Apps in War

A quote from Leon Trotsky, plus a tiny photo of him. The quote says, "You may not be interested in war but war is interested in you."
Old Quote- New Meaning: Apps in War

Dear Ms. Smartphone: My family lives in France and they are using apps to follow what’s happening with our relatives in Ukraine. I live here and am honestly not familiar with using apps in wartime. I have been trying to keep up with the invasion on news and Twitter but am I missing sites? I did give up using TikTok- it just seemed contrived at this time.  Mikhail, San Francisco

Dear Mikhail: It’s good you gave up on TikTok. Social media has wormed its way into apps on warfare and there have been concerns that the GPS on TikTok could compromise military operations. In fact, the Indian government banned it completely. I hope that going forward your family, both in Ukraine and in France will be safe yet able to get timely and reliable updates from each other.

Telegram:

Your question got me curious about other apps in war that might be used. Today’s it called “cyber warfare” and there were some interesting leads. 

The app you mention for following news about the war in Ukraine is called Telegram. NPR had a descriptive background story. Two Russian brothers, the Durovs, set it up in 2014 as a way to circumvent the Kremlin and let fellow Russians learn what was happening in their country. Today, Telegram operates from Dubai and has about 30 employees. It has become, quotes NPR, the preferred news source for Ukrainians and Russians who use smartphones to track what is happening. There are private channels (like Slack)  for communications with family members or friends, and public ones, for daily videos and updates.  Sadly, there are allegations that the site is not secure and is being used for propaganda purposes. So, if you choose to use Telegram, keep that caveat in mind.

Premise Data & MAPPING:

Assuming your relatives in Ukraine have a smartphone or know someone who does, they might have downloaded a Google app called Air Raid Alerts. It is a supplement to the country’s existing air raid alert system and accesses the same public channel. (Here in the U.S., a similar app is used to announce an impending tsunami or provide earthquake warnings.)

But, apps for war are also being used behind the scenes by Russian-Ukraine military operations. The Wall St. Journal cites a mobile app maker called Premise Data Corp. that had to shut down its operations there. It paid smartphone users to do remote observational tasks such as photography. Bluetooth and wireless sensors on their phones might have also been accessed  to map out cell networks and WiFi access points. The Kyiv government accused Premise of being a tool that Russian forces used to locate Ukrainian targets. So, quote “out of an abundance of caution they suspended operations.”  A few weeks later (3/1)  Google Maps began removing user-submitted locations because they were allegedly being used to target airstrikes. Again, Google officials state they removed the app for the same reasons, “out of an abundance of caution.”

Reface:

When you look at smartphones in war it is a recent development that soldiers and civilians alike can send images from day to day operations. Wired magazine says this began with the Iraqi war and dates it to 2016, the battle for Mosul.  This visual documentation has become a democratic way of conducting a war but is uncharted territory in terms of what it foments. Do these real-time images help civilians and soldiers process the horror of war and express their emotional angst or do they stir up factions and seed new schisms?

In Ukraine the app makers have not left this opportunity pass them by. Now, in an advanced country of cyber-coders, a well-acclaimed Ukrainian video game producer called Reface has gotten into the news business. Their popular software features let users swap out faces on video. They now compile daily video feeds of the war based on clips and images circulating on social media. They also add the face of Volodymyr Zelensky to the heroic moments. Say the founders of Reface: he is today’s Jack Sparrow, Hulk and Iron Man. 

Stay Well:

So, going back to your original question, I hope your family weathers this OK and you can find ways to stay in touch and support them. The media can help you find legitimate, reliable places to give donations and aid. But, in a recent post, I noted how hard it is to know where to get news these days. We are increasingly pulled into the war machinery. As the apocalyptic quote from Leon Trostkey quote states, “You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.”  Through phones and social media, the citizen journalist or soldier shares stories (often personal) and photos (often altered). Inadvertently, these same phones share crowd sourced data, sensors, and the triangulation of location.

Phone at Dinner Table?

Is Phone Part of the Plating?

A cartoon of a table place setting in 1952 versus in 2022. A phone and a TV remote have been added in 2022 to the traditional setting of fork, plate, knife and spoon. Toon by Bob Englehart.
Phone at Dinner Table? Artist: Bob Englehart, 2022

Dear Ms Smartphone: The cartoon you had on Instagram this week got me thinking. It shows a  place setting from the 1950’s with a plate, a knife, and a fork.  Next to it is a contemporary  place setting with a plate, a knife,  a fork, also  a TV clicker and mobile phone.  Here’s my question: If you had to choose, would it be a phone at the dinner table or a TV remote? Lee, Silver Spring.

Dear Lee:  First, recognition to the syndicated artist.  His name is Bob Englehart and his online bio says that he was born in 1945 in Indiana. That tells us that he  is a Boomer and has personally experienced the progression of the place settings. *

As to whether I would choose the phone or the TV remote, my first response is neither, but there will be exceptions! Reacting to the cartoon on Instagram, one follower notes that he does food photography so no meal is left unphotographed!  Short of that, we devalue our food and the people who prepared it when we let electronics intercede. There’s considerable research that shows the quality of conversation between two people suffers when one of them puts a phone on the table, even if the phone is turned off. The presence of the phone takes people out of the immediate moment. 

Electronic media, whether TV or phone, moves our awareness away from the meal being served, i.e., the present moment. Alternatively, you could use mealtime as a go-to exercise in mindfulness. And, the best thing is that you get to  practice it three times a day. To begin, you acknowledge and give thanks for the water and soil and sun, the farmers, the harvest, and the workers in the supply chain that help bring this food to your plate. 

When we eat in front of the TV or distract ourselves with our phone we are less mindful- we may forget to pay attention to the flavor of the food, how much has been eaten, and occasionally, whether we are satiated. There is a strong correlation (not causality) between spending more time on TV and obesity. For teens, more hours on video games and electronic media is associated with obesity. Most likely, there is a trigger-cue-behavior of engaging with media, distraction, and snacking. If we start doing this at the dinner table, does that habit follow us to the family room and other spaces where we use electronic devices?

But, back to the question you raised. I would choose the TV over the phone at the dinner table. TV is less of a one-to-one medium than the smartphone.  I personally have the day’s newspapers spread out at breakfast and lunch. Sometimes the TV show or newspapers will draw out a conversation, and create a more shared experience.   Mealtime should be an opportunity for families to reconnect, even if their conversation focusses on the cartoon! The presence of a phone implicitly says that a family member prioritizes something outside the room over the people who are present.

It’s been a while since I watched much over-the-air TV, but prime-time used to be filled with ads for snacks, sugar filled drinks, and higher fat foods. Today, these have been supplanted by ads for prescription drugs and pills. Is one healthier than the other? It might be a good idea if you do watch family TV together to draw attention to the content of these ads and talk through what screen-time is telling us about ourselves. If you follow the ads on your smartphone, they will be more personalized based on what you scroll for and spend time looking at. What content are they pushing? That might be a great discussion to have over the dinner table!

* Englehart’s  toon ran on the editorial pages of the Bay Area Newspaper Group  (Marin Independent) on 3/8/22). 

News Makes Me Anxious

A picture of a smartphone and a set of hands handcuffed to the phone with the auxillary phone cord.
News Makes Me Anxious: Take a Digital Sabbath?

Dear Ms. Smartphone: I feel  bad-tempered these days and my ex says it’s because I am watching so much news on my phone. It’s true that my phone is my main source. There is a lot happening out there and I want to stay informed. Maybe the news makes me anxious and worried? I want to keep up but not feel so stressed about our future. Suzanne, Sausalito

Dear Suzanne: The news has indeed been grim these past few weeks. It’s doubtful that anyone can view it and come away feeling positive about the social order. So lighten up and do not be so hard on yourself.  But does the news make people anxious? If so, you are not alone. Nearly half of adults say that they get primary news on social media and a third on Facebook.

If you step back and ask what is “broadcast news”  it was only one- hour long 40 years ago. Then, in 1980 Turner’s Cable New Network (CNN) launched 24 hour news and it changed the business model. A similar innovation around 2012, was the round-the-clock news feed that you participate in using your phone, say on Twitter, Reddit, and Facebook. Social media sites beckon you in if you are engaged, informed or just passionate about a topic.  However, as you engage, you will never be sure if others there are legitimate, or if they have a special interest lurking behind the posts. Even worse, they could be bots fabricating elements of the story or pictures. 

So, it may be that your anxiousness – or bad temper as you put it- comes from the hard work it takes to engage with social news media and keep it straight. When you go online to these news sites you process a large volume of information, but you process it out of context, in pieces, and without full trust in the sources. When you think about it that way, it’s not about you. Following the news on social media is tricky and cognitively taxing.  This is not the only reason that the news can make you anxious, but I think this one gets downplayed.

I would recommend that you take a Digital Sabbath. A Digital Sabbath is not religious- it’s a designated break from using your phone, in this case for news watching. You begin with just one day a week. You are likely to find that you are not missing anything during this 24 hour break. Soon, hopefully, you will be able to incorporate  more  time-offs into your routine. 

By the way, there are a number of studies in mental health that link depression and anxiety to news watching. Longitudinal studies  done after the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013 and the Orlando Pulse Nightclub massacre in 2016 paint a grim picture. The academic researchers found that viewers who saw the devastating pictures over and over again were more likely to be anxious and have prolonged stress going forward. If you search, you will find many studies that vet a relationship between anxiety and news viewing.  A noteworthy branch is now called “climate anxiety.” Since 2011 psychologists have observed a relationship between indirect exposure to climate stories transmitted by the media and feelings of worry, despair, and guilt. 

That said, researchers still do not know, and they may never, whether people who are more anxious and stressed turn to media, or if this association is fueled by media viewing.  That’s key!


Since both mental health research and your own experience point to the out-sized role of social media I offer some final advice. If you want to keep up with the news but become less emotionally involved in it then subscribe to a daily newspaper. There is compelling evidence (from the Covid era) that the written stories and pictures are less involving, so readers stay more emotionally distant. Research finds no significant association between newspaper coverage of natural disasters, wars, and trauma and psychological outcomes such as depression, stress, or anxiety. Newspapers should equip you to take in the daily complement of worldwide events without getting irritable, crying, or sad.