Beyond Borderland Conference: Panel 2 Summary

The TCUP conference’s second panel, “Digital Transformations,” addressed the question of how the internet influences sovereignty in the twenty-first century. The panel drew together experts on media studies, as well as journalists and a practitioner working in digital governance, to examine the question of digital sovereignty from multiple angles. 

Panel 2 poster with panelists and their photos

Moderator Tetyana Lokot began by asking panelists about the role of digital technology in Ukraine’s democratic transformations since 1991. The panelists pointed to the recurring mass protests in Ukraine in the 2000s. Olga Boichak described the role of the 2004 Orange Revolution in developing the internet as a site for political organizing, which was scaled up during the Euromaidan protests in 2013-2014. In particular, she mentioned Ukrains´ka Pravda, one of the first and most significant online news outlets, as establishing the internet as a way to circumvent government repression of freedom of speech. Nataliya Gumenyuk also referenced Ukrains´ka Pravda and the murder of its founding editor, Heorhiy Gongadze, noting that then-president Leonid Kuchma learned from this moment that the internet was outside of his (and all political) control. Gumenyuk also pointed out that the development of Ukrains´ka Pravda and other online news outlets in Ukraine is different from the rise of citizen journalism, because in these cases, professional journalists were developing online media to evade repression in TV and print outlets. Ukrainian investigative journalism, she argued, was born in these online outlets. 
Anna Bulakh laid out the digital market in Ukraine, particularly noting a recent shift from outsourcing in Ukraine’s information technology sector toward developing tech products. Here, she argued, we see a parallel development of support fields, but also problems, such as a lack of legislation protecting data. Bulakh said that the development of products with sufficient security—what she called “digital resilience”—must be central to the Ministry of Digital Transformation’s work digitizing Ukraine’s government services through its Diia app. The need for security has been particularly urgent since 2014, she said, when Ukraine experienced a surge in cyber and information attacks. Peter Pomerantsev added that there is potential for empowering citizens through online budgeting, town halls, and creating consensus through digital technologies, and that Ukraine’s young democracy might be better suited to pioneer these uses of technology than older democracies with long-established systems. Pomerantsev advocated for governments letting go of some of their power by distributing decision making through technology, arguing that this may even help build trust in governing bodies and representatives. 
Lokot then introduced the concept of “digital sovereignty” or “technological sovereignty”—a term often used in the Russian and Chinese contexts that points to increased state control and limits over the use of technology. Boichak explained that up until 2013, the Ukrainian and Russian patterns of digital usage overlapped; in 2017, when the use of Russian platforms were banned in Ukraine, there was a threefold decline in their use. At the same time, however, those in Ukraine who continued to use these platforms got even more radicalized and anti-Ukrainian. She concluded that there is nothing inherent to digital media that makes them a space for democracy, so we should be cautious about putting too much stock in the effectiveness of these technologies for democracy-building. Bulakh continued in that vein, discussing the role of social media in spreading disinformation. She pointed out the increased sophistication of the tools of disinformation, including new abilities to create deepfakes and other kinds of synthetic media. Thus, Ukrainian state approaches to security in the information technology sphere must be different than the approaches to non-digitized infrastructures, which must be protected in the real world. Bulakh also pushed back against a nationally limited idea of technological sovereignty, arguing that in terms of security and product building, Ukraine is focusing on the European Union’s digital market and Western digital innovation. In other words, innovation is built with openness, and Ukraine is contributing to global innovation in the spheres of artificial intelligence and machine learning. The focus should be, rather, on developing a national global resiliency to maintain digital spaces for good actors. Pomerantsev further connected the idea of “information sovereignty” with surveillance practices in Russia and China, but, he asked, what is the democratic version of this kind of sovereignty? He argued that Ukraine can be at the forefront of defining the principles of malicious uses of the internet, including Russian intervention in the 2016 U.S. elections. If Ukraine can help define the package of behaviors that are not acceptable, the limits of information aggression, then we can create a kind of “information NATO” where an attack on one country is considered an attack on all, and therefore merits a response. 
Lokot turned next to the problem of “hybrid” warfare, which Boichak pointed out is a term we take for granted. What we usually mean is a blurring of the distinction between the physical and digital battlegrounds. In Ukraine, there are further blurred distinctions, such as between military and civilian, public and private, and witness and weapons—the weaponization of eyewitness reports and testimony. This hybridity makes it difficult to assess causes and effects, but at the same time, it is an opportunity to build new social infrastructures to address this kind of warfare. Bulakh called information warfare one of the most cost-effective tools of aggression, because it is cheap and generates immediate results in the form of societal and economic damage. Most recently, information warfare has undermined Ukraine’s path toward becoming a prosperous country. She advocated for businesses to develop their resilience capacity and consider the impact IT products might make on society more broadly.
Gumenyuk further picked up on the theme of disinformation, claiming that Ukraine understood too late the ways that social media could be misused as a tool for bad actors (in her 2013 experience, there was a perception that misinformation came through television, and that internet users were less susceptible to misinformation and propaganda coming to them through social media). But Gumenyuk cautioned against mixing the conflict in the form of physical war and the conflict in the information space. She discussed the challenges peacebuilding organizations face in the conflict zone because they have not yet figured out how to deal with social media. For instance, one tweet can influence how one group thinks another group sees them. Gumenyuk asked, Can social media platforms operate differently and be more cautious in different contexts? Technological developments give us new chances to bring people together and give access to people in Crimea and Donbas who are otherwise largely cut off from the rest of Ukraine. 
The open discussion turned toward the issue of media literacy and its meaning. Gumenyuk pointed out that it’s important to understand how media works; there must be transparency and purpose in how media operates. This shifted into a conversation about the regulation of media and social platforms such as Facebook—Bulakh was optimistic that automatic moderation of content could serve a helpful purpose in limiting information that does harm to someone’s life, discriminates against someone, or is directly illegal. But Boichak mentioned that there are always ways to circumvent efforts to regulate misinformation, and these technological solutions can always be weaponized. 
Pomerantsev took the position that within the context of war, censorship of an adversary becomes an option. But Gumenyuk took the side of freedom of speech, pointing out that Ukraine was an authoritarian state for many years, and many Ukrainians had no chance to speak in this context. The country had not developed a culture of dialogue and discussion because independent media was too small and bigger media was owned by oligarchs. It is important, Gumenyuk said, to make sure people feel free to speak up and speak out. But she also cautioned that the most important thing to countering disinformation, rather than more security, is finding ways to earn people’s trust. Gumenyuk ended on an optimistic note in answer to a question about bringing balanced news to the occupied Donbas territories. While she said that her ongoing research with Pomerantsev shows that very few media serve people’s needs there, understanding what people want from media is the place to begin. We have to be ready for some things not to work, but if we double or triple our efforts, we can create media that meets people’s needs in the occupied territories.
The conference continues tomorrow with a keynote lecture by Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch, who will be introduced by Dr. Benjamin Schmitt. Tune in tomorrow at noon!