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Big Tech’s influence in Ukraine is overhyped

March 4, 2022, 5:57 PM UTC

Judging solely by the number of headlines touting donations of crypto and NFTs to Ukraine’s resistance against Russia, you’d be forgiven for thinking the besieged Eastern European nation is swimming in crowdsourced cash.

This week alone, the New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal, as well as CNBC, CoinDesk, and many other outlets—yes, including Fortune—all devoted plenty of digital ink to the Ukrainian government’s novel blockchain campaign.

And how much has that fundraising haul added up to? A mere $50 million, give or take. 

For all the attention lavished on the crypto community’s generosity regarding this nascent war, some perspective feels in order. In the coming months, the U.S. and its European allies are expected to send tens of billions of dollars in arms and humanitarian aid to Ukrainians, dwarfing the well-intentioned but relatively meager efforts of blockchain champions.

The Russian-Ukrainian war has understandably shone new light on the power of fast-developing tech in an international crisis. But as the past two weeks have shown, brutal conflict remains very much rooted in 20th-century tactics of steamrolling tanks and bomb-dropping planes, largely impervious to the best efforts of keyboard warriors across the globe.

So far, the valiant—if likely futile—resistance can be chalked up to several deeply human and diplomatic components: a massive influx of government-provided weaponry, the indomitable spirit of millions of Ukrainians, guerrilla-style survival strategies, the miscalculations of Russian President Vladimir Putin, the logistical hurdles of a ground assault, and old-fashioned international alliances.

The galvanizing force of social media, which has helped rally near-worldwide support for Ukrainians, certainly ranks among the tech industry’s top assists. The cybersecurity community’s successful work in keeping Ukraine’s internet infrastructure intact also deserves huge credit. 

Other much-heralded aspects of the tech world’s contribution, however, feel a bit overhyped.

Take SpaceX’s donation of Starlink satellite internet service. The company, helmed by Tesla CEO Elon Musk, earned a bunch of favorable news coverage after it sent Starlink hardware to the Ukrainian government. But as The Atlantic detailed earlier this week, the strength and accessibility of Starlink service in Ukraine remains uncertain.

“It’s nice for [Musk] to offer, but that doesn’t mean it will actually have a meaningful impact right away,” Brian Weeden, a space-policy expert at the nonprofit Secure World Foundation, told The Atlantic. (Incidentally, Musk also warned Starlink users Thursday that Russian forces could target Starlink devices with bombs, putting civilians near them in danger.)

Numerous tech companies also have received praise for cutting off sales and services in Russia, taking a principled stand against the unjustified invasion. 

Yet the impact of those decisions, noble as they may be, pales in comparison to the force of international sanctions levied against Russia. It was the move to oust Russia from the SWIFT financial communications system—not Apple’s embargo on iPhones or YouTube’s demonetization of state-sponsored propaganda—that crashed the ruble and shuttered the Russian stock market.

This conflict undeniably treads new territory in our increasingly wired and decentralized world. Never before has an individual been able to send currency directly to an oppressed government, hoping to prop up good in its against-the-odds battle against evil. Never before have companies instantaneously virtually cut off an entire sector from an international superpower, in solidarity with the people being attacked.

At heart, though, this struggle is innately unwired. It will be won or lost through brute force, strategy, teamwork, and valor. The fog of war might cloud that perspective, but those fighting it deserve as much.

Want to send thoughts or suggestions for Data Sheet? Drop me a line here.

Jacob Carpenter

NEWSWORTHY

A commercial success? Disney plans to launch an ad-supported, lower-cost version of its Disney Plus streaming service later this year in the U.S., joining several other rivals that offer a similar plan. The addition will help Disney, which ended the year with about 129.8 million Disney Plus subscribers worldwide, meet its goal of at least 230 million subscribers by the end of its 2024 fiscal year. The move leaves Netflix, Apple, and Amazon as the only major streaming services without plans for an ad-supported option. Disney didn’t announce a price point for the plan Friday.

One powerhouse pairing. Japanese giants Honda and Sony announced Friday that they intend to form a partnership to create and sell battery-powered electric vehicles, with the goal of putting a car on the market by 2025, Bloomberg reported. Under the agreement, which hasn’t yet been finalized, Sony would largely provide software- and communications-based support, and Toyota would offer its automaking expertise. Sony has not-so-subtly hinted at its ambitions for jumping into the automotive market, while Honda has lagged behind its competitors in developing electric vehicle products and technology.

A deliberate move. Amazon livestreaming unit Twitch will start taking down channels hosted by streamers who repeatedly spread harmful misinformation, joining other social media platforms that have moved more aggressively to police content on their sites, the New York Times reported. The decision comes as more far-right conspiracy theorists gravitated to Twitch following bans from YouTube, Twitter, and other popular platforms. Twitch, which hosts about 8 million broadcasts each month, is best known for its use by gamers and internet content creators. 

Add them to the list. Microsoft joined many of its tech peers Friday by suspending sales of products and services in Russia, citing that country’s invasion of Ukraine, Axios reported. The decision follows the issuance of sanctions by the U.S., European Union, and United Kingdom, some of which would restrict Microsoft’s ability to conduct business in Russia. Microsoft has provided cybersecurity support to the Ukrainian government throughout the conflict, while also removing or limiting access to state-sponsored media outlets on its platforms.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

No looking back? WarnerMedia’s CNN might be mired in turmoil ahead of an imminent merger, but it’s moving full steam ahead with an expensive streaming service. The Financial Times reported Thursday that WarnerMedia CEO Jason Kilar is pressing forward with the debut of CNN Plus in the coming weeks, setting a product budget that totals about $350 million in 2022 alone. It’s unclear, however, whether Discovery, which will take over WarnerMedia in a $43 billion spinoff-and-acquisition deal, has much appetite for the streaming service. CNN Plus will arrive late to the streaming wars, which haven’t yet been profitable for smaller services like Fox Nation and Peacock.

From the article:

Launching a streaming service is one of CNN’s biggest strategy gambles since Ted Turner launched the network in 1980 as the first 24-hour cable news channel. As well as the challenge of proving its business case, the project faces the uncertainty of upheaval after its parent company is acquired by Discovery, which might reset the approach to streaming.

CNN Plus is planned to launch sometime this month, while the Discovery-Warner merger is expected to close soon afterwards in April. One insider described the situation as a “race to the finish line” for CNN Plus.

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT

The NFT bubble is showing clear signs of bursting, by Chris Morris

The Super Bowl, fortune cookies, and Law & Order: Crypto is everywhere, by Declan Harty

Space junk crashes into the moon at 5,800 mph, by Chris Morris

Ukraine ditches crypto fundraising plans and turns to NFTs for salvation instead, by Marco Quiroz-Gutierrez

Amazon-backed EV startup admits ‘most painful’ mistake yet and cancels price hikes after a stock rout, by Christiaan Hetzner

Brilliant tech and science minds want to escape Putin’s Russia. The U.S. should welcome them with open arms, by Vivek Wadhwa and Alex Salkever

BEFORE YOU GO

Can Kimmie go too? Chad might be headed back to space. The New York Post’s steadily reliable Page Six gossip column reported Thursday that Saturday Night Live star and Kim Kardashian squeeze Pete Davidson, who bumbled his way to Mars last year in a SpaceX sketch, hopes to blast off with buddy Jeff Bezos on a Blue Origin flight later this year. The planned exploration isn’t yet final, but Page Six reports that Bezos and Davidson recently hit it off during dinner. Blue Origin, which Bezos owns, has launched three successful space tourism flights. The Amazon founder climbed aboard for the first trip.

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