Olivia Butler (Department of Social and Economic Geography, Uppsala University)
Speaking of the gig economy conjures images of dystopic futures with isolated, overworked, and underpaid workers performing monotonous tasks. Few, however, may have predicted that Russia would be crowdsourcing the invasion of Ukraine. Indeed, reports surfaced on 25 February from the official General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine Facebook page that the Kremlin used the app Premise for reconnaissance missions. This was seemingly confirmed by screenshots that emerged on Twitter from @alexrewrew, where it appears that micro-tasks have been posted in order to confirm satellite surveillance and geolocations of air strike targets. The app offered users up to $3.25 to check the locations of ports and medical facilities, and to inspect damage caused by bombs retrospectively.
The platform in question, Premise, categorically denied working for or supporting the Russian military government in a statement released on Friday morning, and have since suspended operations in Ukraine (Blackman 2022). Whilst the company deny explicit compliance, then, it is clear that due diligence was lacking in the monitoring of the tasks posted to its platform. There have since been similar, but as of yet unverified, accounts of tasks being posted on the app Scoutsss.
Additionally, the crowdfunding platform Patreon suspended fundraisers for the Ukrainian army on its website, stating they “don’t allow Patreon to be used for funding weapons or military activity. It is a violation of our policies, and so we have removed the page” (Patreon 2022).
The gig economy has become increasingly prevalent in Ukraine. Whilst the BBC reported a 20.4% growth in the IT sector in the country in 2020, Christian Mamo (2021), a reporter for Emerging Europe, warned that excitement over the expanding tech sector meant the government had overlooked its poorest workers. Indeed, the ILO report that Ukraine has the world’s fourth and Europe’s first most people working on digital labour platforms – and those are pre-pandemic statistics (Aleksynska et al. 2018). Ukraine’s sophisticated gig economy has roots in the casualisation of labour necessitated by the precipitous privatisation of the 1990s. This, in addition to the attempted dismantlement of Ukraine’s progressive Labour Code (1971), means that working conditions have deteriorated significantly in the gig economy. Clearly, this will be compounded by both the destruction of war, as well as the suspension of operations of platforms upon which they make a living.
That the gig economy has proved useful in military enterprise, then, is hardly surprising, given its advanced nature in the Ukrainian context. But the parallels do not stop there. Indeed, the just-in-time nature of the gig economy is inherently suited to the uncertainty of warfare. Its extolled flexibility has led Russia to understand the potentiality of having highly mobile labourers respond quickly to micro-tasks in support of their military interests. Contrawise to the idea that war is being increasingly carried out in the remote corners of cyberspace, these apps have facilitated the creation of a geographically tethered on-the-ground, mercenary artillery whose arsenal has been crowd funded. When we talk about gamification in the gig economy, it is usually in regards to the competitive design and rating systems, not the reanimation of combatant video games. And it is this gamification that has created such distance between the task and the worker that potentially unwitting gig workers could have found themselves embroiled in military operations. It has dehumanised both the worker and their potentially fatal work, divorcing them from the potentially brutal reality of their tasks.
The utilisation of gig platforms in the invasion of Ukraine is part of a heady mix of digital interventions in modern warfare, including cyber security and the dissemination of fake news. The latter have, however, received considerably more attention particularly in regards to the role of social media in Russian propaganda. The use of platforms in the enactment of war raises questions regarding the dehumanisation of digital mediation and the role of corporate and individual responsibility. In a world where we are able to live out our lives online, it is in the dissonance between real and cyber space where individuals and corporations become embroiled in the painful reality of conflict. The micro-missions published on gig platforms recently should serve as a cautionary tale regarding the impending gigification of warfare.
Aleksynska M, Bastrakova A and Kharchenko N (2018) “Work on Digital Labour Platforms in Ukraine.” International Labour Office https://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/—ed_protect/—protrav/—travail/documents/publication/wcms_635370.pdf (last accessed 26 February 2022)
Blackman M (2022) Premise’s response to allegations of influence in Ukraine. Premise 25 February https://www.premise.com/blog/premises-response-to-allegations-of-influence-in-ukraine (last accessed 26 February 2022)
General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine (2022) The security service conducts counterintelligence measures throughout Ukraine… Facebook 25 February https://www.facebook.com/GeneralStaff.ua/posts/258993836413702 (last accessed 26 February 2022)
Mamo C (2021) What rights for gig economy workers in Ukraine? Emerging Europe 20 April https://emerging-europe.com/news/what-rights-for-gig-economy-workers-in-ukraine/ (last accessed 26 February 2022)
Patreon (2022) On the removal of Come Back Alive. 25 February https://blog.patreon.com/on-the-removal-of-come-back-alive (last accessed 26 February 2022)