Tech’s role in Russia’s war on Ukraine

Media scholar Courtney Radsch says tech platforms should have been faster to address Russian government propaganda, misinformation, and censorship.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has made unequivocally clear that the battlefields of this crisis involve both a literal ground war and a highly destructive digital war. Social media platforms, news sites, and apps are embroiled in an ongoing information war, where harrowing images and stories from ordinary citizens and independent journalists battle against media manipulation, disinformation, and propaganda campaigns coordinated by Russian state media.

People in the street hold signs that read, in Ukrainian and English, "Stop Russian Aggression."
Image: Dovile Ramoskaite

As part of the government’s continued assault on free speech, nearly all independent Russian-language media outlets have been blocked or shut down since the war began, and the number of non-state media outlets continues to drop. The government has also blocked the Russian-language sites of foreign news outlets including the BBC, Meduza, and Voice of America. Social media is under strict censorship, as well: Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and other platforms have been banned in Russia.

For media scholar Courtney C. Radsch, this rampant information war comes as no surprise. A journalist, researcher, and free speech advocate, Radsch works at the intersection of media, activism, and technology, with a particular focus on freedom of expression, human rights, and independent media sustainability. As she explains, tech platforms have been slow to act when it comes to issues like data transparency and oversight, platform regulations, and developing policies for addressing their use by governments and state officials.

Radsch has written about how information warfare is a central part of Russia's offensive, with disinformation and propaganda affecting the daily lives of Ukrainian and Russian people.

“Propaganda is a tried-and-true tactic in warfare, stretching back through history,” she says. “What is new and different about the digitally inflected environment of propaganda is that the scale, scope, speed, and sophistication of propaganda is on an unprecedented scale. What that means for people in Ukraine, Russia, and around the world is that information warfare is a central part of the broader conflict. Controlling the narrative and undermining efforts to convey any sort of truth or fact is part and parcel of information warfare.”

Radsch argues that tech companies play a role in enabling or proliferating information warfare. “Social media and the firms on which we rely for communication have designed their platforms in a way that nurtures the spread of propaganda and disinformation, and facilitates the use of these platforms in information warfare. They’re designed around engagement, and engagement is based on extremism. Things that do better on those platforms tend to be more extreme, or potentially less factual.”

Read more at Annenberg School for Communication.