Tech companies proliferated in Ukraine before the war. Today, the country’s 250,000 computer scientists are looking for small ways to use technology to retaliate and undermine Russian propaganda.
On Wednesday, Reface, a face-swapping app created by three young Ukrainian entrepreneurs, plans to launch a new app that will make it easier to create and share war-related visual memes. Ukrainians will be the first to receive the new app, called Memomet, which the founders hope will help both fight the information war and deal with the Russian assault on Ukraine a little easier .
“We realized that memes helped with anxiety,” says Anton Volovyk, COO of Reface and alumnus of the 2021 Forbes 30 Under 30 Europe list. “Humour is one of those areas where we can keep the Ukrainian narrative alive.”
The new app is the latest anti-war effort from Kyiv-based Reface. The company, which received $5.5 million in seed funding led by Andreessen Horowitz, previously added push notifications informing its 200 million users of the invasion and urging them to stand with the Ukraine. He also added the Ukrainian flag and #StandWithUkraine hashtag to all videos created in the app.
On its own, Memomet is the smallest thing. But across Ukraine, where tech companies proliferated before the war and the rapidly growing population of IT workers has swelled to 250,000, such small efforts, carried out alone or in collaboration with the the country’s volunteer computer army, add up. They are particularly useful for optics in the ongoing information war and for organizing humanitarian funds and aid. Among the projects undertaken by Ukrainian companies and tech workers are an automatically updated Google Doc with the latest traffic information at border crossings, new software to search for digital links to Russia and Belarus, and many military and humanitarian fundraising. efforts.
“Ukrainians are really, really good at self-organizing under pressure,” says Igor Zhadanov, managing director of Odessa-based Readdle, which builds productivity apps. “We had dozens, if not hundreds of initiatives in the first 48 hours of the invasion with the IT army as an umbrella to coordinate this. But there is no one at the head of the IT Army. Different groups try to determine the maximum impact to fight back.
After Mykhailo Federov, Ukraine’s Minister of Digital Information, made a call at the start of the war for civilians with digital expertise to join the country’s IT army, Ukrainians responded on a Telegram channel by posting tasks and encouraging members to use Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks on Russian websites. “DDoS is non-stop work. We are working to improve it, but it is not our only activity, ”says one of the anonymous administrators of the Telegram group. “For DDoS, we have a dedicated team to decide what to attack and what is the priority.”
But for most tech companies and IT people, fighting back means building apps, posting videos and information on social media, raising awareness among US and European customers, and raising funds. Groups of civilian volunteers have self-organized with overlapping membership and goals. “If you’re doing something that helps people and uses technology, you can say you’re in the IT army,” says Denys Zhadanov, Readdle board member (and brother of Igor). “It’s very decentralized and chaotic. Some companies go into this mode of warfare and some try to keep the company going because that’s how we fund our operations and pay salaries and taxes.
“Ukrainians are really very good at organizing under pressure.”
In the past eight years since the Maidan revolution, in which protesters rebelled against a government with pro-Russian sympathies and eventually toppled it, Ukraine’s tech industry, largely made up of consulting firms in IT and software developers, experienced double-digit annual growth. This created a new class of affluent young workers with deep ties to the West through clients in the United States and Europe.
“There is something very dynamic going on,” says Andreas Flodström, co-founder and CEO of Swedish-Ukrainian firm Beetroot, which does IT consulting and software development. “You are part of the transformation of society, as well as the transformation of the economy and industry, and this goes hand in hand with the values of freedom and democracy. You can almost feel it in your body when you’re there.
And so tech workers and their companies have stepped up. In a high-profile campaign at the start of the war, netizens flooded the Russian restaurant review pages on Google Maps and the Russian lifestyle website Afisha.ru with details about the war in Ukraine.
Ukrainian IT consulting and software company Railsware also attempted to using social media to reach grassroots Russian citizens in the early days, undermine Russian government propaganda and publicize the devastation caused by Valdimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. “Russian propaganda says they have no casualties and everything is fine so they shouldn’t worry, and we have hundreds of videos where their tanks and cars are destroyed and their bodies are on the road,” says Sergey Korolev, managing director of Railsware, who is Ukrainian but has lived in Krakow, Poland, for eight years.
But the video campaign aimed at Russians didn’t work (“They just don’t want to know the truth,” he says), so they refocused on sharing information with Western customers on how to support Ukraine. “It’s an information war,” he says.
Alexander Kholodov, managing director of Dnipro-based Yalantis, an outsourcing company with some 500 employees, also focused on posting information on LinkedIn and other social media, as well as organizing approximately $150,000 in donations. “Our messages were intended for the West,” he says. “Most of our customers are from the United States, so we have a conversation with them.”
MacPaw, which makes Mac software products, including its flagship CleanMyMac, has taken several approaches. The kyiv-based company placed banners inside its products with resources about Ukraine that users, including those in Russia, could refer to. Within two days, the company learned from Roskomnadzor, Russia’s censorship agency, that MacPaw’s website would be listed as a banned website in Russia, MacPaw spokeswoman Julia Petryk said. “That was before Meta was banned there and Instagram was banned there,” she says. “We were one of the first to be banned there.”
After that, she says, the company decided to cut off all Russian and Belarusian users from MacPaw. “It was our own punishment,” she said. “It is hypocrisy to provide services to countries that are aggressors on Ukrainian soil.” A total of 14,500 Russian users and 450 Belarusian users will not be able to renew their annual CleanMyMac subscription.
Then, the company’s engineers came up with the idea of finding out whether applications were running in the background on the computers of its customers of Russian or Belarusian origin. The result: spybuster, launched at the end of March, can be downloaded for free by all Mac users. A second tool of war, called App Togetherallows employees to connect with others when dispersed across cities and time zones.
SoftServe, a Ukrainian-American outsourcing company, also used the technological know-how for humanitarian purposes. From his longtime residence in Lviv, SoftServe engineering manager Taras Kloba has created a living document to monitor border queues. The document is regularly updated based on information submitted via Telegram and includes detailed information, such as “car queue in kilometers” and “expected waiting time” for all border crossings between the Ukraine and neighboring countries, with the exception of Russia.
Kloba, who has lived in Lviv for a decade, says he has a responsibility to work very hard on behalf of his colleagues who have taken up arms to defend Ukraine. “I think it’s something in what I’ve been through and what I can help in our country, more than with weapons,” he says. “It is important to have such projects to help my country and to explain to me why I am staying at home and not joining our army.”
SoftServe, which counts large corporations like IBM and Cisco among its customers, started in Ukraine shortly after the country regained independence in the early 1990s. Company CEO Chris Baker, who lives in Annapolis , Maryland, says they have a duty to contribute as much as possible to the Ukrainian economy. “We bring in hard US currency every month,” he says. “Our working employees play an important role in keeping the economy functioning, and keeping the economy functioning is not just important now, but what happens next. We prepaid our taxes, 24 million hryvnia [approximately $812,000]we prepaid them to the Ukrainian government because we know the Treasury needed the funds.
The funds aren’t just used to pay taxes, Railsware’s Korolev notes, but also help defray the costs of relocating employees and their families to safety. As the war continues, he says, many workers have moved to their basements, where it is safer, especially when the air raid sirens go off. From his base in Krakow, he sets up a volunteer center and searches for medicines to send to Ukraine. “We need to generate more revenue than we can help our employees and their families, pay taxes in Ukraine and support volunteer efforts,” he says.
Beetroot’s Flodström is also already thinking about how to prepare to rebuild. It is redesigning the company’s Beetroot Academy, which has trained more than 4,700 Ukrainians in IT careers since 2014, to work with Ukrainian refugees in Sweden. More than 4 million refugees have fled Ukraine since the start of the war.
“We can’t solve the whole challenge, but I think we can be a strong player,” he said. “The tech industry has a very important role now, and will have an even more important role in the reconstruction afterwards.”
With additional reporting by Thomas Brewster