Earlier this year, Meta, the company that owns Facebook and Instagram, announced that people could create posts calling for violence against Russia on its social media platforms. This was unprecedented. One of the world’s largest technology firms very publicly picked sides in a geopolitical conflict. Russia was now not just fighting a country but also multinational companies with financial stakes in the outcome. In response, Russia announced a ban on Instagram within its borders. The fallout was significant. The ban, which eventually included Facebook, cost Meta close to $2 billion.
Through the war in Ukraine, technology companies are showing how their decisions can affect geopolitics, which is a massive shift from the past. Technology companies have been either dragged into conflicts because of how customers were using their services (e.g., people putting their houses in the West Bank on Airbnb) or have followed the foreign policy of governments (e.g., SpaceX supplying Internet to Iran after the United States removed some sanctions).
Now, technology companies are independently shaping war in real time by deciding what capabilities to supply, and what pushback they are willing to tolerate.
This is leading to a new global reality. Any country (or group) with geopolitical ambitions can no longer plan only for how nations might respond, but also must consider how technology companies might respond. From my perspective as an expert in the convergence of technology and geopolitics, the beliefs and ideologies of technology executives now matter as much as those of politicians.
The Internet is a prime example. When the war began, Russian forces moved to paralyze Ukraine by controlling critical infrastructure—like nuclear power plants. The Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, for example, of which Russia has taken control, generates one fifth of Ukraine’s electricity.
This strategy didn’t work for the Internet. Just days after the Ukraine war began, U.S.-based SpaceX chose sides, and began supplying Starlink, its satellite-based Internet service, to the Ukrainian government, allowing Kiev to retaliate against Russian forces. One of Ukraine’s most lethal drone divisions, Aerorozvidka, was only able to strike Russian forces because of access to Starlink.
By October, 2022, the total cost to SpaceX for delivering Starlink terminals to Ukraine reached $80 million. Even with this relationship now in doubt, with the involvement of SpaceX, Ukraine was able to stop Russia from controlling the country’s Internet.
Social media has provided another point of control in the conflict. When Ukraine’s digital minister Mykhailo Fedorov said that Twitter had become a “tool to destroy Russian economy,” he was alluding to a larger play by Ukraine to use big tech against Russia. The lobbying of the technology world was effective. From Alphabet ending all advertising sales in Russia, to Apple banning VK, Russia’s largest social media platform, from its ecosystem, Russia’s society was “squeezed” digitally.
And, Ukraine’s lobbying effort was joined by big tech calling on other governments to take action. A European lobbying group called DigitalEurope, which includes firms like Amazon, has been calling on the European Union to donate technology infrastructure to Ukraine. However, cutting off Russia’s access to some social media platforms hasn’t led to a complete blackout: new Russian alternatives like Rossgram have popped up to replace Instagram.
And, as Russian forces battle against the Ukrainian resistance, satellite imagery is becoming crucial. Google has disabled live traffic functions in Ukraine, a feature that could give Russia insight into the locations of Ukrainian forces. At the same time, MDA, a Canadian space firm specializing in imagery intelligence, or geointelligence, received approval from the Canadian government to supply Ukraine with satellite imagery of Russian troop movements in Ukrainian territory. Until now, only Russia had “eyes” on Ukraine, through satellite imagery, because Russia was one of the few countries with space capabilities. But now, with the help of Western technology companies, Ukraine is gaining similar capabilities, and awareness, into the movement of Russian forces.
When the Ukraine conflict began, all eyes turned to Western governments, to see how they would respond. Would Russia be disconnected from the global financial system SWIFT? Could Europe withstand a new refugee crisis? Was the world ready for a global energy crunch? In all this, the role of technology companies was overlooked or misunderstood, whether in the form of Russia not anticipating Western technology companies helping Ukraine, or Western nations incorrectly assuming that cutting technology flows to Russia would end the war quicker. Even countries like China are in play, even though its technology companies haven’t taken a clear stance on the Ukraine war.
But it may be the decisions of technology firms that have the most lasting effect. Ukraine’s government wants to transform the country into a technology power after the war, like Israel. The Ukrainian president wants the country to become a “digital state,” more reliant on technology supplied by foreign companies as it reinvents itself. But more importantly, as technology companies shape the Ukraine war and help rebuild the nation, these firms may gain “control” over the most critical parts of the state—from infrastructure, such as the Internet, to defense, in the form of satellite imagery. These companies represent an independent force—separate from the Ukrainian government, the Russian government or the Ukrainian people.
Technology firms are changing the balance of power, as Ukraine acquires capabilities it didn’t have before and Russia, in some cases, is denied these capabilities. Of course, it’s not all pro-Ukraine. While many Western companies quickly exit Russia, many Asian companies continue their operations there.
Still, this heavily political movement in tech should be a wake-up call for nations around the world. Technology firms are no longer staying quiet in geopolitics for the sake of revenue, as many Western firms have done in China despite that nation’s behavior against its political enemies. Nor are they blindly following government decisions. They are acting independently, and at times, unexpectedly, to achieve geopolitical objectives—ones that they themselves have set. Going forward, having the support of Google or Meta will mean as much for a country as having the support of the world’s superpowers. And, alongside all this, nations relying on technology companies might have to contend with these businesses—and their leadership—changing their attitude at the drop of a hat.
With seemingly no end in sight to the Ukraine conflict, the stage is set for other technology firms to take even bolder action. Regardless of what their goals are, such as injecting themselves into conflicts where democracy is threatened, or how far these companies will go to achieve them, such as walking away from tens of millions of users, one thing has become clear: the more technology firms shape geopolitics, the more control they will have over the world; and it’s this control that countries and companies will wrestle over for years to come.
This is an opinion and analysis article, and the views expressed by the author or authors are not necessarily those of Scientific American.