Since Russia invaded Ukraine, the world has gotten a first-hand look at the war as ordinary Ukrainians document the fighting that is sweeping their country.
They don’t rely on sophisticated equipment when sharing videos and photos of destruction and violence. Rather, they are using the tools they have long relied on to communicate: smartphones, social media, messaging apps, and a widespread telecommunications network that has so far escaped ravages. Footage and information are not blocked, so they are flooding out of the country and into the world in a way that has never been seen on this scale.
The exact amount of video flowing out of Ukraine is difficult to estimate, said Lukas Andriukaitis, deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, but it comes from multiple sources. Although Ukrainian soldiers record some videos, most of the footage is from ordinary people. “There’s definitely a huge influx,” said Andriukaitis. “Now, when the occupiers move through Ukrainian towns and villages, they are taken in by civilians.” The war in Ukraine is the latest example of how current events, from the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020 to the deadly rioting at the US Capitol on 6/1/2021, are broadcast in real-time. Viewers around the world are not waiting for the nightly news, let alone journalistic authority, to process a rapidly changing conflict. They receive raw information in the form of video footage, photos and frontline reports from ordinary people.
The overall effect is a daily deluge of footage exposing the world to tragedy and being resolved in ways that cannot be matched by official government statements or elaborate news reports. And that distinguishes the Ukraine war from other recent conflicts, like the border dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan, where much of the footage recorded on the phone is taken by soldiers.
In Ukraine, civilians record most of the videos, and forensic scientists say little, if any, of the footage has been manipulated. “We don’t see a lot of inauthentic or old video content in this conflict,” Benjamin Strick, investigator at the Center for Information Resilience, told CNET via email. His organization monitors footage from Ukraine. “A lot of the footage we see is actually of civilians filming on the ground. … We mostly see footage filmed from balconies, outside windows, dash cams, or just by passers-by on the street filming these events.”
Spreading the word, staying in touch, checking if alive
Since the invasion, smartphones have become much more than just a way for Ukrainians to gossip with friends or order dinner. They’ve been a lifeline for people to understand what’s happening elsewhere in the country and to check on the safety of friends and family.
Natalie Jaresko, former finance minister of Ukraine, likens the ability to communicate to “another form of air.”
“At night, when you’re at the bunker, you don’t have a connection. And those hours are the most difficult because you’re so alone other than the people who are in the bomb shelter with you,” Jaresko told CNET’s Roger Cheng. “But when you come out, you have everyone’s outpouring of love and concern right there. And you can return to that communication with the people you love.”
Ukrainians have been using a broad mix of mobile apps and tools to stay in touch, from messaging and social media app Telegram to video and text chat service Viber to WhatsApp to Facebook Messenger to Signal to Twitter and more. Viber is installed on 98% of smartphones in Ukraine. The company behind the app says that since the start of the war, it’s seen a more than 200% increase in both audio messages and calls.
No matter the app, though, Ukrainians are using these tools to contact friends and family both domestically and abroad, and to navigate with maps and GPS to escape the country. And for the 2 million refugees like Jaresko who’ve left Ukraine, they use them to check if loved ones back home are OK.
“I can tell whether they’re alive or dead at any given time, where they physically are,” Jaresko said.
Mobile access continues, so long as the network stays up
Depending on who you ask, it’s either an oversight or a Russian strategic move that Ukrainian networks are still functioning. Telecom service has been mostly spared from the devastation affecting parts of the country, but some experts suspect that the communications infrastructure used by civilians and military alike has been deliberately left intact so Russians can listen in, as Politico reported last week.
“I’m a little surprised that Russians haven’t screwed with [Ukraine’s mobile network] more, frankly,” said James Lewis, senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “But I assume that means they’re collecting [data] off it.”
Network redundancy makes today’s mobile networks tougher to disrupt than landline systems. If one cell tower gets knocked out, your phone just connects to another one. Lewis has a list of possibilities of why Russia hasn’t crippled Ukraine’s network with physical and cyberattacks, but he also noted that telecoms from other European countries are helping from afar to keep phone calls and data flowing.
Lifecell, the third-largest telecom in Ukraine, confirmed to CNET over email that it’s registered a significant increase in calls and data, as many subscribers have lost Wi-Fi access or are hiding in bomb shelters. Just as foreign telecoms have stopped charging for calls and data into Ukraine, Lifecell has given subscribers some free minutes and data, with more portioned out to military, law enforcement and emergency personnel.
Still, some regions enduring the brunt of the Russian shelling and destruction, including the cities of Kharkiv, Chernihiv, Luhansk and Donetsk in the disputed Donbas region, and parts of Kyiv, have lost coverage, Lifecell confirmed. National telecoms operator Ukrtelecom, which oversees mobile and internet service, had restored up to 77% of its regional communication nodes by Thursday, after reported combat damage earlier in the week caused outages in some cities.
But other observers believe communications are still up because Russia underestimated Ukrainian resistance. Alex Bornyakov, Ukrainian deputy minister of digital transformation, told CNET over email that Russian forces didn’t initially attack any communication channels or physical infrastructure, but that that’s changed as they’ve moved deeper into the country.
“The first week, in most of the country, we still had good reception and the internet was working fine,” Bornyakov said. “Once they approached the big cities, they tried to cut [connectivity]. People instantly [started] repairing it.”
But as bombing and shelling has intensified in some cities, the situation has become more volatile. “They’re just bombing [networks] instantly, and [Ukrainians] are unable to fix it,” Bornyakov said.