Dispatches from Ukraine: Tactical Media Reflections and Responses 

cover Theory on Demand number 44 - Dispatches from Ukraine



Theory on Demand #44
Dispatches from Ukraine:
Tactical Media Reflections and Responses

edited by Maria van der Togt and 11111 &23%#719

This publication marks the first results of the Tactical Media Room Ukraine project, launched in February 2022 in Amsterdam after the shocking Russian full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Tactical Media Room is a network of activists, journalists, scholars, and artists linked by the exchange of ideas and practices—all aimed at supporting Ukrainian media and confronting Russian state propaganda. Together, the network of experts initiated a screening and a series of meetings that took place mainly in Amsterdam. Based on these meetings, Dispatches from Ukraine: Tactical Media Reflections and Responses showcases initiatives, critique, and essays that provide insights into the ways information circulates in time of war.

This edition also aims at overcoming the Eurocentric approach through inviting Ukrainian journalists, artists, and thinkers to share their observations and personal experience of living through war in the digital age. It allows the collected reflections to be grounded and situated within the certain context of Ukrainian, Belarusian and Russian long-lasting conflicts. While on the one hand, perspectives on info-war and the array of urgents matters at a distance are presented, on the other hand, this publication also focuses on what is missing from outside of the war-zones.

Elmaz Asan, Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi, Andrii Dostliev, Lia Dostlieva, Olexii Kuchanskyi, Karyna Lazaruk, Geert Lovink, Lera Malchenko, Svitlana Matviyenko, Maria Plichta, Ellen Rutten, Sander Steffann, Marc Tuters, Michał ‘rysiek’ Woźniak.

Printed on Demand ISBN: 978-94-92302-86-1


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Welcome to Tactical Media Room Ukraine

Maria van der Togt, Geert Lovink and 11111 &23%#719

Tactical Media Room (TMR) is an initiative of Waag Futurelab and the Institute of Network Cultures (Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences) in Amsterdam. The project was founded late February 2022, right after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and facilitates weekly (hybrid) meetings. The platform consists of hackers, artists, journalists, activists, designers and researchers, both known and anonymous, in the Netherlands and elsewhere. A Signal group of currently forty members addresses topics and activities that vary from disinformation, censorship and propaganda research to mapping platform geopolitics, support regarding hardware and online services by ISPs and hosting providers, tech knowledge exchanges (from satellite phones to cybersecurity) and practical aid support. Its concrete aim is to coordinate and support independent tactical media, journalists, newsrooms and civic initiatives in and from Ukraine, as well as to analyze the media stances upon which current Russian and Belarusian propaganda is built. These activities and discussions are made public through a monthly public program, lectures, and exhibitions, a blog and a weekly newsletter. This Theory on Demand is an overview of the most important outcomes from the period between March-July 2022..

Tactical Media Room unites critical thinkers and cultural workers across Europe. The driving force behind TMR is first and foremost to support tactical media, and not exclusively, to Ukrainian people at risk. We do so in the awareness that the war is, placing vast amounts of Ukrainian journalists, media activists, artists, and scholars at acute risk in one way or another. Belarusian and Russian critical thinkers, however, are also at risk and in need of support. Ukrainian people who face or flee the war deal with different problems and needs than Belarusian and Russian critical thinkers who deal with political persecution because they express dissent against authorities. TMR aims to support both of these groups.

The start of TMR goes back to an informal meeting late February, where members of Waag and the Institute of Network Cultures gathered at Waag in Amsterdam. Free Russia and the ISP Freedom Internet started to discuss the media/digital aspect of the war and how activists could respond. In part this was done by the same people that founded Press Now back in 1992, the Dutch support campaign for independent media in former Yugoslavia. Press Now operated from an upstairs room at Amsterdam cultural centre De Balie, next to the room where the non-profit internet community provider De Digitale Stad launched in January 1994. A place where later that same year The Waag Society for Old and New Media was also born, before it moved to its historical building, right in the centre of Amsterdam. And, last but not least, the place where the tactical media festival The Next Five Minutes had its offices, an event series kicked off in January 1993 in the neighboring cultural venue Paradiso that initially used the phrase ‘tactical television’. Thirty years later Amsterdam looks radically different: gentrified, expensive, a tech hub for companies like Adyen, Booking and WeTransfer. Yet, the necessity to respond to what is happening in Ukraine is in the same spirit as these pioneers and was immediately felt, across generations and communities.

What’s at stake here? What do we discuss? Unlike tactical media in the 1990s this is not about free radio, video distribution, independendant magazines, and bulletin board systems. In 2022 media solidarity organizes itself via Telegram groups, Twitter accounts, and yes, still email, in a desperate attempt to catch up with news of the shellings and movements of friends and other refugees. As Olexii Kuchansky describes in his contribution, there was a widely experienced feeling of a body, not as an individual human organism, but rather as a network of individual relationships and interactions, as a tension between the individual and its environment. “In this sense, a conglomeration of selves united by a common territory form a multiple body—a shared membrane where fear, pain, and hope spread from Mariupol, Kharkiv, and Kherson to Lviv and Uzhhorod, and now also to Warsaw, Krakow, Berlin, and Bucharest, and back.” This correlation is at the same time deeply timeless, yet current and related to high-tech, geopolitics, drones, and live broadcasting via smartphones. Consequently, this provokes an instant need to question the barrage of images: is it fake news or not? We have to believe our eyes, yet the sheer spectacle of destruction also induces numbness.

About this publication

With this collection we aim to gather various expertise around tactical media that exists within our network. Let this Theory on Demand be a repository for knowledge around tactical media—an introduction, and an invitation for anyone who is interested in the topic. The purpose of this collection is to develop an active resource that can be utilized to connect current practices in tactical media, while maintaining a living archive of past practices. We hope this publication can be the start of an ever-growing exchange of knowledge and we kindly invite all those with an interest in the topic to reach out.

All the featured authors track the effects of a warfront intertwined with the digital realm. Networks are never merely tools. These hyper-sensitive environments are subjected to constant mutation; formed by the negotiations of people(s) and institutions. Questioned, destroyed, argued, and sublimated through an ever-growing information stream.

The publication starts with insights into the public programs organized by TMR in the past months and introduces some of the initiatives of its members. The series of meetups opened with a public discussion in the Makers Guild at Waag Society between Belarusian activist from the Belarusian opposition movement in the Netherlands Ilya Shcharbitski, an analyst in the Ukrainian office of Argus Media Victoria Dovgal, and the publisher of The Moscow Times Alexander Gubsky. Together, they exchanged their experiences with disand misinformation produced by Russian propagandist media before and during the 2022 war. According to Dovgal, the most powerful tool to fight propaganda and disinformation is education, which is an especially urgent issue due to an insurmountable number of educational institutions that have been bombarded in Ukraine since February. To support the point about the importance of education, Ellen Rutten, whose essay is also included here, presented the initiative—the University of New Europe—that aims at helping scholars at risk from the region.

The second meetup was a special solidarity screening conducted with the Emergency Support Initiative of Kyiv Biennial and HomeCinema. The screening featured a series of works filmed by moving image artists based in Ukraine. All of the works were created in February and spring 2022, giving a raw and immediate insight into the filmmakers’ current practices. The films blatantly remind us of the importance of filmmaking in times of crisis and the necessity to make visible and keep traces as acts of resistance. The list of the featured artists is published in this Theory on Demand.

The third meetup organized by TMR extended initial debates between two camps— the Internet Freedom supporters, who stand for freedom of expression, and the Freedom of Press followers, who insist on propaganda censorship. For this publication, Maria Plichta wrote a report on the debate that happened in the Amsterdam academic debating centre Spui25 on June 30, 2022, highlighting the most prominent points and arguments. All together, the descriptions and reflections on the TMR meetings make up part one of this publication.

The name of the second part, Informational Export, stems from Sophia Kornienko’s analysis of the stances upon which propaganda is built. In her essay, Sophia states that the main source of Russian export is ‘the idea that there is no truth.’ The articles that follow denounce, in one way or another, the way information circulates in the digital age embraced by war. Italian theorist Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi discusses how the ongoing war that Russia initiated in Ukraine is different than other wars and what role fake news and politically charged information play in it. This essay is followed by the text of TMR members Karyna Lazaruk and Marc Tuters who elaborate on fake news and so-called ‘open source intelligence’ OSINTtechnologies and the way in which they are appropriated by propagandist media. Michał ‘rysiek’ Woźniak explains why the analysis of fake news should not be limited to focusing on legislation only. ‘We should instead be looking closely at how it is possible that it spreads so fast (and who benefits from this),’ he says. ‘We should be finding ways to fix the media funding crisis; and we should be making sure that future generations receive the mental tools that would allow them to cut through biases, hoaxes, rhetorical tricks, and logical fallacies weaponized to wage information wars.’ Lia Dostlieva and Andrii Dostliev address the ways in which culture is being utilized as a powerfull tool of state propaganda in ‘Not All Criticism is Russophobic: on Decolonial Approach to Russian Culture.’ The article questions what Russian voices can bring into public discussions and offers guides for a non-imperialistic way of thinking and acting. Part two ends with the speech by Elmaz Asan, a Ukrainian jounalist and a representative of the indigenous Crimean Tatar people, delivered at ‘The European Internet Blockade of Russian Propagandist Media’ event at Spui25 in which she touches upon the colonial nature of Russian journalism and propaganda.

Part three consists of essays united under the title ‘War Mentality/Digitality’, which provides a personal account of the war and its seepage into the digital—zooming in on digital war tactics, but also on the experience of a war largely observed and mediated through the online. Svitlana Matviyenko and Geert Lovink reflect on the origin and wider context of the diary Svitlana has been publishing since late February 2022 on the Institute of Network Cultures website. Before the Russian invasion started, Geert contacted Svitlana to ask her how she was estimating the large scale Russian exercises and build-up at the border. On February 21 she responded: ‘I have been writing a diary since early January. I call it Dispatches from the Place of Imminence, in which I am trying to reflect on the situation, and particularly, the cyber warfare side of it.’ In the text ‘Digital Leviathan and His Nuclear Tail: Notes on Body and The Earth in The State of War,’ Olexii Kuchanskyi describes a corporeal experience of war through a united and multiple body, where the body functions as ‘a network of relationships and interactions’, and as ‘a tension between the individual and its environment.’ Lera Malchenko text, “I Notice the Extension”, is a nod to Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. She dissects the boundaries of a body as it gets increasingly intermixed in a complex heterogeneous system as a result of war. The section ends with one of Svitlana Matviyenko’s Dispatches From the Place of Imminence. In this particular entry from the diary series (part 10 from May 31, 2022) she unpacks imperialist epistemology through media theory and political analysis, carefully interlacing the subject with personal accounts of the absurd and the banal.

The publication rounds up with a list of sources and Initiatives to Support Ukraine, Ukrainian Refugees, and People at Risk.