In Karim Amer’s new documentary Defiant about the Russian invasion of Ukraine, we learn that Elon Musk holds more power than Joe Biden.
The film, which I saw at its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), tells the story of modern warfare in the digital age by focusing on diplomacy, supply lines and fighting misinformation.
Technology plays a crucial role in all three.
Video chats happen on Google Meet, Chinese drones built to film weddings are retrofitted with bombs, and Telegram enables encrypted messages.
Still, Musk, with his dual control of X (formerly Twitter) and high-speed Internet access via his satellite constellation Starlink, exerts the most power.
During the post-screening Q&A, I asked the filmmakers about Musk, and Canadian-born producer Odessa Rae said this: “I spent a lot of time on the front lines, and I will say that if Elon Musk turned off that Starlink, Russia would win the war in four days. That’s how much power Starlink has right now on the war in Ukraine; they [Ukrainian military] have no other way to communicate targets.”
How the hell did we get here?
For most Canadians, Starlink, the billionaire tech mogul’s satellite constellation, is best known for (a) appearing as a neat-to-look-at ‘satellite train’ in the sky and (b) providing broadband-level Internet access via satellite dishes.
I’ve got a few friends in rural areas who ordered it after spending years struggling with glitchy wired connections and unrealized promises from successive governments that high-speed rural Internet was a national, provincial and local priority.
Where governments and traditional telecommunications companies (I’m looking at you, Bell and Rogers) fail to tread, Musk and other tech disrupters are happy to dive in.
However, this convenience and ease of service comes with a price.
As we learned recently via excerpts from Walter Issacson’s new biography of Musk, the SpaceX founder refused the Ukrainian government’s request to enable Starlink coverage for a submarine drone attack on the Russian Black Sea fleet in 2022.
His reason was that he thought such a move would escalate the war.
Musk is not necessarily wrong. The film closely follows Ukrainian Foreign Affairs Minister Dmytro Kuleba as he visits European capitals and Washington D.C., currying favour with Western politicians who seek to assist Ukraine while also containing the battle within its borders.
By refusing to extend Starlink’s service, Musk prevented Ukraine from extending the battle into Russia, which may have had the unspoken approval of those Western governments.
But how comfortable are we with allowing unelected, private citizens to make those decisions? Particularly one who is permissive of pro-Russian propaganda and anti-Western misinformation on X, the social media platform Musk owns and micro-manages?
Defiant doesn’t answer that question, but it does illustrate that we now live in two worlds, the physical and the digital, and the fight for control of hard geopolitical power is happening equally in both places.
Governments may hold power in our physical spaces, but technology companies are the hard power holders in the digital space – and what happens there have real-world consequences, as we are seeing in Ukraine.
“We live in a world where a handful of technology companies are more powerful than most governments,” said Amir in answer to my question. “It’s obviously a challenge. We hope that technology companies can do the right thing and realize that their companies wouldn’t exist without the open society that was born in the ashes of two great wars. They have a responsibility to protect freedom around the world.”
And we, as citizens in that free world, have a responsibility to hold them to it.