POINT OF VIEW
The rise of mobile broadband and advancements in social media are reshaping the way war is fought
The Russian aggression against Ukraine is the first major interstate war of the smartphone era. New information and communication technologies are reshaping the way war is fought. The Russian government is fighting on three fronts: a kinetic war in Ukraine; a war in Russia, where anti-war protesters want to force Russian President Vladimir Putin to withdraw from Ukraine; and a war for world public opinion.
Of the three, information technology matters. In Ukraine, smartphones record both war crimes and Russian troop movements. In Russia, the remaining social networks help organize protests and coordinate the dispatch of lawyers to support detainees. In the global information battlefield, videos from both sides are trying to persuade third countries to speed up or slow down the delivery of arms and introduce (or help circumvent) unprecedented economic sanctions .
The idea that information and its absence matter in times of war is not new. In his posthumously published treatise On the war, the famous military theorist Carl von Clausewitz underlined the importance of the “fog of war”. War disrupts normal media reporting, greatly increasing uncertainty; thus, information that reduces – or increases – that uncertainty can significantly affect the outcome of a war.
While the importance of information to warfare has always been understood, the recent dramatic rise of mobile broadband internet and advancements in social media have radically transformed the way information is collected and disseminated. According to the International Telecommunication Union, in 2007 the world had only 0.04 active mobile broadband subscriptions per capita. In 2021, there were 0.83, or 20 times more. This growth has occurred in both developed and developing economies. Developing economies’ rates were 0.006 in 2007 and 0.73 in 2021. In Russia, the figure is now above 1, which means almost everyone is online. Mobile broadband has displaced fixed broadband as the main source of high-speed internet access. Fixed broadband subscriptions worldwide only increased from 0.05 per capita in 2007 to 0.17 in 2021.
The third and fourth generations of mobile broadband technology, known as 3G and 4G, have taken a qualitative leap forward from previous generations by allowing users to take photos, record videos and distribute them immediately in the whole world. The spread of 3G and 4G has thus become a key driver of the growth of social networks. Today, the world has nearly 3 billion people on Facebook, 2.5 billion on YouTube and 1.5 billion on Instagram. The vast majority of social media usage is on mobile devices.
As Martin Gurri argues in his prophetic book Public revolt and the crisis of authority in the new millennium, this technological shift has major political implications. The self-immolation of Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi in December 2010 sparked the Arab Spring as it was recorded on a smartphone and went viral. A similar self-immolation by another street vendor, Abdesslem Trimech, took place a few months earlier but went unrecorded and largely unnoticed. The Arab Spring demonstrated the sea change in the way the media operates. Most of Qatari TV channel Al Jazeera’s coverage of the Arab Spring came from cellphone videos posted on social media, not from professional cameramen.
The same goes for today’s war in Ukraine, the first major conflict in this era of radical transparency. Civilians and soldiers hold smartphones, take photos, record videos and post them on social media. And yet, that did not dispel the fog of war. The problem is not a lack of information; the challenge is too much information, much of it unverified. Broadband Internet and social media lend themselves well to the dissemination of exciting and outrageous content, not necessarily truthful information. Over the past decade we have already seen the skillful use of social media by populist politicians. In our article “3G Internet and Trust in Government”, Nikita Melnikov, Ekaterina Zhuravskaya and I show that the spread of mobile broadband explains about half of the recent rise of populism in Europe.
But social media is not just for populists. It’s also the tool of choice for a new generation of non-demonic rulers—Daniel Treisman and I call them “spin dictators.” In our new book of the same name, we argue that most of today’s undemocracies are no longer based on fear and mass repression. Instead, they manipulate information. They deceive the public into thinking they are competent leaders. They claim to be democratically elected. While admitting the imperfections of their electoral procedures, they claim that these imperfections are no different from those of the West.
For these so-called spin dictators, social media provides a great platform. Unsurprisingly, Putin, one of the main inspirations for our book, has invested heavily in Internet information warfare over the past 10 years. Troll factories, social media bots, anonymous Telegram channels and Facebook ad campaigns have all played a key role in his political strategy at home and abroad. Now he applies these tools to the war with Ukraine. This time around, his job is much tougher: while we see first-hand evidence of war crimes in Ukraine, he is definitely losing the information war in the West. But that only raises the stakes for him at home. He must convince at least a substantial part of the Russian public that he is fighting a just war. That’s why just a week after the start of the war, he shut down all remaining independent media, blocked most Western social media, and introduced military censorship. Public statements contradicting the official version of events are now punishable by 15 years in prison.
Did it work? Yes and no. Polls have recorded a rapid growth in Putin’s approval ratings, from 60% to 80%. On the other hand, faced with the dramatic increase in repression, the polls are no longer reliable. First, there has been a huge drop in response rates. Second, list experiments — a special technique used by political scientists to infer the average level of support without asking people direct questions — suggest that many Russians have reverted to the Soviet practice of “preference falsification.” Yet even in list experiments, 53% of Russians support the war, according to Philipp Chapkovsky and Max Schaub in their paper “Are the Russians telling the truth when they say they support the war in Ukraine? Evidence from a list experiment. Russian government propaganda works.
The spread of mobile broadband explains about half of the recent rise of populism in Europe
In addition to supporting the Ukrainian military with weapons and imposing new sanctions on Russia, the West should therefore devote more resources to the information battle for Russian minds. It is not impossible. Russia is not China and there is no Great Firewall. Some social media, the most important being YouTube and Telegram, are not blocked. VPNs are not prohibited. Compared to the days of the Cold War, when the West used Russian-language radio programs from Radio Free Europe, Radio Liberty, the BBC and Deutsche Welle, today there are many more opportunities to reach the Russian public, providing facts about the war and facts. verification of Russian propaganda. Winning the information war in Russia will help win it on other fronts and prevent future invasions by the Putin regime.
Opinions expressed in articles and other materials are those of the authors; they do not necessarily reflect IMF policy.