Bearing Witness in the Digital Age

Flynn Coleman / Apr 18, 2022

Flynn Coleman is a writer, an international human rights lawyer, and a fellow at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government & The Carr Center for Human Rights Policy. She is also a Visiting Fellow at Yale University, with an appointment at the Information Society Project at Yale Law School. She is the author of A Human Algorithm.

A crowd of young people gather. The streets feel alive –– anticipation hangs in the air. Someone takes out and waves a flag. The energy of expectation is palpable. A man defiantly leaps atop a concrete barrier, arms held high in the winter cold. Throngs of others soon join him, talking animatedly about war, divided nations, and what comes next. More people arrive, striding toward the worn, graffiti-covered wall. Armed with sledgehammers and crude tools, they begin to hack away with increasing frenzy. It’s November 9, 1989, and the Berlin Wall is about to fall.

For twenty-eight years, no travel was permitted between a partitioned Germany. That first weekend, millions of East Berliners would pour into West Berlin for what they would recount as the biggest, most joyous block party they had ever seen. Only a month prior, a group of GDR peace activists had congregated in Leipzig’s Karl Marx Square in such big numbers that it seemed possible the repression of protest might, finally, be weakening. The Iron Curtain –– that mythical, ideological, and psychological boundary that separated the Western European democracies from the Communist Soviet bloc –– would officially come down just two years later, unsealing the tortured schism.

From when the Wall was first erected, it wasn’t only movement that was restricted; so too was the free flow of information. The Stasi (East German Ministry of State Security) held a vice-like grip on all communications. There were only a few over-the-air TV and radio channels available to the public. Telephones were tapped and newspapers and books were heavily monitored. For the most part, media and comms were successfully controlled. From the 1960s-1980s, the truth was smuggled out of East Germany (GDR) in the secret compartments of cars, via coded messages, and on shortwave radios.

The literal breakthrough in the GDR, a satellite state of the Soviet Union, was aided by the era of glasnost (“openness”) reforms in Russia, which, like the GDR, had long suppressed the flow of information. Today, over thirty years later, after many Russian citizens have embraced parts of Western culture, from sipping Starbucks to watching Disney cartoons to chowing down on Big Macs and splurging on Apple products, how is a motivated authoritarian dictator and former KGB agent to propagandize and roll back modernity in the Digital Age?

As Russia wages a bloody corporal war against Ukraine, Roskomnadzor (its Federal Service for Supervision of Communications, Information Technology, and Mass Media) is simultaneously attempting to manipulate media platforms, embargo war coverage, and enforce a reality blockade in cyberspace. The State Duma enacted a “sovereign internet law” in 2019 to give the government control over the internet. The regime has also now criminalized independent war reporting, war protests, and views inconsistent with the party line, and is currently trying to seal off its national information infrastructure –– essentially imposing a digital Iron Curtain.

Russia is laboring to wall itself off from what is today an unprecedentedly wired and globalized community, endeavoring to purge any semblance of liberalism from a population that has become accustomed to having relatively free access to YouTube, Twitch, Spotify, Instagram, and WhatsApp. And the rest of the world is watching this war of aggression unfold in real time online –– across Facebook and Twitter timelines, through TikTok’s emotive videos and via encrypted Telegram messages; listening on the radio and tuning into live Zoom feeds from presidential bunkers.

As an international human rights lawyer, I believe that bearing witness is at the core of what it means to be human. To observe; to attest; to try to understand; to remember; to not look away, is our solemn obligation to the truth and each other. But, in today’s instantaneous, cloudy, and chaotic communication landscape, how do we parse the complexities and nuances of fact and fiction amidst a digital data deluge, one that is built on ubiquitous and weaponized social media platforms, with users numbering in the billions?

In the computerized, post-truth era, we are the targets of information warfare –– and we are also complicit in its spread. We are all combatants, vulnerable to circulating disinformation across the globe with each retweet of a doctored image, every “like” of a conspiracy theory, and every share of an inaccurate post. On this battlefield, we are victims of context collapse –– where myriad audiences and pieces of content all run together online. Endless scrolling encouraged by algorithmic control blends them all into one feed and one timeline. Our minds were not meant to process information this way.

Putin is a war criminal, inflicting untold devastation, displacement, and destruction upon innocent citizens of a sovereign state. Russia has now blocked Facebook and Instagram, and limited the use of Twitter. He is, essentially, trying to ban truth. But try as he might, Putin will never be able to fully isolate and silence 150 million Russians and implement his digital blockade, especially on the population of young, technologically savvy, modern Russians with a fluency in media technologies; already aware that our interconnected world is changing, and opening.

In the righteous fight against despotic efforts to erase a culture, a people, a nation, and evidence of atrocity, many are well-armed with a bevy of modern digital tools –– mobile phones, underground digital networks using encrypted apps, anonymizing techniques, and VPNs. Nationhood, once marked by lines on the ground, is blurred now by our ability to live in borderless cyber-communities that form more and more of our identities. The global public square and the digital sphere are shifting and intertwining –– demagogues be warned.

The invasion of Ukraine has driven politics ahead of economics, and Big Tech is scrambling to keep pace. Twitch isn't paying its Russian streamers. Microsoft and Apple have closed shop in the Russian market. Google has suspended ads there. YouTube is blocking all channels associated with Russia’s state-sponsored media. TikTok, barely six years old, doesn't yet have a solid policy in place, but is also taking some action.

Many in Western media have made the rare move to pull out from Russia, from Bloomberg News to Netflix, to protect their journalists and teams. Could it be that these technology giants, who have been reaping all the profits of pushing content fed by algorithms, the more extreme the better, but without the obligations that come with holding the power of quasi-governmental agencies, are facing a reckoning in this global crisis? And if so –– in other recent violent crises, from Myanmar to Syria to Afghanistan, where have they been?

As the Russian war machine churns out twisted propaganda, repeats ancient myths, and dangles the existential threat of nuclear annihilation, counter-attack strategies are emerging on multiple fronts. While war is always hell, Ukraine and its many allies are also trading in something else: connection and bridges –– bridges to a future where international law and national sovereignty are coupled with accountability, transparency, and freedom to choose one’s path. Just as Putin needs isolation to survive, Ukraine needs global support to stand up to Goliath. In war, one cannot leave an information vacuum for the enemy to pounce on. It’s your words or theirs to fill the void and feed the beast of media consumption in times of turmoil.

Our responsibility as humans is to pay attention. Bearing witness is a shot across the darkness. Hello, I’m still here. I made it through the night. And I see you. I’m here beside you. This is what technology, at its best, can do –– help us to find our humanity, and to bear witness to it. Technology can help us gather and authenticate evidence of war crimes. It can equip us with secure comms as we evacuate families from besieged cities. It can ferry vital information in times of crisis. Technological tools, wielded by volunteer IT armies, can counter disinformation with facts. And they can connect strangers across the sea for aid and relief and in shared struggles for independence, for democracy, for hope. Technology can either mask who we are –– or it can show the world our vulnerabilities, our courage, and our humanness.

Colleagues around the world are doing the arduous and essential work of vetting information online and collecting proof of war crimes; verifying information to be used in future tribunals, as a record of what happened. From day one of this war, the open source intelligence community, including groups like Bellingcat, Mnemonic, the Centre for Information Resilience, as well as numerous groups in Ukraine that have been working nonstop since the 2014 Russian invasion, have been compiling the critical data. For the best chance of justice at an eventual trial, this must be done now. And photos and videos will not be enough –– proof must also include evidence of intent –– insignia, cellphones and laptops of soldiers, instructions and messages from superiors, invasion maps, primary sources, and the like. This evidence must be fastidiously and securely assembled and backed up.

The resistance both within and outside of Russia is already percolating in the digital sphere –– a murmur that is growing into a shout. While the Berlin Wall was felled with leaflets, demonstrations, political pressure, and, ultimately, with sledgehammers, when the Digital Iron Curtain falls, it will come tumbling down with 21st century activism –– at the hands of hackers of another kind, but equally devoted –– chipping away at our metaphorical and virtual barricades, wielding digital armaments in the war for truth; for openness; for tolerance; for the future. Working in hidden corners and underground rooms, human rights activists and protesters around the globe and across social media, using their voices and their moral compass to bear witness; to find cracks in the concrete; to begin to break down the walls that separate us –– beholden to no tyrant.


Flynn Coleman
Flynn Coleman is a writer, an international human rights lawyer, and a fellow at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government & The Carr Center for Human Rights Policy. She is also a Visiting Fellow at Yale University, with an appointment at the Information Society Project at Yale Law School. S...