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Illustration by Sophie Le Grelle @sophielegrelle

The rise of ‘Apptivism’ in Ukraine

Is our reliance on social media apps for activism always a cause for good?

The full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine on 24 February, 2022 shook the world. In an instant, horrific stories and images of senseless destruction in Ukrainian cities and towns dominated mainstream news. Due to the prevalence of social media, real-time coverage was also rife on Telegram, TikTok, Twitter and other platforms, leading to the conflict being dubbed ‘the first social media war’.

This social media-fuelled dominance of the war in popular discourse meant members of the public in the Global North, as well as more seasoned grassroots activists, scrambled to help Ukrainian civilians fleeing conflict.

Some methods proved more effective than others. Of course, providing clothes, offering housing and giving money to those in-country remain the most practical ways to assist war victims. 

Yet a new phenomenon also emerged: online activism. More specifically, the use of social media apps. But people weren’t just using these interfaces for contact. A movement sprang up which went beyond the apps’ intended functions: to conduct a lowkey form of warfare against the invader. This is known as ‘apptivism’.

Tinder Bombing: reaching Russians over the cyber divide

A prime example of apptivism was through the use of the dating app Tinder. 

Many ordinary Russians have been deprived of accurate information concerning the conflict. To remedy this, Kinga Szostko from Gdynia, Poland, decided to create a Tinder profile of a Russian law graduate using her own photo and changing her location to Moscow. 

“It was a way to try to reach Russians”, says Kinga. “The only limitation with this method was having to pay for Tinder Plus so I could change my location freely to a Russian city”. 

Kinga, who heads The Foundation of Entrepreneurial Helpers organisation,  proceeded to connect with Russian men through Tinder and directly show them photos of Russian military destruction in Kyiv, Bucha, Irpin and Mariupol, enticing a range of reactions. 

Though some may see this practice as simply ‘trolling’ Russians, there is a deeper purpose  at play. In its simplest form, for actually starting conversations with Russians about the war being a war, it has been an easy and productive tool. 

“After a lot of insults, discussions, dialogue and exchanges of arguments with ‘cherry picked’ Russian users, I can assure you that along with other tools, Tinder has been very effective in the fight against Russian propaganda,” she tells me.

Slovakian creative Alex Strimbeanu and his ad agency Jandl had a similar idea; to “Tinder-bomb” some of the 3 million Russians currently using the dating app in-country. 

Their action was known as the ‘Special Love Operation’, a play on the Russian state and its client media referring to the war as a ‘Special Military Operation’. The practice has since spread and been encouraged through the creation of a website which gives step-by-step instructions of how to Tinder-bomb Russians with true news of the Ukrainian war. 

This was an innovative way to not only reach people directly, but to also circumvent tight information control, censorship and other cyber restrictions in Russia which have increased dramatically since the invasion of Ukraine. Tinder now serves as one of the last bastions of social media left for people to reach out to Russians, after the state swiftly blocked access to Facebook, Instagram and Twitter in the first weeks of the war.

On the Ukrainian side too, we can see how refugees, in need of places to stay after being forced to flee their homes, used Tinder to reach people in neighbouring countries. There are documented cases of Ukrainians finding shelter and support this way, using the dating app’s existing functions to ‘hook up’ for logistical or safety reasons only.

Other similar, though less direct, actions to Tinder-bombing were performed on Google Maps and TripAdvisor. Users would simply spam review popular Russian tourist attractions and restaurants, writing in Russian: “The food was great! Unfortunately, Putin spoiled our appetites by invading Ukraine. Stand up to your dictator, stop killing innocent people! Your government is lying to you. Get up!” 

This form of activism was encouraged by hacktivist collective Anonymous, who tweeted that the point of spreading war news through reviews was to “push information to the Russian civilian population being lied to.”

Airbnb apptivism: a more complicated picture

Apptivist usage of online rental marketplace Airbnb went even further in providing Ukrainians direct support. People outside of Ukraine purposefully booked Ukrainian Airbnbs, with no intention or possibility of staying there, in an effort to funnel money to hosts. 

Although at surface level this may have appeared to be an effective way of supporting Ukrainians in need, it does not mean the action is infallible. Since the trend started, many have voiced concerns about the use of Airbnb in this way. 

A key problem with this method is that Ukrainians who rent out a home or a spare room are unlikely to be the poorest in the society or the most in need of financial support, since they already have enough material wealth to act as quasi-landlords. 

There is also the question of what happens to the funds once transferred. 

In times of war, cyber attacks and threats increase dramatically, including interceptions of money coming into the country. Therefore, using Airbnb to transfer financial support may not be particularly safe, especially if it is unclear whether the host is still in Ukraine or has regular access to their bank.

Another fundamental issue is that Airbnb listings do not have to state whether a host is a professional landlord or simply an individual with a single space to rent out. Thus, it is inevitable that a portion of the funds directed to Ukrainian hosts will end up with property developers or management companies, some of whom may not even be based in Ukraine

The reality is that many Ukrainians do not have the means to host a property, let alone own 5+ properties as some Airbnb superhosts do, some of which have received war fund relief from caring individuals. This exposes a cruel irony in well-meaning donors inadvertently giving money to rich developers or companies, some perhaps even based in Russia.  

The power of Airbnb users soon collided with the app’s lack of oversight and lax rules around identity verification. This was evidenced in how quickly the chance to earn a quick buck paved the way for scam artists. 

By mid-March, Airbnb was taking steps to halt the sheer amount of Ukrainian apartments popping up on the app, as suspicion mounted about the legitimacy and veracity of ‘ghost listings’, and whether the purported hosts were even Ukrainians. 

This seems like an inevitable consequence of how easy it is to set oneself up as an Airbnb host, and to then take advantage of people’s aid without having to prove credentials. It unfortunately becomes a question of who could be profiting off donations meant for Ukrainian civilians in need?

Apptivism here to stay?

The advent of apptivism shows how far we have come from the days of the Arab Spring, the first upheaval where social media was hailed as a useful tool for radicals and resistors alike.

11 years on, people are not just using apps for communication during wartime, but pushing the platforms further to aid civilians and educate those kept in the dark. 

Tweaking the use of existing apps is a hypermodern function of our app-focused society, but used for a greater social purpose. It is even possible that many have turned to using Tinder and Airbnb to help Ukrainians in order to avoid the tradition of going through huge NGOs like the Red Cross. 

In addition, the familiarity of these apps may even encourage the support of people who wouldn’t otherwise get involved, as there’s something accessible about giving money via this user-friendly interface. 

But it wasn’t long before platforms began to fight back against these creative ways of using their apps. 

The platforms fight back

Google was quick to stop new reviews of Russian sights and businesses altogether and TripAdvisor blocked any reviews of attractions which mentioned the war, stating it violated their terms. 

Ultimately, apptivists are still limited by and forced to operate within the realms and terms of the app itself – not to mention those in control of them, evidenced further by Tinder’s decisions to ban some users who were using the app to discuss the war with Russians. 

The fact that many apps have responded to these actions with shutdowns to avoid being seen to encourage controversies, speaks to the limitations of operating within modern app architecture. After all, these are huge businesses, not grassroots platforms. As such, when these apps do seem to support the causes of their users, it is not always clear if it is just being done for PR purposes. 

While Airbnb has temporarily waived guest and host fees on new bookings in Ukraine, meaning they won’t make a cut from donations sent, it does not distract from their overall exploitative business model, which, aimed mainly at wealthy tourists, has torn apart communities and priced out locals.

Problems with the apptivist model for the future

It is also notable that the quick ‘match your partner’ style of apps like  Tinder has been emulated by the UK Gov’s Homes for Ukraine scheme, but has led to accusations of a lack of oversight.

The scheme, which allows UK residents to ‘sponsor’ a refugee and house them for a minimum of six months, puts the bulk of the work connecting fleeing Ukrainians to hosts onto Facebook pages and Airbnb-style websites. Here, quickfire connections between potential hosts and refugees can be made, imitating Tinder’s signature swipe left/swipe model.

But there are limited safeguards put in place by the government to vet hosts properly, leading to fears of exploitation of vulnerable women and children. 

The National Crime Agency (NCA), which investigates people trafficking, was not asked by the government to regulate the scheme. Two weeks after Homes for Ukraine was launched, 16 leading refugee and anti-trafficking organisations declared the government’s approach as  “hands-off” and warned they needed to “urgently regulate” the scheme, or risk it becoming “Tinder for sex traffickers”.

The popular aesthetics of swipe-style apps has assisted incompetent bodies to set up potentially dangerous and harmful schemes without proper supervision. This adds another layer of complexity to the prevalence and usefulness of these apps in anti-war activism.

All these actions show that we have inadvertently given these apps so much power that people are automatically drawn to use them in all manners, including for activism. This results in putting misplaced trust in these companies. 

The undoubtedly clever and innovative anti-war efforts indicate potential for making the best use of the so-called ‘shared economy’, but its limited successes highlight how these apps tend to follow the model of traditional, exploitative capitalist ventures, characterised by restricted oversight and lack of democracy.

While it is salient to praise these actions, it’s also important to be cautious about further emboldening these already-powerful apps. Our reliance on them seems to doom some of these actions to failure, as corporate PR machines and restrictive terms & conditions kick in and aid money is redirected to those already in positions of privilege.  

Instead, to create real and sustained support, we need to not only utilise existing infrastructure but look beyond it. We must subvert it, turn it on its head and build alternative bases of power for the future and beyond.

What can you do?

Illustration by Sophie Le Grelle @sophielegrelle

Artist concept: Two people, somewhere in the virtual world, one physically in Russia and the other elsewhere, meet…. For one, the issue is love, for the other the issue is politics. Stronger than weapons and mass destruction, where people put their hearts, a dialogue is possible to break down the barriers between false enemies.

Graphics by @alexefrancis
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