With his nation under siege and Russian-backed disinformation accusing him of having fled the country, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy took to Twitter to set the record straight. Standing in the streets of Kyiv, looking into his smartphone camera, he stated the facts: Ukraine would continue to fight, and Zelenskyy was not going anywhere.
Part of what made Zelenskyy's remarks so powerful is that just a few decades ago, such a declaration would have been impossible He would have needed TV cameras, reporters, broadcasting infrastructure, and more.
Over the course of this nascent war, Zelenskyy has used social media masterfully—not just to garner global support for the Ukrainian people, but to actively combat Russian misinformation that could imperil Ukraine. Technology, especially social media, is playing a defining role in the conflict—largely to the benefit of Ukraine.
It is a moment that provides a fresh perspective on the “techlash”—the dramatic political course correction from the techno-optimism of the early 2000s that has deemed the tech industry and social media responsible for climate denial, COVID skepticism, and a slew of other societal and political crises.
The positive role tech is playing in Ukraine now has underlined just how far we have overcorrected. Policymakers’ blanket condemnation of the tech industry as a negative force over the last half decade leaves no room to acknowledge the critical good it can, and does, provide. Nor does it acknowledge the complex content moderation decisions tech platforms are being forced to make.
Beyond Zelenskyy's social media mastery, everyday Ukrainians posting on Facebook, TikTok, and other platforms are managing to arrange evacuation by harnessing the connections of their online social networks—and share firsthand videos documenting the devastation of Russian missiles for the world to see. Ukrainian newspapers, once locally read, have exploded on Twitter and other platforms as sources of real-time information on the war.
It is this widespread and ubiquitous connectivity that helps to get critical information to both Russia and Ukraine. Only tech services can provide it.
Russia’s news media system is so regulated that social media is often cited as the only platform to amplify anti-Putin messaging or challenge Russian propaganda from within the country. Putin knows that services like Facebook and Twitter hold immense power to foment resistance against his war—which is exactly why he's banned them.
The vital role of online platforms to provide information harkens back to the 2011 Arab Spring, which demonstrated the benefits of tech as a democratizing tool that could bring a voice and platform to the voiceless. Social media spread activists' messages across the globe with ease, circumventing the traditional power structures that might have historically limited their reach.
Of course, this was well before 2016, when we all came to grips with the rise of mis- and disinformation and Russia's interference in the 2016 U.S. election. Since then, the world has soured on techno-optimism, with overall trust in tech dropping from 77 percent in 2012 to 68 percent in 2021. Now, experts are pointing out that such distrust is halting progress in promising spaces like AI.
This is not to say we should return to the utopian thinking of the early 2000s. The honeymoon phase for tech is over, and for good reason. It also is not to say that tech companies are handling today's crisis perfectly—but they are trying. Many have grappled with when, if, and to what extent they should ban their services in Russia, censor information, and regulate who can use their platforms. All the while, bad actors work to skirt the rules online.
The techno-optimism of the early 21st century is rightfully dead. But now we find ourselves on a new frontier, where because of the techlash, online platforms are better prepared to address mis- and disinformation and we, as users, rightly hold them accountable.
We are seeing in Ukraine that these platforms can not only make the world a better, more open place, but that they are investing in the tools and resources necessary to do so. It is time to again reassess our take on how tech platforms wield their power. We can hold tech companies to high standards without crippling the integral, democratizing platforms that tech has built.
Adam Kovacevich is a longtime Democratic congressional and campaign aide who is CEO of Chamber of Progress, a center-left tech industry association promoting technology’s progressive future. The Chamber's corporate partners include Meta, Twitter, and others. The views expressed are the author's own.