How Ukrainian Civilians Are Using Phones to Share the Invasion With the World
From connecting with loved ones to spreading footage of the war, Ukrainians use their phones as an essential tool.
David LumbMobile Reporter
David Lumb is a mobile reporter covering how on-the-go gadgets like phones, tablets and smartwatches change our lives. Over the last decade, he's reviewed phones for TechRadar as well as covered tech, gaming, and culture for Engadget, Popular Mechanics, NBC Asian America, Increment, Fast Company and others. As a true Californian, he lives for coffee, beaches and burritos.
Expertisesmartphones, smartwatches, tablets, telecom industry, mobile semiconductors, mobile gaming
They're not relying on sophisticated gear as they share videos and photos of the destruction and violence. Rather, they're using the tools they've long relied on to communicate: smartphones, social media, messaging apps and a widespread telecommunications network that's so far been spared from devastation.
Footage and information isn't being blocked, so it's flooding out of the country and into the world in a way that hasn't happened at this scale.
The exact amount of videos flowing out of Ukraine is hard to estimate, said Lukas Andriukaitis, associate director of the Atlantic Council's Digital Forensic Research Lab, but it's coming from multiple sources. Though Ukrainian soldiers are recording some videos, most of the footage is coming from everyday people.
"There is a huge influx for sure," Andriukaitis said. "Now, when the occupying forces are going through Ukrainian towns and villages, civilians are recording them."
The war in Ukraine is the latest example of how current events, from the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020 to the deadly riot at the US Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, are being broadcast in real time. Viewers around the world aren't waiting for the nightly news, or even for journalistic authority, to absorb a rapidly changing conflict. They're getting raw information in video footage, photos and frontline dispatches from common people.
The overall effect is a daily flood of footage that's exposed the world to tragedy and resolve in a way that can't be done by official government statements or polished news reports. And this sets the Ukraine war apart from other recent conflicts, like the Armenian-Azerbaijan border strife, where much of the phone-recorded footage is taken by soldiers. In Ukraine, civilians are taking most of the videos, and forensic specialists say that little, if any, of the footage is doctored.
"We are not seeing much inauthentic or old video content in this conflict," Benjamin Strick, director of investigations at the Centre for Information Resilience, told CNET over email. His organization is monitoring footage coming from Ukraine. "Much of the footage we are seeing actually comes from civilians filming on the ground. ... We are seeing primarily footage filmed from balconies, outside of windows, dashcams, or just passersby on the street that are 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.
Chat app lifeline: Is what's happening really happening?
Beyond using chat apps and social media to stay in touch, Ukrainians are tapping them to record the war and share information on it with one another and the outside world. Videos and images appear on Twitter and online forums like Reddit, but many posts spread through the country first on Telegram, Ukrainians' platform of choice for consuming news. Ukrainian government ministries, news organizations and enterprising individuals have spread the content further in scrollable feeds followed by millions of people.
Some of the biggest channels are now focusing on the war. Ukraine Now, one of the largest in the country with 1.1 million subscribers, was a verified account publishing official COVID-19 pandemic information until it pivoted to sharing invasion updates from the government and other sources. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy uploads his video speeches to the 1.5 million people following his own channel. And videos taken by civilians are published by the likes of Ukrainian news outlet Mirror Weekly's channel before they're posted elsewhere online.
This flood of information goes straight to Ukrainian smartphones, but not all of it is accurate, either because of unintentional mistakes in the fog of war or because of intentional deception. According to a recent report from the University of Texas, Ukrainian users surveyed were more trusting of information they came across on encrypted messaging apps like Telegram, Viber and Signal due to their privacy features, making encrypted messaging apps ripe for propaganda campaigns.
Sam Woolley, co-author of the report and program director of the propaganda research team at the university's Center for Media Engagement, says misinformation and propaganda still jam Ukrainian messaging apps today. Meanwhile, he says, Ukraine has a very advanced digital propaganda system and is using it to push back on Russian propaganda via its social media accounts and channels, and to call attention to devastating attacks while asking other countries to intervene.
"In a lot of ways, we're seeing a conflict play out on social media, but also on chat apps, in a way we really haven't before," Woolley said.
Verified video: A process between citizens and Western eyes
Due to video footage flooding the internet, the world has seen Russian tanks and aircraft moving through Ukraine, and it's witnessed fires at nuclear power plants and holes punched in apartments. The risky part? Clips can be faked, years old or taken from other conflicts. A patchwork effort of international groups is working to verify the authenticity of videos out of Ukraine and create resources to know what's happening where.
One of the easiest to follow is the Russia-Ukraine Monitor Map, which tags videos to locations in Ukraine, Belarus and Russia with context and a warning for severity of graphic content. The map is a collaboration between the Centre for Information Resilience and the open-source community, including Bellingcat, a collective of experts that for years has released disinformation reports and media authenticity tips.
Though some footage has been manipulated or been recirculated from older conflicts such as the ongoing Syrian civil war, the CIR's Strick said video verifiers aren't seeing much inauthentic or old video content. With so many Ukrainians uploading video, the sheer volume is making it easier to authenticate footage compared with videos from other conflict zones like Cameroon, Sudan, Libya, Yemen and others that CIR monitors.
"There is an extremely overwhelming amount of footage available on Russia's invasion of Ukraine, even right down to specific incidents where we are getting two, three, even four alternative angles of a specific attack. Whereas in Myanmar or Afghanistan, we sometimes struggle to get one," Strick told CNET over email. "The footage from Ukraine is often very clear, quite high definition and often much easier to verify than some areas."
Digital Forensic Research Lab Associate Director Andriukaitis described another factor he says has left Ukrainian citizens in control of the narrative. Stricter mobile phone discipline from soldiers -- notably reports of Russian troops leaving their cell phones at the border before stepping into Ukraine -- means most videos seen today come directly from citizens as they record the destruction of their cities from their balconies and streets.
"One thing that is different is that the Russian military is very, very strict with their soldiers not using phones. It makes sense. It's for operational security," Andriukaitis said.
Verifying videos, though, is an onerous process, and not everything can be checked. Analysts must scrutinize details like uniforms, debris, damage and lengths of shadows, as well as compare the background to the real-world locations purportedly depicted in the video. Video descriptions and comments on social media help with context, along with metadata embedded in photos and videos, if recorders haven't stripped it to avoid government tracking.
As the next few weeks develop, the only thing for certain is that more footage will be recorded and uploaded for the world to see, at least as long as cell service remains in Ukraine. And as that footage comes, Andriukaitis and his peers will continue to choose which videos to verify and archive, while avoiding tactical troop movements. The Kremlin has denied that Russia is targeting noncombatants, but Andriukaitis and peers are focusing on the bombing of civilians and other possible war crimes.
"We see a lot of value in that because this will stay in the archives," Andriukaitis said. "And at some point, Russians will have to answer for their crimes."