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The Ukrainian leader who is pushing Silicon Valley to stand up to Russia

Mykhailo Fedorov, the nation’s youngest cabinet minister, turned a staid government Twitter account into a cannon to shame the world’s biggest tech companies

Ukraine's minister of digital transformation, Mykhailo Fedorov. (Barcroft Media/Getty Images)
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Six months ago, Mykhailo Fedorov, one of Ukraine’s deputy prime ministers, made a pilgrimage to Silicon Valley to discuss his country’s digital transformation. On Facebook, he posted a photo of himself arm-in-arm with Apple CEO Tim Cook in Palo Alto, Calif., praising him as the “most efficient manager in the world.”

On Tuesday, Fedorov had a less effusive message for Cook: Block App Store access in Russia.

“They kill our children, now kill their access!” he tweeted, tagging Cook.

As Russian missiles rain down on Ukraine, Fedorov has launched his own pressure campaign, tweeting at some of the world’s most powerful tech companies to take action to shut down Russian propaganda and disconnect Russia from the rest of the world. In the process, he has become the chief agitator of an industry that has long been reluctant to bend to political demands in any country or conflict, and he’s done it without enacting laws or using economic leverage.

According to his deputy minister, Alex Bornyakov, Fedorov has pressed about 50 companies for aid while his staff has worked behind the scenes with a network of Ukrainian expats and regulators from other countries to get the companies to act. And it’s working: Since Fedorov began tweeting after last week’s Russian invasion, Facebook and YouTube have cracked down on Russian state media, and Google has disabled some features on Google Maps to protect the safety of Ukrainian citizens. And after Fedorov tweeted at Cook, Apple said it would pause all product sales in Russia.

Mapping the Russian invasion of Ukraine

“His ability to galvanize international opinion and opinion at the tech companies is extraordinary,” said Emerson Brooking, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council who studies how social media is used in warfare. “Traditionally, public pressure has only been applied by the United States, and other countries around the world have really struggled.”

Fedorov, Ukraine’s youngest minister at 31, has mastered the art of the online call-out — even using it to enlist the help of the tech industry’s most controversial tweeter, Elon Musk. In the months before the invasion, Fedorov’s team was unable to get a meeting with Musk, according to Bornyakov. On Saturday, Fedorov’s office took a request to his home turf: Twitter.

“@elonmusk, while you try to colonize Mars — Russia try to occupy Ukraine!” he tweeted, pleading with the Tesla CEO to send Starlink satellite Internet systems, a vital means for helping Ukrainians stay online.

Musk replied later that day that satellites were on their way. Fedorov on Monday tweeted that the systems had arrived.

Before Russian troops invaded his homeland, Fedorov was leading a roughly 250-person ministry with the goal of connecting more Ukrainians to the Internet, digitizing passports and bringing high-tech jobs and companies to the country. He’d gotten the job after helping Volodymyr Zelensky, the president of Ukraine, win a landslide victory in the 2019 election.

“The first time I heard of Fedorov was when Zelensky was doing his digital campaign in Ukraine. He managed the campaign, and basically it was so successful, it made him president,” said Denys Gurak, a Ukrainian American tech entrepreneur who has been helping the Ukrainian government connect with U.S. tech companies over the past week. Fedorov’s pre-invasion work as a minister was a success, too, helping put in place online tools for coronavirus vaccine passports, Gurak said.

Russia expanded its assault on key cities in Ukraine on March 2, marking one week since the deadly attacks began. (Video: Alexa Juliana Ard/The Washington Post)

Throughout his tenure, Fedorov traveled around the world, regularly meeting with officials from top tech companies. During his visit late last summer to Apple’s spaceship-shaped California headquarters with Zelensky, he talked to Cook about bringing an Apple Store to Ukraine and how Apple could help with Ukraine’s census and expanding education and health care in the country, according to his Facebook post about the visit. His Twitter, Instagram and Facebook pages mention meetings with Britain’s digital service, Amazon, Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg, and Karan Bhatia, Google’s vice president of government affairs.

Then the invasion happened, and everything changed.

“Once the war started, we immediately got in touch with them with a different agenda,” Bornyakov said.

As Ukraine misinformation rages, Twitter’s fact-checking tool is a no-show

Now, from an undisclosed location away from the attacks in Kyiv, Fedorov, Bornyakov and their core team are running a global campaign. At times, they work from their phones underground in shelters and cellars, as alarms warn of incoming shelling, Bornyakov said. As of early Tuesday morning, about half of the ministry’s staff was logging on for work, he estimated.

After the invasion began, Bornyakov said, their first priority was to secure critical infrastructure against cyberattacks and ensure government digital services were still functioning. But then they soon began weighing how they could pressure major companies to punish Russia.

As companies changed their rules on Russian propaganda throughout the weekend, Fedorov responded in real time. On Sunday, he thanked Facebook’s president of global affairs, Nick Clegg, for taking steps to restrict Russian state media but called it a “very first step.” Fedorov added: “There is no place for war criminals in Metaverse.” He kept the pressure on by publicly comparing the companies’ responses.

How Ukrainians have used social media to humiliate the Russians and rally the world

“Meta is stepping up to shut down Russian lies. When will @YouTube?” he tweeted Monday. Early Tuesday, YouTube announced that it would follow Meta in restricting Russian state media in Europe.

Fedorov has also made direct appeals to the crypto community, calling on major exchanges to block Russian users and urging major credit card companies to block services in Russia.

Alex Bornyakov, Ukraine's deputy minister of digital transformation, said on March 2 that the goal is to turn the Russian people against their government. (Video: Reuters)

Bornyakov said Tuesday morning that the ministry’s team is in constant communication with officials at companies including Google, Apple and Meta, where the firm confirmed that Fedorov and Clegg had traded emails as recently as Tuesday. The pace of the work has been intense. “It’s like a live conversation, so every couple of hours something comes up, and we’re just trying to react,” Bornyakov said.

Apple declined to comment on its September meeting with Fedorov but said it is “in communication with relevant governments on the actions we are taking.” A Google spokesperson declined to comment. Netflix and Amazon did not respond to requests for comment. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.) Starlink officials met with Fedorov before the invasion, SpaceX spokesman James Gleeson said. Fedorov was not available for an interview, and the ministry referred The Post to Bornyakov.

The dire predictions about a Russian cyber onslaught haven’t come true in Ukraine. At least not yet.

Even as they work, the escalating war is taking a personal toll. In between memes calling on people to donate to send Russian President Vladimir Putin into space and posts pressuring Spotify and Apple Music, Fedorov shared an image of damage he said resulted from two days of Russian bombing in his hometown. “You will all burn in hell,” he captioned the image.

The aggressive and constant social media pressure from Fedorov and the rest of the Ukrainian government has helped them get ahead of Russia in the information war, Brooking said. “The way he has used Twitter, and the way more broadly both Ukrainian ministries and individual politicians have used these platforms, they understood from the start that this would be an information conflict,” he said. “They were ready.”

Fedorov’s Twitter account has surged to over 186,000 followers from 98 followers a year ago.

Other Western governments and civil society groups have joined Fedorov in escalating pressure on the tech giants to address Russian information operations. Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) sent letters calling major companies to escalate their defenses against Russian disinformation, and leaders in the European Union have pressed tech giants to curb Russian state media.

Tech executives, Internet freedom advocates and some social media experts have pushed back on Fedorov’s calls to cut services for Russian citizens. With Russian state media unleashing baseless and misleading articles about its deadly assault on Ukraine, social media platforms may be one of the only destinations where Russians can access independent and accurate reports about the war or organize dissent against it.

“Limiting Russian people’s access to independent information will leave them with only state propaganda, which is currently inciting them to war with Ukraine,” said Natalia Krapiva, tech legal counsel of the Internet freedom nonprofit Access Now.

Thousands of Russian tech workers sign a petition opposing Putin’s invasion of Ukraine

Clegg, the Meta executive, told reporters in a call Tuesday that the company has told Ukrainian government officials they do not agree with calls to disable access to social media.

“We think it is essential for as long as this can continue that ordinary Russians can use our services to express themselves, to organize, to protest and to reach out to family and friends in the wider community,” Clegg told reporters.

Bornyakov, the deputy minister, said that cutting off Russian citizens from social media would capture the attention of young Russians who want to use the platforms and smartphones, prompting them to question their government and the Russian invasion.

He added that Western companies have largely been supportive as he and his colleagues explain the situation on the ground.

The ultimate goal is to help win the war by turning world opinion and that of Russia’s own people against Putin and his government. “Make the Russian business community and regular Russians feel what we feel,” Bornyakov said. “If everything is fine in Russia, people won’t start asking questions. But when big platforms and the whole civil world, civil society will start to act, this will be a signal to them that their government actions are unacceptable.”

Elizabeth Dwoskin and Joseph Menn contributed to this report.

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