The president of Ukraine did an extraordinary thing this week: He issued a decree banning several Russian social media networks.
The free-speech liberal in me initially flinched at the news. Ukraine is struggling with its efforts at reform, and the last thing it needs is another unforced error by President Petro Poroshenko, who has been under fire lately for his failure to follow through on the war against corruption. Though freedom of expression in Ukraine is in far better shape than in Russia, its neighbor and adversary, Ukrainian journalists still have plenty of their own problems to worry about, from interference by oligarchs to the occasional killing. So I was dreading the thought that the leaders in Kiev were once again sending the wrong signal.
Take a closer look, though, and matters don’t look quite so clear-cut. It’s important to remember that Ukraine and Russia are in a de facto state of war. Russia has illegally seized and annexed part of Ukrainian territory (Crimea), an act that remains unparalleled in the postwar history of Europe, and forces under its control occupy a large chunk of the country’s east. More than 10,000 people have died in the conflict so far.
Throughout the fighting, one of Moscow’s most effective weapons has been information – or, more precisely, the extremely sophisticated deployment of disinformation. Early on, the Russians systematically worked to fan the fears of Russian-speakers in the east by painting the Ukrainians as bloodthirsty “fascists” with a penchant for random atrocities. In the summer of 2014, most notoriously, Russian media widely disseminated the story of a young boy who was allegedly crucified by Ukrainian soldiers. The story quickly proved to be false, but the damage was already done. When pro-Russian forces shot down a civilian airliner over the conflict zone that same year, Kremlin-controlled media quickly churned out a series of alternate versions of the episode aimed at deflecting responsibility from the real culprits.
Yet Ukraine is also contending with a problem that confronts other parts of the former Soviet Union. Russian-controlled media — above all television and social media — have long enjoyed considerable reach, thanks to the fact that the overwhelming majority of people still speak Russian. The Ukrainian government banned Russian TV channels three years ago, early in the conflict (though they are still easily accessed online). But the two main Russian social media networks — VKontakte (the Russian version of Facebook) and Odnoklassniki — have remained popular. They, along with the Russian search engine Yandex (with its associated news service), have now become the primary targets of the ban.
The decision hasn’t been universally popular. Many people predictably resent losing access to their long-tended networks of friends, and there’s sure to be a backlash. The social media sites are especially widely used in the East, where some have been using them to access humanitarian aid. And yes, advocates of free speech aren’t entirely comfortable with the ban, either. Sevgil Musaieva, an editor for the popular news site Ukrainska Pravda, noted that the decision puts Ukraine in the same unenviable company of others that limit access to social media networks: Russia, Burma, Vietnam, Tunisia, Syria, Iran, Saudi Arabia, China and North Korea.
Peter Dickinson, a Briton who runs a publishing business in Ukraine, says that the government could have done a far better job of handling the policy, which was launched, he adds, with little public discussion or attention to proper legal procedure. How the ban will be carried out also remains unclear. The presidential decree placed the responsibility for blocking access on Internet providers, and it remains to be seen how effectively they’ll be able to implement the measures. Dickinson says that Ukrainians have been complaining that this is yet one more way in which they’re being forced to sacrifice while the politicians who run the country continue to cultivate ties with Moscow through their companies and banks.
Even so, he believes the move is long overdue. “To me it was shocking they didn’t limit access to these sites back at the beginning of the war,” he says. “They were really an engine of conflict.” Dickinson argues that the Internet companies in question have clear ties to the Russian secret services, which have used the networks not only to disseminate Moscow-friendly propaganda but also to mine data about Ukrainian politicians, soldiers and public opinion. In this way, he says, Ukraine unwittingly became the proving ground for the same sort of disinformation tactics that have since been deployed in the U.S. presidential election in 2016 and more recent political campaigns in Europe. “This is where they tested the weapons,” he says. “They used Syria as a testing ground for the air force. They used Ukraine as a testing ground for their information warfare.”
In this respect, Kiev’s decision to cut off access to Russian social media networks may very well serve as a harbinger of things to come. By now it’s widely understood that the Internet has opened up new possibilities for transforming information into a weapon of war, a tool for the projection of power beyond national borders. How should the rest of the world respond?