By: Sergey Guriev
Increasing mobile broadband internet and the promotion of social media are reforming the tactics to fight wars.
Russia’s aggression against Ukraine is the first major war to break out between two countries in the era of smartphones. New ICT tools reform the way wars are fought. The Russian government is waging war on three fronts: a kinetic war in Ukraine, a war within Russia where anti-war protesters want to put pressure on Russian President Vladimir Putin to withdraw from Ukraine; And a war to win the world’s public opinion.
Information technology plays an important role in all three. Within Ukraine, smartphones record both war crimes and Russian troop movements. Within Russia, the remaining social networks are helping to organize demonstrations and coordinate the dispatch of lawyers in support of the detainees. On the global information battlefield, videos from both sides are trying to persuade other countries to speed up or delay the delivery of weapons and impose (or help deny) unprecedented economic sanctions.
The idea that availability and lack of information are important in war is not new. The famous war theorist Carl von Clausewitz wrote a posthumously entitled On War in which he emphasized the importance of the “mist of war”. The war confuses normal media reports and creates more uncertainty. Consequently, information that reduces – or increases – this uncertainty can significantly affect the outcome of the war.
While the role of information in war has always been understood, the recent massive increase in the use of mobile broadband internet and the promotion of social media has fundamentally changed the way information is collected and disseminated. According to the International Telecommunication Union, in 2007 per capita mobile broadband internet subscriptions were only 0.04. In 2021, this figure was 0.83, which is twenty times higher. This growth has been seen by developed and developing economies. The rates for developing economies were 0.006 in 2007 and 0.73 in 2021. In Russia today this number is more than one whole, which simply means that everyone is connected to the network. Mobile broadband internet service has supplanted the same service for fixed devices as the main source of high speed internet access. The growth in per capita growth of broadband subscriptions using fixed devices worldwide was limited and increased from 0.05 in 2007 to 0.17 in 2021.
The third and fourth generation Internet service technology with broadband network technology for mobile devices, known as 3G and 4G, has resulted in a quantum leap compared to the two previous generations, which enabled users to take photos, record videos and it to distribute directly worldwide. Therefore, the proliferation of 3G and 4G has become a major driver for the growth of social networks. Today, the world has about 3 billion subscribers on Facebook, 2.5 billion on YouTube and 1.5 billion on Instagram. The vast majority of social media uses are made via mobile devices.
As Martin Gowery argues in his predictive book, The Revolt of the Public and the Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium, this technological shift has significant political consequences. It was Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian street vendor who sacrificed himself in December 2010, fueled the Arab Spring by capturing these moments with a smartphone and spreading it widely. There was a similar case of self-immolation by another hawker, Abd al-Salam Tarimish, a few months before this incident, but it was not recorded and was barely noticed. The Arab Spring was evidence of a major change in the way media reports were reported. The Qatar-based Al Jazeera news channel relied on covering the events of the Arab Spring on videos filmed by cell phones and posted on social media, not from professional photographers’ cameras.
The same is true of the war in Ukraine today, the first major conflict of the era of radical transparency. Citizens as well as soldiers wear smartphones, take photos, record videos and post them on social media. However, the fog of war has not yet cleared up. The problem is not a lack of information, but the challenge is an abundance of information – much of it indisputable. Broadband internet and social media services achieve the goal of publishing interesting and outrageous content, and the information is not necessarily genuine. Over the past decade, we have seen the skill of populist politicians in the use of social media. In our study “3G internet and trust in government” Nikita Melnikov and Ekaterina Zhuravskaya, Anna and I show that mobile broadband internet access is attributable to about half of the recent increase in populism in Europe.
The spread of broadband internet on mobile devices accounts for about half of the recent increase in populism in Europe.
But the preference for social media is not limited to populists alone. It is also an instrument of choice for a new generation of undemocratic leaders – the “elusive dictators” and I call them “Daniel Triesman”. In our new book of the same name, we say that most leaders of non-democratic regimes today no longer rely on fear and mass oppression. Instead, they manipulate information. They deceive the public into believing that they are capable leaders, and claim that they are democratically elected. While acknowledging the shortcomings in their election procedures, they claim that these shortcomings do not differ from those of the West’s systems.
What we call elusive dictators, social media gives them an amazing platform. It is therefore no surprise that Putin, one of the main inspirations for our book, has invested heavily in cyber-warfare over the past ten years. Targeted fishing groups, social media bots, anonymous Telegram channels and Facebook advertising campaigns have played a major role in this political strategy at home and abroad. Now he is applying these instruments to the war with Ukraine. And his task this time is much more difficult: while we see direct evidence of war crimes in Ukraine, he is certainly losing the information war in the West. But it increases the risks he faces at home. He must convince at least a large number of the Russian public that he is waging a just war. Therefore, one week after the war, he shut down all remaining independent media, banned most Western social media, and imposed military censorship on them. Public statements contradicting the official version of events are now subject to up to 15 years in prison.
Did he succeed? Yes and no. Opinion polls have seen rapid growth in Putin’s approval rating, from 60% to 80%. On the other hand, opinion polls are no longer reliable, with suppression increasing exponentially. First, there was a massive drop in response rates. Second, a survey using list experiments – a special method used by political scientists to deduce the average level of support without asking people direct questions – is that many Russians are returning to the Russian practice of “falsifying preferences.” Even in the survey using list experiments, it was found that 53% of Russians were in favor of the war, according to Philip Chakowsky and Max Schoppe in their study, “Russians tell the truth when they say they support the war in Ukraine. “Evidence from a list experiment”. And the propaganda of the Russian government achieves its goals.
In addition to supporting the Ukrainian army with weapons and imposing more sanctions on Russia, the West must accordingly undertake to inject more resources into the information war in the minds of the Russians. This is not impossible. Russia is not China, and there is no great protective software in it. Some social media are not banned, the most important of which are YouTube and Telegram. The use of VPNs is not prohibited. Compared to the times of the Cold War, when the West used Russian-language radio programs on Radio Free Europe, Radio Liberty, the BBC and Deutsche Welle, the opportunities today to reach the Russian public are much greater, providing facts about the war and verify what the Russian propaganda campaign claims. Winning the information war within Russia will help to win it on other fronts – and prevent the Putin regime from launching any further attacks.
* Sergey Guriev is Professor of Economics at the Ecole des Sciences Politics in Paris and former Chief Economist at the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development.