One of the game changers of the Ukrainian conflict: information


In this photo illustration, the social media service Instagram is running on a smartphone, March 21, 2022. /VCG

In this photo illustration, the social media service Instagram is running on a smartphone, March 21, 2022. /VCG

Editor’s note: Song Xin is a former political adviser to the European Parliament. The article reflects the views of the author and not necessarily those of CGTN.

Russia’s “special military operation” in Ukraine has now been raging for more than six weeks. And the longer it goes on, the clearer it will become: this is a war fought on two fronts. On the one hand we see the traditional battlefield and on the other hand we see war being shaped in a new arena, the information arena.

Citizens on the Russian and Western sides may receive different, even opposing accounts of what is happening on the ground. This is partly due to the sudden shutdown of Western media in Russia and the forced shutdown of some Russian social media platforms in Western countries. In addition, artificial intelligence technology, including big data and algorithms, has played an increasingly important role in shaping the individual view of warfare.

If Western societies have mobilized much more today than their inaction during the war between Russia and Georgia in 2008 and the Crimean conflict in 2014, it is largely due to the fact that communication channels and information systems have changed completely since then. This has made this war one of the most accessible and participatory in human history so far.

With smartphones and social media gaining popularity around the world, receiving instant information is now commonplace and distinct from the old days when we could only receive this information late from a limited number of centralized channels. . This decentralized availability of information has transformed our way of perceiving war.

Now, if people around the world want to watch the war online as it unfolds, they just have to follow the stories of people filming on the front lines. There were widely circulated videos in which a Russian army unit was forced to retreat in front of Ukrainian residents holding smartphones filming the scene and broadcasting live.

This is in stark contrast to previous wars where we could only see pictures in the newspapers afterwards. And this new type of warfare affects the morale and mentality of soldiers, for the simple reason that they face an unknown audience behind every camera and even their smallest acts are caught on camera and will therefore be available for later judgment, both legal and moral.

Obviously, the visuals seem to be much more convincing than just words written in the newspapers. And it turned platforms such as TikTok, Facebook, YouTube and Twitter into primary sources of war news.

Apart from visual excitement, participatory forms of social media have also allowed users to be involved in information warfare. It doesn’t matter if you are a provider of information, a sharer or a spectator, once you open your electronic device, you participate in one way or another. The data generated by your actions will somehow accelerate the dissemination of information. In return, based on your likes/dislikes, the platform recommends similar articles or videos. Therefore, the more time you spend on social media, the more likely you are to be surrounded by the cocoon of information.

Meanwhile, digital news channels have also facilitated the spread of propaganda and disinformation. Due to the immediacy of the availability of war information, propagandists can shape news flows as social media platforms to some extent lack the ability to distinguish between fake and real news. Therefore, all parties can use these media to push their own narratives and influence public opinion and morale.

US President Joe Biden delivers a speech at the Royal Castle in Warsaw, Poland, March 26, 2022. /VCG

US President Joe Biden delivers a speech at the Royal Castle in Warsaw, Poland, March 26, 2022. /VCG

The abundance and immediacy of war-related information is a double-edged sword that facilitates the dissemination of important updates on the conflict, while accelerating the dissemination of divergent narratives. As a result, people tend to get different versions of warfare, depending on where they are and what platforms they have access to.

The information component of warfare is an integral part of military conflict. We can even go further by saying that the war was waged for information as much as it was waged for territory. And the effectiveness of information warfare could even have a decisive impact on physical warfare. With photo and video platforms, information can be disseminated more efficiently and effectively to all stakeholders and can promote all kinds of mobilizations for military or humanitarian purposes.

Russia’s operation in Ukraine has certainly shattered the myth of the neutrality of technological tools, which brings us to the next serious question: what are the responsibilities of the suppliers of these devices and platforms? It seems certain that there will be more regulatory scrutiny and intervention in the future.

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