The Internet, Policy & Politics Conferences

Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford

Olga Boichak: Battlefronts of a Virtual War: Crowdfunding Platforms Sustaining the Ukrainian Army in a Hybrid War with Russia

Olga Boichak, Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, Syracuse University

Amidst the natural and anthropogenic cataclysms, human systems are known to develop strategies for resilience using online tools and platforms. In the face of distinct national security threats, Ukrainians turned to social media to muster physical and technological resources needed to counteract further annexation of the state’s territories by Russia. In this instance, crowdfunding platforms facilitated a connection between social media users and the battlefront, where Ukrainian soldiers have been fighting the regular Russian Army troops for the past two years. Crowdfunding tools enabled the Ukrainian social media users both in Ukraine and abroad (digital diasporas) to provide the underfunded troops with much-needed ordnance and ammunition to continue their military operations in the war zone.

Apart from the heavy fighting on the ground, Russian Federation operated a vast-scale disinformation campaign aimed at internal destabilisation of Ukraine via social media ‘a case of hybrid warfare. The two-front war required a two-front response, and the digital aspect thereof has been tackled by a rapidly developing IT industry. At the beginning of the war in 2014, there were about 75,000 web and software developers in Ukraine, many of whom had the previous experience of the Maidan events from a year before. This context capacitated massive online collaboration among Ukrainians both at home and abroad to supplement for the failing efforts of the Ukrainian state aimed at defending its territorial integrity both online and on the ground. 

The paper taps into the Actor-Network Theory (ANT) to explore the massively multiplayer online (MMO) environment constructed by these crowdfunding platforms. The study aims to understand how human infrastructures support national security in times of crisis, particularly ways in which concerted virtual efforts translate into distinct material outcomes in the war zone. Using the ongoing military conflict in Eastern Ukraine as an empirical example, I analyze how the online technologies assume an imminently material form by allowing users to arm real-life soldiers on the battlefront. In order to shed light on the sociomaterial practices of humans and non-human objects, I recruited and interviewed 28 Facebook users, who were either involved in digital campaigning, or otherwise engaged in delivering the crowdfunded goods and services to beneficiaries as ‘boots on the ground’.

I conclude that, although the military conflict per se is devastatingly real, civilians living ordinary lives oftentimes perceive war as a persistent virtual reality. Urban residents (most of them hundreds of miles away from the frontlines) experience war only upon immersion in the online sphere ‘mostly through newsfeed updates on social media, which largely motivates the specificity and direction of their crowdfunding efforts. These platforms frequently share the interface of MMO engines, where technologically enabled humans can participate in a real war with the ease and convenience of a massively multiplayer online (MMO) environment as conceptualized by Golub [2014]. For instance, a 10-year-old Ukrainian-American recently spent his birthday money to purchase a used military vehicle for the 30th Brigade of the Ukrainian Armed Forces through one of the platforms.

As a next step, I plan to use the Digital Footprints software to analyze the population of Ukrainian Facebook users engaged in crowdfunding initiatives. The research is to take place in the summer of 2016, and the quantitative data collected by the platform will glean valuable insights on the demographic and postdemographic makeup of the social and organizational systems involved in crowdfunding. This, in turn, will help further develop the delineating logics of how virtual communities may be activated to fund military efforts through crowdfunding platforms, and ways in which MMO virtualization might translate into tangible national security outcomes.


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Olga Boichak