Those who have relatives in Ukraine or want to help in general have many options. An overview, which was originally published under the Creative Commons license on heise online, presents the most important digital tools and platforms.
In crisis situations communications is everything – and that includes human care. The feeling of not being alone is crucial for coping with such situations. It’s important for maintaining motivation or building it up in the first place. In personal relationships, this only works if both sides can trust the medium used.
Today, the easiest way to do that is via encrypted messengers that are not in the hands of large corporations. And even though Telegram seems to be the most popular messenger in Ukraine despite its controversial history, it is not fully encrypted. Group chats are basically not encrypted at all, every content is stored on servers and can also be accessed via a browser. And in the case of WhatsApp, although it is encrypted, this service belongs to Facebook’s infrastructure – in the event of cyberattacks, that is likely to be the first target, because it can also be used to shut down WhatsApp and Instagram.
We recommend either Signal or Threema as alternatives. Both are end-to-end encrypted and just as easy to use as other messengers. A detailed test shows the differences and advantages and disadvantages.
Free calls and SMS to Ukraine
Of course, such communication channels depend on some kind of access to the Internet. However, as long as there are no large-scale cyberattacks, this can be assumed. Mobile phone providers may also be affected by this due to end-to-end IP networking. As long as this works, telephone and SMS are still the most reliable and simple applications. Consequently, Telekom and Vodafone in Germany have made both services free of charge for the time being, with A1 and its sub-brands in Austria are joining in, as do Drei and Magenta. Yes, calls and SMS from Austria and Germany to Ukraine via these providers are free at this time, provided the volume does not reflect commercial abuse of the offer.
If you can’t agree on a messenger or other service, or the appropriate equipment isn’t available, there are free services for videoconferencing that can be joined by phone with sound only. One such service is the German project Senfcall, which is financed by donations, does not store your conversations, and is based on the open source software Big Blue Button. Those who use such services on a regular basis should make their financial contribution to it.
Trustworthy sources of information
Today’s hybrid warfare also includes targeted disinformation and stifling discourse with a flood of misleading posts in all sorts of public forums. That Russian bots and troll armies are not a myth was recently demonstrated by the editor-in-chief of the Frankfurter Rundschau. As Thomas H. Kaspar reported on Twitter, his community team ran into Facebook’s deletion limit: More than 10,000 misleading comments on posts by the editorial team had been received within hours. Such attacks are often long-lasting, here they were later followed by a wave of bot-posts in other social media channels of the Funke Media Group which Frankfurter Rundschau is a part of.
It is therefore important to use reliable sources in dynamic news situations. Especially on Twitter, freelance and staff journalists provide a lot of unfiltered information in real time. German journalist Philip Banse (Podcast: “Die Lage der Nation”) has compiled a list called “Eastern Europe” for this purpose, in which journalists, NGOs and academics comment in various languages
Those who appreciate the international overview and also want to understand and forward news in foreign languages can also find an overview of Deutsche Welle accounts on Twitter. Their news are also available in Russian and in Ukrainian.
The view from abroad can be helpful for your own assessment. The BBC’s live ticker on the Ukraine crisis and CNN’s counterpart are just two examples. Both offer insights beyond the EU’s borders, particularly with regard to the financial sector.
Whenever dealing with news in the form of text or video snippets, it is important to keep the source and its intention in mind. The two articles of c’t magazine Fakt oder Fake (Fact or Fake) and Nix mit Fake (Down with Fake) offer techniques for recognizing fakes and disinformation.
With all the sources in social networks, most of the bots and political trolls can be easily identified: As a rule of thumb, the accounts are quite new and post identical posts in many groups and also other networks. Likewise, the use of the same memes over and over again, sometimes with drastic images and text, is suspicious. Not only should you not fall for such disinformation, it is especially important not to spread it further and to initiate a possible deletion via the networks’ reporting functions.
VPN against government censorship
If trustworthy sources cannot be accessed, for example due to government restrictions, virtual private networks, also known as VPNs, can help. These redirect access so that it appears to come from another country and also bypass DNS blocks and other attempts to control the flow of information. We have had good experiences with the provider NordVPN (review), as well as the Finnish service Freedome from F-Secure. More services, a feature overview and direct links to the applications can be found at Heise Download.
A VPN is particularly useful for people in Ukraine. Anyone working there as a journalist or for an NGO should definitely use a stable VPN with many servers and access points distributed around the world. This can also make it more difficult for attackers to intercept communications or, worse, manipulate them.
Help for refugees
Those who not only want to inform themselves but also to provide practical help may first think of donations. Since a large number of refugees can be expected, the relevant organizations are the first port of call for this. For example, the United Nations Refugee Agency, UNHCR, already states that 100,000 people from Ukraine want to leave the country. The UNHCR has already launched initial aid campaigns for this purpose and is asking for donations.
As the escalation of the conflict was foreseeable, NGOs Caritas and Malteser have also prepared concrete relief actions. The links lead to pages of the respective programs. A cross-organization donation option is offered by the German Action Alliance for Disaster Relief (Aktionsbündnis Katastophenhilfe).
Apart from donations, it is also possible to provide help locally in Germany. Many cities have their own organizations for this purpose, the listing of which would go beyond the scope of this article. If many refugees should arrive in Germany, practical work is needed there. It can also be worthwhile to ask local authorities and local politicians now, for example through their citizens’ offices, whether the community is prepared and can offer help. One example is spontaneous offers of help in arrival centers, such as those already offered by the state of Berlin.
Resource lists that can be edited by anyone and that contain offers of help and practical tips on fleeing Ukraine are difficult to verify. They are distributed in social networks via Google Docs, among others. We link an example of this here with reservations – the content can change at any time. We have randomly checked the information, at the time of publishing this article it was correct. If in doubt, you should at least check who made the latest changes and check the associated social media accounts. False information via SMS has also been observed. Caution is advised whenever contact is made by unknown persons; above all, links in such messages should not be clicked on under any circumstances.
Support for relatives and friends in Ukraine
As mentioned at the beginning, communication is everything. However, those who are indirectly affected and worried about their loved ones should be careful not to make the their emotional situation even worse. Not every news snippet about the latest developments needs to be shared. People’s stress levels vary, and when someone asks for information, it’s legitimate to counter-ask: why do you want to know? Of course, nothing should be withheld from relatives, but it makes sense to agree on a framework for supporting each other beforehand.
The same applies to the lucky ones who only watch the war from a distance. It’s perfectly fine to remove yourself from the news flurry for a few hours or a day and, analogous to the principles of Digital Detox, also do some News Detox.
When all else fails
In the worst case scenario, a loved one in a war zone can no longer be reached. Even then, as simple as it may sound, it’s important to stay calm and not immediately assume the worst. Mobile and fixed networks can fail, be overloaded or be disrupted by attackers. If contact is lost for an extended period of time, or if there are specific reasons for concern due to trustworthy reports of attacks on the missing person’s location, the Red Cross Tracing Service can help.
Red Cross and Red Crescent organizations are internationally networked and experienced in searching for missing persons. Likewise, they have the means of Red Cross Messages (RCMs), which can also be delivered to prisons, for example. The relief organizations can also conduct video conferences, if technically possible, when the missing person is finally found.
This text may be distributed under the license of CC-BY 4.0
This text is available under the CC BY 4.0 license and was originally published by Nico Ernst on heise online. A big thank you is therefore due to the entire Heise team and their editors-in-chief, who made the free reproduction of this valuable information possible in such a turbulent time. Thank you!