The role of smartphones in modern war

This in an interview with Matthew Ford about the role of smartphones in modern warfare. Matthew is a researcher at the Swedish Defense University, and he has specialized in questions about how the smartphone enables new types of participatory warfare, where civilians play an active role in the warfighting through the use of technology, and how the use of social media changes warfare.


(Please note that this is a machine generated transcript. It may be weird in some places, and most people will probably get a better experience out of listening to the interview.)

Anders Puck Nielsen
This video is a bit different from my usual videos. It's an interview I did with Matthew Ford from the Swedish Defense University, and it's about the role of smartphones in modern warfare. In my day job, I am a military analyst at the Royal Danish Defense College, and I'm working on a project about smartphones and the role that they have played in the war in Ukraine.

And there are many different ways that the smartphone has influenced the way that we are waging war, and I think it's pretty clear that we don't yet have sort of a comprehensive understanding of all the ramifications of that. So on the one end of the spectrum, we see the smartphone being used for just purely military purposes. So there are different apps and platforms that function as a kind of battle management system, and here the smartphone makes it much more affordable, and it makes it possible to get many more users onto those platforms. So you have soldiers, you have soldiers, you have soldiers, you have soldiers, having access to all that information that just a few years ago you would have to be in a headquarters or you would have to be in a big ops room to see that. And you also have soldiers being able to input information into the battle management system with their smartphones because they can utilize all the connectivity and the sensors that they have in this piece of technology.

But that's just one aspect of how the smartphone influences warfare. We also have the whole open source intelligence community. And the smartphone makes it possible to invite civilians to contribute to the warfare by passing on relevant information to the armed forces. And they can use the smartphone for that. So for example, Ukraine has set up a chat bot that you can talk with on telegram, where you can report observations of Russian forces. Matthew and I talk about that in the interview. So this is an example of how many more people can participate with and act a role in the war. Because they have this device that is connected to the Internet.

And then, of course, lastly, we have the whole aspect of information warfare and how this war is so much playing out also on social media, but also in the mainstream media and how both Russia and Ukraine are trying to shape the information space so that they look good. And here the smartphone plays an important role in making that possible. Social media, it just wouldn't be the same if we didn't have phones as a media consumption device, but also as a device where we can share things that we find interesting and that we want other people to see. So I know 40% of you guys watching this right now out there will be doing it on a phone. I'm not one of those YouTubers that sort of obsess about my analytics, but I looked up that number for this video.

So I really think the smartphone plays an important role in modern warfare because it's a very important part of the world. And that it's one of those things that we need more research about it. So when I saw Matthew published an article titled “Ukraine, Participation, and the Smartphone at War”, then I was immediately interested. I thought it was a conversation I also wanted to bring onto my YouTube channel. So I reached out to Matthew and asked if he would be willing to do an interview about it and tell about the article and his research, and he was kind enough to say yes. So just to fill you in on the background, Matthew Ford is a researcher at the Swedish Defense University. He has a PhD from King's College in London, and he has specialized in questions of military innovation and most recently the role of smartphones in warfare. He has written a book called Radical War, where he and his co-author Andrew Hoskins try to look at how war studies and media studies can play together and how that can improve our understanding of how warfare works.

So with that, onto the interview.

Anders Puck Nielsen
Matthew Ford, thanks for taking the time. I wanted to talk with you because you have written this article called “Ukraine, Participation, and the Smartphone at War”, and it really combines two of the things that I think are changing the world most at the moment. The first one is the war in Ukraine, which is reshaping the security structures in our part of the world. And then the other one is the smartphone, which I also think is a very important part of the world.

And I also think is really impacting our societies and changing the way things are done in a way that is more profound than I think most people are aware of.

And so also when we have these big changes in society that the smartphone will do, then that also changes the way warfare works. So I thought it would be interesting to have this conversation. People might be interested in hearing about it since you've worked so extensively on the topic. So could you perhaps start by describing how it is that smartphones are changing the world?

Matthew Ford
Anders, thank you very much for having me on. I'm very grateful. Yeah, I've been doing this for a bit now. I started working on connectivity and war in 2019, and I was working on it with a friend and colleague who specializes in technology, specializes in media and memory studies, Andrew Hoskins at Glasgow University. And we were interested in trying to bring war studies and media studies into closer conversation with each other, principally because we concluded that most of the things that we were watching when it came to studying war was stuff that we were seeing through our smartphones, through connected devices, really. And so the question was really, how do we bring those disciplines into conversation in a way that normally they don't?

War studies, I think, military studies, for understandable reasons, focuses on military power, military units, how they're organized, how war is conducted in kind of very traditional, maybe that might be a strong, inappropriate way. The focus is on kinetic stuff and organizing war kinetically. And I think that's fair enough. But there's a whole field of research in war studies that brings war and society into closer conversation. And in that respect, it seems to me that those sorts of conversations tended to not pay attention to media in particular and how mediated our experiences are by digital devices. And that seemed to me really obvious. You know, it's all around us. When you go to, you walk down the streets of Copenhagen or sitting on the tube in London or you're anywhere in Europe or North America, I mean, anywhere in the world, to be honest, people are looking at their phones and they're using it to chat with their friends and their family and they're using a variety of apps and other bits of software that allow them to connect and go.

I mean, and so much of life is online via these smartphone apps. It just seemed odd that we weren't paying much attention to it when it came to thinking about war, especially, and if you think global war on terror terms, especially as so much of the warfare of the last 20 years has been war amongst the people. You know, if people are using smart devices or online and you're going to put soldiers in that kind of circumstances, then they're going to get recorded. It's a bit like watching a riot anywhere. You know, anywhere in the world, there's always someone with a smartphone recording the police and the police are using a smartphone or even sometimes maybe they use it, but they're using a digital camera of some kind to record the protesters. And then you can put ones for evidential purposes in a court or something. And then the other is to broadcast the demands of the protesters or whatever. So this is happening all the time. You put soldiers in that mix, what happens?

And it didn't seem to me that, it didn't seem to us that many people were asking that kind of question. And so that's where we jumped off into this. And smartphones I was looking at ITU, the International Telecoms Union, which is a UN agency set out the levels of connectivity in the world and pretty much everywhere is connected. Everywhere is connected. You can get a 3G signal pretty much anywhere. 4G in some places. 5G, obviously we were watching 5G networks roll out over the last two, three years. And 5G networks are making the internet of things possible. And we've got to be attentive, it seems to me, to those waves of digitalisation that are happening, those waves of connectivity appening, because it's shaping what we can know under what circumstances and with some people being more connected than others.

So that's shaping the body of knowledge, put literally. So watching that and then watching smartphone penetration in the marketplace not everyone has a smartphone, for sure. People are still using 3G or Symbian-driven phones. And there's a degree, it's interesting to watch the degree of, how should I say, moral panic, I think, in some quarters about how the smartphone is a device that can facilitate forms of abuse or other just in civil society more broadly.

So on the one hand, it enables people to engage with each other, but then it becomes a vector through which people can communicate with kids or pose misinformation, disinformation messages. And there's a sort of, it's interesting to watch over the last few months, at least in Anglosphere media anyway, the sort of, we need to get off our smartphones. You know, they're enabling us, but they're also becoming a source of, they're an ambiguous device they can create a moral panic at the same time. 

Anders Puck Nielsen
Yeah, it's just interesting how this device is also, it combines so many different things, right, that you have in your pocket. It's the potential of communicating with family, friends, those things, but it's also just whole media consumption. You can produce media. You have all the sensors collected also in this device that you have in your pocket that used to be many different sensors that you would have to somehow combine. It's like, if we zoom into, if we talk about the war in Ukraine and take that as an example, because I think really the Ukraine war has been an example, or many people have said that what we see there is new in many ways. And especially in the initial phase of the war, we also had a lot of stories about how the Ukrainians were utilizing this smartphone technology. And it was mentioned as one of the reasons for how they could sort of stand against the Russian forces, which on paper, were much stronger. And so, if we look at how they have used the smartphone and maybe take that as an example of how smartphones are changing warfare, what would you say is the most sort of important to notice?

Matthew Ford
I think, I mean, the key thing about the device is that you can publish, you can produce media, you can publish it online, and you can consume it all from one device. So and as you say there's, it's got a mic, a camera, you can be geolocated, you can, it's got all these various other telemetry gizmos in the background all sorts of things that allow you to, where the device becomes a mobile sensor, right? 

And I hesitate to suggest. You're right there's been a lot of really new things that have been going on in Ukraine, right? And at the same time, there's been a huge amount of dumb ass munitions being thrown at the front line. And because it's a kinetic fight as much as it is one where you've got a lot of digital stuff. But I think it would be silly to misrepresent Ukraine as just a kinetic it looks a bit like the first war or the second world war or Iran-Iraq war or because there is this digital layer over the top of it that you just can't avoid really. It's the most connected conflict in history and you can see, literally, you can see it when you're browsing through any of your social media. 

If you go looking, you're always going to find images of, directly from the front lines that material has been collected, not always by a smartphone, but by sometimes a device that's connected to a smartphone. You know, you've got your entry bell on your front door connected to your smartphone, and that's collecting images as well and you can see sometimes Ukrainians have been very adept at broadcasting images of Russians sort of approaching the front door of various houses.

And that data, that imagery has been collected and then is open to being rebroadcast. So on the one hand, it's looking like, a war that armed forces have traditionally trained for. But on the other you're seeing stuff in a way that you've never, ever been able to see. I don't think even 10 years ago, the idea that you might see drone footage of artillery being adjusted onto an enemy position, or a or a mortar team and then broadcast all over the web, that is new. I mean, and in that respect, it's that the levels of digital connectivity that make this a very new thing.

And I think, I mean, it's on the one hand, it's new, of course. But it's been, there are antecedents to it, I think, that you can witness across Syria and Iraq over the last 10 years. You've seen it, sort of started to see it in Libya, where people were broadcasting live over, over some kind of webinar, a web device, web connected device, which was then feeding battle damage assessment information directly back to a NATO open source intelligence cell, which was then making sure that that OSINT team had better information than the other traditional intelligence collection communities within, within the various headquarters.

So you can, there's a long history, but people have sort of downplayed it, or certainly war studies have downplayed it in the context of thinking about, adaptation and military adaptation or force transformation depending on where you are in the military innovation studies type literature. But in Ukraine the devices kind of enabled people to connect to a crowdfunded app produced by the Comeback Alive Foundation that had, that effectively allowed people to send pictures, geolocated imagery of Russians, which would, they could then, it would be melded in with a fusion cell somewhere, intelligence fusion cell somewhere, which could be combined with artillery and an Uber style artillery approach to fire missions. And it that, I think that's a function of Ukraine's unique innovation ecosystem where since 2014, they've been at war, but unable to access all of the, all of the Gucci gear that might come from Western armed forces. So they've had to innovate from amongst themselves. And the interesting thing is, is that they've done that, yes, within a framework, some type that has eventually been established by government, but also independently as individual, as participants, individual participants, as individuals, as,as non-governmental organizations that have tried to, tried to shape how they can conduct war using everyday devices, mundane devices like the smartphone or tablets or whatever. 

 And that might have started off with, we, we need to broadcast something via WhatsApp to, we need to elevate that to the next level. And the next level is having our own dedicated device, dedicated app that we know is encrypted and all the rest of it that can, that can help us with extending the kill chain, the sensors, the sensor kill chain out into the civilian population more broadly. Cause if, if the armed forces are using these devices, then why can't civilians?

 And then you've got a much more resilient, potentially resilient kill chain. Although that has implications, all sorts of implications, which I don't think we've actually worked through, but they're, it's a remarkable thing to, to see actually.

Anders Puck Nielsen
Yeah. So I, I think if we just break it down a bit and say, what is, what is it, how is it actually, we see this being used in Ukraine? I think there are different apps and maybe it would be a good, a good idea to just sort of highlight some of them. So we have some of these applications that, that are developed for the military itself, right? So we have some battle management systems, for example, running on tablets on the frontline. And being connected with Starlink sort of broadband, and then they can use that to track where our own forces, where's the enemy, where these kinds of things.

We have apps that include the civilians in the kill chain. As you mentioned, we have these things where you could report, I saw a Russian here, or I think my neighbor is called,is a collaborator or what have you. You can report all kinds of things like that. We have, there's apps that are meant for, to, to improve air defenses, right? You have this, civilians can point their smartphone at a drone they see flying by. And that information goes directly into the combat management system. Many different applications like that. And, and I guess also combinations of it, because if you talk to any, any Ukrainian soldier, they will tell, yeah, we use those apps that are sort of bespoke for that, but then we will use Signal or Discord, like these kinds of things for alongside that. So, you have many different things that tie together and create this sort of web.

Matthew Ford
They're lashing, they're lashing together systems and it's kind of understandable. You know, they don't have the investment opportunity. You know, they don't have American levels of cash available. And, they're lashing things together that they think will work in different circumstances. And some of that's analog and some of that's digital and some of that's and, and how dynamically they can do the digital depends if you're, if you get out your smartphone in the middle of a firefight, you give well, that's not practical. If you're in a fixed position and you, you use your smartphone, then you're opening up, you've created a signal that can be picked up with, through the various ints straight away, you're going to make yourself vulnerable.

So why would you, do you carry your smartphone? No, absolutely people are being told explicitly not to, but do soldiers carry their smartphones? Of course they do. And, at what point do they use it? Well, they use it as a last resort or they use it because everything else has failed and they're in the, they're in the, they're in the, in a mess and they need to get out of it, which makes them vulnerable, but at the same time might even solve some problems. And then 10 kilometers beyond the front line, they're back on their phone, they're playing a game, they're watching a film, they're connecting to society more broadly, they're trying to decompress and they're using the same device all over again.

So, it's, it's one of those devices that seems to me to conjoin the front line with the rear area, but it's not just the rear area. It's also all we're talking the globe more broadly. And in that respect, it's, it's potentially always on you can, anyone can go online and see something war related at any point during the, in time. And that becomes a vector for misinformation, disinformation, and just sort of amplifying messages about the war. But as you say, Anders you've got this range when you're lashing together these different technologies and you're down at battalion level that comes down to how much connectivity you have down there.

And if you don't have the level of connectivity that you might have, a brigade or a division or core level, then that's going to shape how you use connected devices. You know, you might even be back to a copper wire and, or a runner under certain circumstances, but that's inevitable in light of enemy action, right? You know, so, and I think it's that level of trying to understand how that works in a conventional form, had before. We've definitely not had that, I don't think. You can see it in civil war context, you can see it in a regular war context, you can see it in counterinsurgency up to a point. But state on state wars, the assumption that the internet will go down, it seems to me a mistake.

And that means that we've got to think much more, armed forces need to think much more clearly about what happens when they are working in a information environment where they aren't necessarily the speediest to get the information to shape what's going on in a kinetic fight. Civilians might be more connected to the armed forces are.

Anders Puck Nielsen
Yeah, it also seems to me that it has to be one of the keys to how you can scale very quickly. It's a problem that almost all Western militaries are thinking about, right now. How do we actually scale from the level of military readiness we have now, and then to the level that would be required if we have a kinetic war? And how do we actually get enough equipment really fast into the hands of many people? Using the devices that they have already seems much more practical than having these special, maybe better military devices, but if you don't have enough of them and you can't produce them because everyone needs them now, you have to embrace this technology. You can't just say, we will close down everything.

Matthew Ford
Yeah, absolutely. I mean, there's a reason why they're so mundane and ubiquitous. They're so part of everyday life. The obvious thing is to, and they're such a sophisticated piece of kit. And of course, they're collecting so much important data, even in the background, all of which can frame how a military operation might unfold, or even give us the kind of pattern analysis information that drives all this other clever and very sophisticated technology that not all armed forces have access to. I mean, you can see that Ukraine has become a bit of a test bed or an place to gather data, at least, for a variety of tech companies who are then looking to try and optimize their own tech solutions and in a way that they've and shape the battlefield by accessing appropriate sources of data, combining that in a way that they can then make, engage in, produce actionable intelligence, that's the word I'm looking for, produce material information that would then shape how a battle might be fought.

Ultimately, of course you're getting to the point where you're trying to use sophisticated AI to use all that data to do some predictive analytics that will allow you to then say, well, this is the pattern of enemy activity, this is when you're most likely to need, you can feed that back to supply chain management, you can feed that forwards to when best to attack and all this other stuff.

But the starting place comes from gathering the data and the devices that give you most, a vast quantity of that data is actually some of these hand-held data. Hand-held things that are readily available as you carry them about the place, whether as a civilian or as a combatant.

Anders Puck Nielsen
But that also touches into another question, I guess, you run into when you have, if you have a whole web where all civilians are also connected to this network and provide information, is how do you deal with all this information? And there's just an information overload, I think, also will be the experience of many militaries that how on earth can you go through all this? And you will almost certainly have to rely on artificial intelligence to do some of that sorting of information and have that sort of decide what do we show to the commander and you have to integrate AI, I guess, in all this if you want to actually make it useful.

Matthew Ford
Yeah, I guess the danger is, is that I think that sounds right how else are you going to be able to process, do the pattern analysis because so much information already headquarters are overloaded. You know, which bit of the signal is most important out of the noise? You know, which bit, what's the signal to noise ratio?

And it's quite easy that it's quite it could quite easily become a recipe for inaction, just at the point where you actually do need to decide something you don't know what to do. And of course, the more data sources you have, the larger your headquarters potentially can become. And as that happens, then it becomes an even riper target to strike.

So you kind of having some tech that takes people out of the decision, out of the processing loop, or at least displaces them to somewhere else in an area behind the front lines, potentially creates more and more of an agile force.

But I guess the danger here is, is that you're relying on a tech or technology that is quite sophisticated. And in the process you're hollowing out kind of core HQ skills that would allow you to process things in an analogue way, just at the point where and if the tech fails or whatever happens you're creating the conditions in which you are dependent on some of this technology.

And that itself, I think, has the potential to cause a lot of problems. So military judgment, under these circumstances, is a very important aspect. circumstances strikes me as being a very difficult set of challenges. Do you put faith in the technology at the expense of knowing that when you've got an actual headquarters and you've got a team of people, you've worked with them before, you can kind of rely on them to try and do their best in the circumstances. When you're displacing all of that to some tech and you're reducing your headquarters to two or three people, okay, now we've got a different order of problem, which also can lead to tunnel vision and all sorts of other challenges in there as well.

So I think we can see from the US that there are degrees of experimentation going on to try and square some of these challenges. And you can see that some of this tech is being applied in places like Israel, in Gaza. And you can see the furore that this is creating internationally. And as to how it's going down politically. So we're definitely going to run into those sorts of challenges as we go forwards for those armed forces that are trying to figure out how to bring this tech into their systems.

And it's going to take some time. It's going to take a lot of time to square this away. I'm not even sure. I haven't even begun to think about how you're going to do this. I'm not even sure how you're going to do this. I'm not even sure how European NATO powers do some of that. 

Anders Puck Nielsen
But I think there is just also this contradictory sort of demand right now. On the one hand, there is the demand that all this information that is now accessible, both from OSINT, so it's just available to everyone on the internet, or it's something that gets into the military system because we have these bespoke apps where people report stuff. There is an expectation that we're going to have to do this. And I think that's an expectation that the military are aware of that information and take it into consideration and act on it. But on the other hand, we also see the development where headquarters have to get smaller, they have to be more mobile, they have to be more agile because otherwise you're not going to survive on the battlefield if you have these massive headquarters with hundreds of people in big camps. So you have to have small smaller headquarters, but at the same time, you have to integrate all this new information. So I don't know how to square that circle, but it's definitely something we see right now and the military is struggling with.

Matthew Ford
Yeah. I mean, I think, let's take a horror scenario. You have a microchip supply chain interdiction challenge as a result of something going off in the South China Sea. You know, we're going to quickly go back to analog tech in the circumstances. I don't see how we're going to square that. I know that the US is spending a lot of money and time and effort to try and repatriate microchip production back to the US, but there is a real, I mean, I think that processes of digitization are definitely here and here to stay.

But at the same time, I don't envy the decision makers in NATO powers as to how to adopt some of this technology. The US might storm ahead, but then you've got an interoperability challenge and European NATO powers then have to think very carefully about what makes sense in the circumstances and where.

I mean, if you put everyone's budgets together, it's an enormous amount of cash. But every armed force has its own culture, a way of doing things, a capacity to adapt and change. I think that tension there is how the question you're asking will start to manifest itself. At what point do you say, well, we can rely on X number of people? I mean, every armed force in NATO. It seems to me it's probably suffering a recruitment challenge.

So the impulse is to reduce the headquarters and put those people out into various military functions where we need bodies. But the danger is we end up thinking about this and then working towards fighting in a particular way that may or may not, that may itself become a source of weakness somewhere down the line. And in a context where... In a context where... You know... So, I think... I think civil society has potentially more effective technology than the armed forces.

I think that's the rub. So much is open source. So much is... And the thing is, it's a function of just the numbers of people out there who are watching. The open source intelligence community, there's an enormous number of people. Some of them are more trained, better trained than others, but they're already shaping the public debate. They're already shaping how people see things in a way that the armed forces don't.

And the headquarters can't do it. UK Ministry of Defense publishes a daily briefing on war in Ukraine. But how quickly is that debunked and rubbished by the various people online who are saying, well, it's not... That's not what's going on, it's more like this. And that's shaping public narratives as much as Institute for the Study of War where they are processing using IBM or... I think it's IBM, various other bits of software to sort of check to see whether a village has gone towards war. Russia or Ukraine you know and um and and I think that that political debate which is to bring it back full circle um just from the kinetic that political debate is where this this device a smartphone device is actually really instrumental it seems to me because that is shaping narratives in a way that is not something that can necessarily be controlled just from a sort of strategic narrative top-down approach there is all this stuff going on where people are participating in the in the debate and they are participating in a way that um you know may it it's a distorting the social media framing of this is becomes a distorting prism you know it it is not just a the government will tell you how to think about this thing no there's all these other people reshaping and reframing and and um uh creating their own narratives that um more sophisticated approaches to um uh strategic communication need to embrace and I realize that a lot of people working in PR in in Ministry of Defense are trying struggling with that and figuring out how to do it but you know that's the that that's where civil society comes back in.

Anders Puck Nielsen
I think an interesting aspect of having that debate sort of taking place in social media and also having this constant fight over the narrative going on there is that the soldiers on the front line they are also consuming this and at least that's something I've heard concerns about from uh some Ukrainian officers about how how some of their soldiers will be consuming this and they don't they there is no control over the sources of information that the soldiers are sort of using and how that is also a challenge in in in the system that they have to somehow manage and they want to push their own narrative but it's it's a really it's a struggle.

Matthew Ford
Yeah I mean you know I was just thinking just as you were saying it I was thinking you know there's this sort of framing in amongst the the the um the people who are sort of um very pro the technology that you know you you're we're living in a sort of transparent battlefield um but the the point you're just making there is is it sort of is a transparent Battlefield where there's lots of the noise and signal ratios are all over the place and the result is is that you know soldiers on the front lines are picking up on on noise they don't always see the signal and you know that is creating its own morale challenges its own you know uh um dilemmas about what they communicate and to whom and with whom and how I mean of course it seems to me Ukraine's done a very been very good at trying to ensure that um people don't broadcast battle damage assessments and all this other stuff and you know it's it's it's it's it's a

lot of unit movements and and and God knows what um but that doesn't stop that doesn't stop the the messaging going the other way and people getting despondent as a result I you know we're in the second second year of the second third year coming up third year of the war uh and um you know the the mood music online has changed significantly and it doesn't surprise me I don't think that people might be responding to that especially as they've been watching the U.S Congress figure out whether they will or won't provide a military aid to Ukraine you know I can see that definitely creates a even more uh sense of um distress about the position that Ukraine and Ukrainians find themselves in. 

Anders Puck Nielsen
In your work with Andrew Hoskins you have a concept that you call so war ecologies and you're talking about a new war ecology that we're seeing I was wondering if you could explain what you mean by that concept and maybe sort of pick apart a little bit what we're seeing in Ukraine what is particular about the war ecology that that's playing out there? 

Matthew Ford
Yeah so we use that framing to try and Radical War – our book – maps the relationship between data attention control so you know we're interested in how data is where data is created from its trajectories its movement is latency across networks then we're interested in attention how that then shapes how it's shaped how people's attention is shaped by access to different data sources uh and that that's connected back to frame you know frames of reference uh including um history and the speed at which information moves around and then control who you know the there is a degree of information there are information infrastructures and and degrees of information infrastructure across the planet that are unevenly distributed that shape how all of those other things can work you know the data and attention can work and so we talk about a new war ecology as a combination of these these framings this data attention control.

But it's not just that there's one war ecology um because every location has its own information infrastructures its own media cultures its own attitudes towards freedom of the press its own its own way of using Facebook or a different social media platform you know in some parts of the world Facebook is bundled up with smartphone you know as as Samsung or whoever looking to increase Market penetration into a country they will bundle up um with their uh with the with the smartphone telecoms contractor they will bundle up meta and and Facebook and instead of being able to um instead of having to use data spend money on data you can just you know Facebook becomes the internet for people um and so all of their news and media is framed by Facebook and so that's a particular media ecology new war ecology that you know uh and you can see the same in some places like Tigray and Ethiopia you know um there were 86 different languages in in Tigray you know these um Facebook is never going to have content moderation for all 86 languages in in Tigray so in and I mean Facebook has got 15 000 moderators that combined with you know various AI Technologies but even that's not going to be able to pull down genocidal or people were being invoked into engaging in genocide or or political violence or some way shape or form so you know that's a specific way in which their media ecosystem works. And that's what we're talking about when it comes to new war ecologies. In Ukraine there's a combination of mainstream media and social media. Some of these things some of these platforms have been set up as the war has started some of them are it seems to me probably designed to reach back to uh Western audiences so that that can frame how the West engages and supports Ukraine but it's also clear that their their their media ecology their information ecology has not and their information strategies have not been as successful with reaching back into parts of Africa South America Middle East India and various other places and you could say well they're directing their effort mainly at those countries that are going to provide financial support which you could say is it almost inevitably Europe because European security is so closely connected to Ukraine but at the same time you can see how uh your your there's a sort of strategic there are strategic narratives about how Russia is employing uh food uh economic assistance and the rest of it to try and maintain relationships with parts of Africa and they're working in common you know they can approaches to managing the information space the internet research agency which was very big uh in two in the late 2010s when it was at shaping Brexit and it was shaping Trump and it was shaping all these other bits and pieces. 

Some of those strategies have been harder to maintain in Western Europe but actually still have some currency in other parts of the world so um and that just reflects the different media ecosystems um and I think actually for Ukraine to manage the the media ecosystem in the context of war is going to always be quite challenging I mean at the beginning when you're potentially um when your offices might actually be struck by Russian artillery or missiles or when you're trying to maintain connectivity it's secure connectivity and yet the every so often your comms grid goes down or you're not sure whether your comms grid's going to stay up the the question is is how do you maintain all of that so that you can keep pushing out messages that cohere into something like I know stand with you stand with Ukraine or whatever right um and of course on top of that uh there's different levels of connectivity in Ukraine which shape how easy it is to use smart technology for kinetic engagements for targeting and all the rest of it.

That's not the same as in places like Israel where high-speed fiber optic is you're talking about a very confined uh battle space when it comes to talking about Gaza unfortunately and you know there's high speed fiber optic all over the place which means that digital stuff is going to work much more quickly much more effectively much more reliably if you like than if you're talking about the thousand kilometer uh frontlines of Ukraine, where a GSM grid or a digital you know Starlink or whatever is going to be used and you know you can reach certain reach up to certain points in the front line.

But then you get interdicted by Russian electronic warfare or the reach of a particular platform when he goes so far and you get um like we all experience times where connectivity is really strong and then other times where everyone's online and you know bandwidth decreases and you're struggling to get messages through and all the rest of it. And that's you know that's where we are when it comes to that's how we think about the the New ecology, and new war ecologies in particular.

Anders Puck Nielsen
There's one thing I just want to ask you before we finish, and that is the question of how does it influence the role, if we integrate civilians into the targeting cycle and these sorts of things, the question of when do civilians become legitimate military targets?

So, I guess it's a kind of humanitarian law kind of perspective here, or at one point, do we blur the lines so much that it becomes okay to start shooting at civilians? Because these are some examples we have seen from Ukraine where people with smartphones have been targets of Russian forces. 

Matthew Ford
Yeah. I mean, I think the first thing to say is that this kind of discussion has been going on for some time. So, Mary Kaldor from the 1990s, the relationship between civilians and the armed forces, that's blurred and you've got conflict over more... We've got zones of conflict rather than zones of war and peace. So that discussion has been going on a long time, of course, I know some of my academic friends will tease me, well, it's been going on since well before Clausewitz, which is entirely fair.

At the same time, the tech, it seems to me, starts to rarefy some of these... These conversations have been rarefied in the technology, they become the material representation of it. So, I was talking about war ecologies previously, that you could say that civil war in Ethiopia and Eritrea, that blurring has just... Has always been there. Is there. Yeah. There's a lot of that, right?

But in Ukraine, you can say, well, this is a straight up conventional fight, where you traditionally in 20th century terms, you'd have combatants and non-combatants. And so therefore, there are some people who aren't going to be targetable in those circumstances under the laws of armed conflict or the rest of it. Except as you say, Anders, you get to this point where the tech itself has the capacity, the capacity to blur out at what point you're a combatant, right?

And I don't think the rules on this are clear. There is international humanitarian law, and the International Committee of Red Cross have got guidance on distributed participation or direct participation, sorry, direct participation in conflict, and what that means under what circumstances and when you can be a combatant, when you're not, but distributed participation.

So civilians who are in an open source intelligence team, who are working outside of Ukraine, but providing actionable targeting information for Ukrainian operations inside Ukraine, are they combatants or not? Even if they're not Ukrainian citizens, at what point do they... What bits of that chain of that information tech, not infrastructure, is targetable? Is it... Is it all the way through to their devices? Is it to them kinetically?

And I don't think at this point, I don't think this is the case yet, the European Union and NATO haven't decided the combatant status of these people.

So you've got a distributed kill chain where you've got people participating in it, and they could be anywhere in the world, crowdsourcing actionable information 24-7. And are they combatants? I don't know, right? So you can go that way, all the way to people being on the front line, and you need to access your e-government via your smartphone, your smart device, your connected device.

But in that constellation of devices, the apps that are behind your e-government gateway included eVorog, the targeting software, you might never use eVorog, but you've got it there. Anyway, because it just comes with the suite of things, or at least access to the things. And therefore, suddenly, you're potentially someone who could provide targeting information to Russians, to Ukrainian intelligence people, which would then, if the government is providing that information, that app, then they are setting you up so that you can participate. And in participating, you lose your civilian status. And you are subject to being shot at by the enemy.

So on the one hand, it's a conversation that's been going on for some time, right? And academics will go, well, you know. But on the other, you've got a tech that's sort of become the material representation of this conversation, which is definitely new. And it's not just a case of people picking up the phone and calling in. But it's a case of people picking up the phone and calling in, where the enemy are, which is, in Afghanistan, British Army was always complaining about, was always, could you shoot at people who were, in the army vernacular, were dicking?

Because they're civilians, they're reporting with our movements, and now the Taliban are using that information to target us. Well, it was always, the rules of engagement were, you could or you couldn't. But now you've got a device that actually is designed to facilitate that process. And it's a government decision, right? Well, under those circumstances, it seems to me that probably you are a direct combatant.

But the law, I have met a few people on the laws of armed conflict side of things. And I think that that debate has not come to the point where international lawyers have agreed it. And it seems to me that the tech is probably going to lead in a way that the law is following. And it will take some time to do that. But I think it's a question of time to catch up with. I think that's my impression.

Anders Puck Nielsen
Yeah. I guess the answer right now is it's super complicated, right? Because these things are just happening on platforms that people are on anyways. I think you can actually do that reporting to a Telegram bot. So if you have Telegram on your phone, then, well, potentially, you could be reporting.

OK, Matthew Ford, we need to end it here. But thank you. It's been absolutely fascinating. So thanks for your time.

Matthew Ford
Thanks, Anders. I really appreciate you making the time for me.