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Social networks have had two huge time milestones since their foundation: the Arab uprisings in 2011, and the election of Donald Trump and Brexit in 2016. The first was a celebration. The second, a tragedy. Networks as such were probably not so wonderful before 2016 and not so pitiful after. But their rise and fall may have caused them to take an internal road to something new: Ukraine may be a new milestone.
Since 2016, networks have been guilty of misinformation, polarization, hate, harassment. Now maybe after these years, Ukraine will change our understanding of the age of social media. Why? We have been 15 days of Russian invasion and there is a surprising thing: the networks are not news.
Or yes they are, but less. Tech journalists have been full of sad stories about big companies for years. Not only from Facebook, Amazon or YouTube, but also Uber or WeWork. It is partly logical, everything that goes up so much must go down.
But a couple of weeks ago, after the pandemic, a war began in Europe and the networks are not news? That it be after the pandemic is an important detail. It has been a process where large companies have battled misinformation and have tried to improve their environment. But it’s been many months and too much has happened.
Now a war is different. And in addition to Russia, the ogre of disinformation since 2016 and one of the main perpetrators of cyberattacks in the last decade. It was the perfect storm. There is only one problem: there is no storm, neither perfect nor imperfect.
I must add a fat warning here: for now. Anything can happen between now and the end of the war. This week I was on the new EL PAIS podcast to talk about the lack of cyberattacks and electronic warfare. Here I want to talk about what is happening with the networks and why Ukraine can become a landmark where they are no longer good or bad by themselves, but places of communication that partly reflect who we are, also with their algorithms.
1. Ukraine wins. As there are few network news, one is about the president of Ukraine, Zelensky, and his management of the networks. The networks allow him to show how he remains in Kiev despite facing probable death if Russia catches up with him. And he does it much better than a television would allow: without fuss, with short videos, sometimes poorly recorded. And he is not the president. My colleague Jaime Rubio wrote that the war on Twitter is being won by Ukraine.
2. Where is the terrible misinformation? US intelligence announced that the invasion was likely and that Putin would find an excuse. Perhaps he deactivated a balloon prepared by Russia. But then the disinformation has not arrived either: “Russia is less successful in spreading disinformation on networks (for now),” the Nieman Lab, which analyzes the media, headlined this Wednesday.
During the week I looked at a collection of technology headlines from international media. The surprise was what they told new: random disinformation on TikTok, Telegram blocked Russian state media, the Ukrainian hacker army. The news was, always so far, mediocre.
This does not imply that there is not disinformation everywhere that millions of people see, but that its impact is less because there are more watchful eyes and more skepticism in general.
This TikTok video claiming to show scenes from the war on the streets of Kyiv has 9 million views. It is an old clip from an independence day military parade in the city. pic.twitter.com/ePn1pDf83x
— Shayan Sardarizadeh (@Shayan86) March 9, 2022
3. There is more information than ever and that is good. The newspaper’s visual storytelling team relies on videos taken from the internet to see where Russia is bombing. I myself am preparing a piece on how the osint community is evolving, which seeks to understand what is happening with “open source intelligence”, that is, the internet. There is something I can already say: it has become a fundamental element of news coverage and its center is on Twitter. The Bellingcat team, the nucleus of this community, does not stop giving or confirming news.
The videos circulating on the internet of the war are an extraordinary source of information. A journalist on the ground can give a type of information, but the precision of the analysis of images taken from any corner of the Internet is today essential in a conflict or catastrophe. And that happens in part thanks to social networks.
4. Networks obey. The type of aggression helps. Few things are as good and bad as when the strong hit the weak for no reason. Putin’s defenders in the West have vanished. They have folded sails. The networks have taken the opportunity to discreetly follow this trend: limitation of Russian state media, rapid action against accounts dedicated to disseminating campaigns, demonetization of public media.
It’s one thing to balance with US President Donald Trump and another with a guy who sends tanks to peaceful cities.
Not only that, those same networks are now banners of a freedom of expression that Russia wants to suppress on its territory. The new “disinformation” law has forced TikTok and Netflix to abandon. Facebook has been blocked and Twitter, almost. YouTube remains to be seen how it will end. All of this is seen as a problem for Russian citizens, not an advantage. And that comes just a month after we joked about how well we’d be in Europe without Facebook.
5. Nobody is holy. All this is not to say that the networks will once again be champions of freedom and the voice of the oppressed as in 2011. They have problems, most of them unknown or with unforeseeable consequences. They remain opaque with their data. Perhaps just so that we all understand that perhaps they are a middle ground.
The Twitter account of the Government of Ukraine wages war with memes. When missiles fall, memes do not even serve to make you smile. But there is a world outside Ukraine that wants to participate. The networks allow it. By this I do not mean making a tweet of solidarity, but that governments around the world feel the pressure of pending citizens. In the newspapers the most read by far for 15 days is Ukraine. That is transferred to the networks with action. The feeling of interest and concern reaches the decision centers. That’s where they choose to send weapons or not. And that does help.
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