Source: J. Pickens (2022) composite, tank is a public domain image by piafra on FAVPNG
Posts on this forum often review the latest technologies that impact behavior and mental health. From mindfulness and self-help apps to new brain stimulation techniques, the Psychology Through Technology blog covers cutting-edge technology from a psychological perspective. Sometimes I complain about the tricky inconveniences technology brings with it, like recovering lost passwords and proving that “I’m not a robot.” However, in today’s world, faced with a global pandemic, climate change and the Russian invasion of Ukraine, these pet peeves seem innocuous. Instead, let’s look at the bigger picture of how technology is making history and changing our world in unexpected ways.
We already know that technology changes lives. From motorized wheelchairs to text-to-speech, from the Internet to Wi-Fi, technology is improving mobility, data sharing and communication. Today, data sharing and communications are changing our world and making history.
Some have speculated that Twitter played a role in spreading information during the “Arab Spring,” which involved a series of anti-government protests that spread across much of the Arab world in 2010. Platforms social media such as Facebook, YouTube. and Twitter were widely used to criticize governments and rally protesters from Bahrain to Tunisia. Of course, these platforms have also been used to spread negative images about protesters. Like any tool, social media can be used by all parties to a conflict for messaging or propaganda purposes. Moreover, it was cyber hackers who shut down government websites in Tunisia. These information wars continue in the recent war in Ukraine.
Ukraine lagged much of the world in internet access, even before the Russian invasion. Online access is degraded by infrastructure attacks, however, Ukraine has taken some early steps to protect its digital systems. To limit access to its networks, the Ukrainian government has ordered telephone operators Kyivstar, Vodafone and Lifecell to shut down network access from Russia and Belarus.
The Ukrainian government must communicate with its people, as millions of refugees are driven from their homes, while other brave citizens defend their country. As the Russian military has attacked Ukrainian television and communications towers, new connections are being provided by Starlink, a satellite internet subsidiary of Elon Musk’s rocket company SpaceX. A StarLink satellite has been put into operational orbit and is providing internet service in Ukraine. Ukrainians equipped with StarLink stations can access the Internet using small satellite dishes to stay connected and communicate from anywhere. Satellite internet is essential during a war in which cellular and fiber optic cables are destroyed. It is a technology that makes a critical difference that could help determine military and governmental outcomes in a war.
And the Russian people? What information are they authorized to receive?
Millions of people are flocking to platforms such as Facebook, TikTok and Twitter for round-the-clock updates on the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Yet these platforms face a flood of disinformation and propaganda from Russia’s state-backed media. European governments have urged social media platforms to suspend Russian state-controlled media and the personal accounts of oligarchs. Others have called on social media platforms to censor any material glorifying or justifying violence, war and genocide.
The ideal is that the Internet gives citizens access to information that will allow them to positively influence their governments and their policies. We are far from this ideal, and yet the hope is there that better access to information and images will eventually lead to greater openness and democratization. In the meantime, be prepared to read continuous reports and rebuttals, disputing information and sources from all sides.
In our modern technological world, information is weaponized. In the fog of war and against the backdrop of potential disinformation, we must remain vigilant as consumers of information. Technology is changing what we see and hear around the world, and in this context we need to think critically about what is real and what is not. We must also remain aware that each of us contributes to this dynamic through the type of information that we consume, believe and share.