Spy Vs. Spy image above courtesy of author Paul van de Velde
What's happening on the ground in Ukraine is painful and terrifying to witness. The bravery of the citizen-soldiers and front-line media reporters and crews can't be understated. It's a real war, and real lives are being lost. To say anything less would be to sugarcoat what's at stake.
But back home, sitting in front of our computers and phones, there's another war underway, an info war, raging long before Putin put boots on the ground in Ukraine, and one that weaponizes the technology that has driven so much innovation around the world.
It's a war being waged on the internet.
As of January 2017, a joint report by the CIA, FBI, and NSA confirmed that there had been Russian interference in the 2016 election. According to this document, Russia's objective was to undermine Americans' confidence in its electoral system. We all know what happened next, with the aftershocks of polarization remaining today. With the midterms coming up, there's never been more acrimony around the elections and so-called election security.
What Russia calls "active measures" has been in place for a long time, and the U.S. has been one of many targets of digital destabilization.
As early as 2007, former Soviet satellites including Estonia, Georgia, and Ukraine were targeted for digital attacks.
"For years now, the Kremlin has looked for ways to disrupt democracies, to help the people that they like to come to power and to undermine the credibility of the democratic process," Mike McFaul, the former U.S. ambassador to Russia, told NBC News.
The challenge today is that there is a complicated and fast-changing playing field. Russia is flooding the web with strategic misinformation, while at the same time working to block social media that is flooding into Russia from platforms like Facebook.
And, on social platforms like Instagram, there are a growing number of users who are sharing information that is inaccurate, with little concern for its impact on the Ukrainians on the ground facing a barrage of missile attacks.
These "war pages," as accounts are known on Instagram, gather battleground footage and videos depicting violence and repost them with no details or even any proof that they are from the Ukraine conflict. Their motivation? Money, it seems.
And state-backed media from the Russian Government uses Facebook and Twitter to share what are already debunked claims of Ukrainian war crimes.
"It is deeply concerning that pro-Russia disinformation is reported to have more than doubled in the region in recent weeks," Adam Schiff, chair of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, told Politico. "Social media companies must quickly expand efforts to detect Russian falsehoods and prevent their platforms from being exploited in the conflict."
And in a moment that reminds us eerily of the Mad magazine cartoon “Spy vs. Spy,” Ukraine has called on the hacker underground to rise up and help defend itself against Russian hacking, according to Reuters. "Ukrainian cybercommunity! It's time to get involved in the cyber defense of our country," read the post, which came from a request from the Ukrainian Defense Ministry.
There's a real war going on in Ukraine, dangerous and deadly. But the weaponized infowar that's happening on screens and servers is about to raise its head up from the silicon chips that power our cities, our power grids, and our lives. And whatever happens over the next weeks in Ukraine, there's absolutely no doubt the impact will spread and be heard in our increasingly interconnected world.