How Zelenskyy, Putin and Elon Musk Are Fighting the Information War Over Ukraine

Putin is playing hardball, but experts say he might be working from an outdated playbook

Russia Ukraine Putin Elon Musk
CNN/Getty Images

Sharon Waxman

Sharon Waxman On the Business of Entertainment

The founder and editor of TheWrap’s take on life on the left coast, high culture, low culture and the business of entertainment and media. Waxman writes frequently on the inside doings of Hollywood, and is is also the author of two books, Rebels on the Back Lot and Loot

This past weekend, Elon Musk’s Twitter followers asked him to deactivate all the Tesla cars in Russia. This is something he could do, more or less with the push of a button. 

The Tesla mogul didn’t do that, but he did call the Twitter-savvy Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and offer to keep Ukraine connected to the Internet via his Starlink satellite as Russia continues to commandeer large portions of his country’s infrastructure. 

New lines are being drawn every day in the information war that is the companion of the horrific shooting war in Ukraine. And while Zelenskyy has riveted the world with his inspiring social media messages, Russian President Vladimir Putin is playing hardball – signing a new censorship law that threatens prison if you call his invasion “war” rather than a “special military operation.”

But experts say that Putin may well be playing from an outdated playbook, despite having overwhelming technological superiority.

“We are watching Russia turn into the Soviet Union of the early 1980s when information was impossible to get, and they were trapped inside their own information silo,” Olga Lautman, a Russia analyst who lives in the United States, told me. “But,” she said, “in the short term, they may silence people. Long-term, it will not succeed.”

Troy Hunt, a cybersecurity specialist based in Australia, agreed. “It’s never going to be like what it was in the Cold War, in terms of being able to chop off information coming from the West,” he said, referring to the new censorship law. “Obviously it has a big impact. But you’ve got so many people that have access to technology that can easily circumvent these controls.”

Moves and countermoves in controlling information have come fast and furious in the past week. Facebook and Twitter moved aggressively to remove Russian bots sowing confusion and misinformation, unlike instances in the past. And in turn, Russia banned Facebook for choking off state-run news. 

The BBC suspended operations in Russia because of the censorship threat — as did CNN, ABC, CBS and Bloomberg – but the service also resurrected World War II-era short-wave radio frequencies to broadcast news in Ukraine and Russia. As might have been expected, Russia forced the shutdown of U.S.-backed Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty by pushing the service into bankruptcy early Sunday, while that same day both TikTok and Netflix shut down their services in the country.

For the moment WhatsApp and Instagram continue to operate unfettered in Russia. Based on data from eMarketer reported by the Washington Post, only about 7.3% of internet users in Russia are on Facebook, compared with 51% for Instagram and 66% for WhatsApp.

It’s this sort of dynamic that is driving a new and entirely unpredictable chapter in the information war that is raging over Ukraine. 

“Can you have an Iron Curtain – of the economy and of information – in our interconnected world? I don’t think we know how it all plays out,” said Stephen Engelberg, a former New York Times correspondent in the Soviet bloc now serving as the editor in chief of ProPublica. “An awful lot of people (in Russia) seem to believe there’s a Nazi problem in Ukraine. How many believe it? It’s a good question.”

“It is much harder to do a total lockdown in the tech era,” said Susan Chira, the former foreign editor of the New York Times and editor in chief of The Marshall Project, a journalism nonprofit focused on criminal justice. “They are tech-savvy and are trying to do what the Chinese have done. But people are determined to get the word out, and they are pretty creative.” 

That said, Chira spoke to friends in Russia over the weekend who confirmed that police were stopping people on the street and in airports and demanding to view their text messages. “It may be a cat and mouse game,” she said, adding, “It’s fierce. It’s really fierce.”

Hunt added: ”We have tens of millions of people with access to technology – that is a great leveler… You’ve got so many people that have access to technology that can easily circumvent controls.” 

Lautman also noted the broader public access to mobile phones and other technology. ”The people who are dying in Ukraine have family. The information will be reported via phones,” she pointed out. “During the Soviet Union, there was no technology. Now we’re in the information age. Because of the internet, younger people will figure out the workarounds.” 

Lautman also said that Russian people will not tolerate the severe squeeze that the international sanctions will mean to their daily lives. 

“In the 1980s, people were used to standing in bread lines. You can’t put the genie back in the bottle. You have some wealthier Russians traveling to France, buying Louis Vuitton. You cannot undo that. Right now every single company is exiting Russia,” she said, noting that there was a rush on Ikea in Moscow when the company announced it was pulling out. 

Economic sanctions aside, there is no doubt that in the short term, accurate information will be hard to come by in Russia.  

Russia’s independent radio station Echo of Moscow was “liquidated” by its board. The independent television station TV Rain said it had suspended operations and Novaya Gazeta, an independent newspaper that had been the subject of attacks in recent years, was also close to shutting down, according to numerous media reports. 

Engelberg pointed out that Ukraine has done a pretty good job of commandeering information itself, with Zelenskyy on a 24/7 tweetstorm offensive and some potent memes going viral on the internet, like one about 13 heroic Ukrainian border guards who told a Russian warship to “go fuck themselves” ahead of an attack (and who survived the assault but are now captured prisoners of war).

“We’re in some pretty virgin territory,” Engelberg said. 

You are reading a WrapPRO exclusive article that has been made available (for free) today. If you would like to have access to all of our member-only stories and virtual events, please CLICK HERE to receive 7 free days of WrapPRO –> The Essential Source for Entertainment Insiders.