Steven V. Roberts: We are all witnesses

Published 12:00 am Friday, March 4, 2022

“Many are calling Russia’s invasion of Ukraine the TikTok war,” reports CNN.

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman announces, “Welcome to World War Wired — the first war in a totally interconnected world.”

“What is coming out of Ukraine is simply impossible to produce on such a scale,” writes Daniel Johnson in Slate, “without citizens and soldiers throughout the country having easy access to cellphones, the internet and, by extension, social media apps. A large-scale modern war will be livestreamed, minute by minute, battle by battle, death by death, to the world.”

What does this all mean? No one knows for sure. Both sides are using the same pipes and platforms to advance their interests. The good guys, the freedom fighters in Ukraine, employ social media to document Russian attacks and rally resistance. The bad guys, Vladimir Putin and his sycophants in the Kremlin, manipulate those same outlets to spread disinformation aimed at discrediting the Kyiv government and dispiriting its loyalists.

But one truth is starting to emerge: Tyrants like Putin can no longer operate in the shadows. They can no longer control what their own citizens, and the wider world, know about them. Their viciousness and violence are clearly visible. All those cellphones, laptops and social media apps enable the rest of us to bear witness to their evil. In real time.

After the Tiananmen Square massacre in June 1989, Strobe Talbott wrote in Time magazine, “The blank screen is a license to kill … Once the Chinese authorities decided to shed blood, they literally pulled the plug on television coverage.” To this day it’s not clear how many protesters died, but probably more than 1,000.

In the Bosnian village of Srebrenica in July 1995, more than 8,000 Muslim men and boys were slaughtered by Serbian troops. It took years to document the disaster, and it wasn’t until 2007 that the killings were officially labeled genocide by the International Court of Justice.

Today, the screen is no longer blank. “Any atrocities will have dozens, if not hundreds, of witnesses spreading footage in minutes,” asserts Johnson.

The impact of a wired war, however, goes far beyond proving present barbarities — perhaps as far as preventing future ones. Open-source intelligence revealed Putin’s true intentions, depriving him of the surprise that had made his 2014 occupation of Crimea so efficient. An app originally designed to detect traffic jams certified that Russia was massing troops along Ukraine’s northern border even as Putin was insisting that he had no intention of invading.

The battle against Russian disinformation is being fought on many fronts. Kyiv is recruiting hackers to “target Russian websites to rewrite the narrative Moscow is presenting to Russians back home,” reports The Washington Post, and it cites a tweet from Ukrainian Vice Prime Minister Mykhailo Fedorov: “We are creating an IT army.”

Another front is espionage. Reuters quotes a Ukrainian computer scientist, Yegor Aushev, who says he is organizing fellow cyber warriors to spy on the invading Russian forces. “We have an army inside our country. We need to know what they are doing,” he said.

Digital data has many military uses, from trading tips on Molotov cocktails to tracking Russian troop movements. But one critical battlefield involves guts, not guns; wiles, not weapons. This is the struggle for emotions, not territory. The goal is to inflame patriotism, not incinerate tanks.

The main player on this stage is Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. A former actor and comedian, he is using all his skills as a performer (remember another actor, Ronald Reagan, calling the Soviet Union “the evil empire”?) to urge his people and his allies to stand and fight. Winston Churchill used radio to bolster British resolve during World War II, and Zelenskyy is using a cellphone and a laptop to make videos that do the same thing.

“The videos, in that sense, are presidential speeches of last resort,” Megan Garber writes in The Atlantic. “They are attempts to preserve the first thing attackers will try to destroy when they attack: the lines of communication. The videos summon, in their terse messaging, the grim solidarity of emergency.”

The good guys don’t win every conflict. The Russians are very savvy at flooding the field with falsehoods: “The intensity and immediacy of social media are creating a new kind of fog of war, in which information and disinformation are continuously entangled with each other — clarifying and confusing in almost equal measure,” writes the Post.

But in this new wired world, Putin cannot hide. We are all witnesses now. And we will testify against him.

(Steven Roberts teaches politics and journalism at George Washington University. His new book is “Cokie: A Life Well Lived.” He can be contacted by email at stevecokie@gmail.com.).

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