howard, Jeffrey W. 2019. ‘Dangerous Speech’. Philosophy & Public Affairs 47 (2): 208–54. https://doi.org/10.1111/papa.12145.
Vaidhyanathan, Siva. 2018. Antisocial Media: How Facebook Disconnects Us and Undermines Democracy. New York: Oxford University Press.
Massimo Renzo is the Yeoh Professor of Politics, Philosophy & Law at the Dickson Poon School of Law, King’s College London, where he also directs the Yeoh Tiong Lay Centre for Politics, Philosophy & Law. He works in legal, moral and political philosophy.
Disclaimer: Any views or opinions expressed on The Public Ethics Blog are solely those of the post author(s) and not The Stockholm Centre for the Ethics of War and Peace, Stockholm University, the Wallenberg Foundation, or the staff of those organisations.