Both sides in the Russia-Ukraine conflict are using civilian populations as a military resource to fund, hack, spy, spread propaganda and enlist through social networks, a Kensington audience heard.
Gregory Asmolov, a PhD candidate at the London School of Economics, told the Ukrainian Institute on 1 December that online crowdsourcing was not only being used to fundraise, but also for people to provide information about where troops are and where skirmishes take place, to attack opposition propaganda online, as well as hacking the enemy. Supporters can simply allow their computer to be used remotely as part of a ‘botnet’ hacking network, without having to hack, or even knowing how to hack, themselves.
He said: “If you’re a soldier, you’re protected by international law. Online, it’s not always clear if you’re protected by international law or not.”
Mr Asmolov, a former Middle East correspondent for Kommersant newspaper, referred to Ukrainian websites such as i-army, which asks people to become ‘information troops’ by creating social media accounts and posing as residents in the embattled east of the country. The purpose being to comment on news stories through social media and post on websites to attack Russia’s online narratives about the conflict, which aim to show popular support for the annexation of Crimea and involvement in eastern Ukraine and Syria.
A slide showed a quote translated from the website: ‘In one year we created a powerful army that defends us in Donbas area. Now, it’s a time to resist Russian invaders on the information front. Every Ukrainian who has an access to Internet can contribute to the struggle. Every you message is a bullet to the enemy’s mind.’ [sic]
Mr Asmolov also gave the examples of Dokaz, which crowdsources information about Russia’s illegal activities in Ukraine, and The People’s Project, which crowdfunds medical support for soldiers wounded in the conflict, mixed in with news of how Ukrainian infantry are being tortured by Russians and other atrocities.
There are websites for both sides simply asking people to volunteer to go and fight in eastern Ukraine, he said, referring to a Russian one, translated as Volunteer.org, which has seemingly had a few iterations shut down, though perhaps lives on within VK, Russia’s version of Facebook.
“There is crowdfunding from the Russian side and there is crowdfunding from the Ukrainian side,” Mr Asmolov said. “There’s Russian coverage and there’s Ukrainian coverage, and there’s almost no media that covers it in a balanced way.”
The US election had highlighted to the world the issue of Facebook spreading fake news stories through algorithms, he said, which had led to people blaming social media; ‘bot’ technology where computer programmes create false social media accounts to spread agenda-driven news stories; as well as journalists, for the election of Donald Trump.
He said: “Russia is the common denominator in all these things, blamed for the election outcome in the US, and for what’s happening in Ukraine.”
Referring to the publishing online of the names of journalists accredited in Donetsk and in Lugansk – areas held by Russia-backed separatist militias – Mr Asmolov said: “The idea was ‘anyone who has this accreditation is the enemy.’ To what extent should we push this idea that journalists are now the enemy? We should be very careful.”
In describing this engagement with war through social media, he gave the example of immersive theatre, where audience members become active participants in a play, rather than just watching. A chilling example of this immersive, participatory warfare being an Instagram account which crowdsourced votes on whether to execute or release captured ISIS militants.
Mr Asmolov said: “There is no clear boundary between conflict and inter-personal communication. In the past we consumed news from traditional media. Today we consume news and interact with people in the same environment. It’s much more difficult to differentiate between news and social interaction.”
Your daily war
War invading everyday social interaction leads to a digitally-mediated immersion, making conflict a part of everyday life, one of his presentation slides said, with conflict mapping becoming a form of gamification, blurring the line between citizen and combatant and legitimising civilian targets.
Another slide showed a Russian newspaper cartoon, where a man sitting at a computer screen asks: It’s all about war, it’s all about war, where are the cats?
Before taking questions, Mr Asmolov warned: “The major battlefield is the identity – what I think we should do is think about how we can protect ourselves from this kind of engagement in conflict.
“It’s identity theft with a different kind of meaning, by these kinds of politics, and stolen by these kinds of agendas.”
On being asked about what could be done to regulate social media and the internet, he said: “Governments enjoy this reality – for them it’s a new tool. We should be wary of opening it up for governments. When governments feel there is a need, they’re really happy about it, and introduce much more regulation.
“We already have too much of it, including here in the UK,” referring to several pieces of recent legislation, “It should come from pressure from the public. Usually, governments take it too far.”
Instead, he proposed a transparency and accountability for the social media algorithms which determine what we see online and what we can buy, perhaps allowing scientists, journalists, and members of the public to conduct an audit.
An audience member asked what Mr Asmolov thought about cats on the internet. He said that there is a book which promotes the theory that online cats drive political engagement and are part of modern communication.
A grey-haired woman said: “I have never heard so many nasty things about the Ukrainian language as in recent months. There is some special hatred among ethnic Russians for the Ukrainian language, and I’ve noticed it’s also present among Belarusians.”
Mr Asmolov went on to say that there are consequences when people engage with warfare in this way, using the same social networks, giving the example of how in Israel, different political ideas about how to deal with conflict, amongst Israelis, has had the same divisive effect online which then severs offline relationships.
He said: “The online battle between Russia and Ukraine takes place between people who know each other, friends who had a good relationship but find themselves on different sides – destroying social ties, to deepen the conflict inside.”