You may already know that Elon Musk's internet company Starlink is providing satellite communication all over Ukraine. With Russia deliberately destroying communications towers in that country, Musk's satellite service is the only reason the rest of the world can see what's really going on there, or watch inspiring messages like this one.
If you read my colleague Jason Aten's piece about it, you may also know that the satellites came in response to a tweeted request from Ukraine's vice prime minister, Mykhailo Fedorov. But you may have wondered how Musk was able to provide that Starlink service so quickly, and you may not know just how important that single tweet was. That information, revealed in a recent talk by SpaceX COO Gwynne Shotwell, should be a reminder for every leader never to neglect the awesome power of social media. It's so powerful that it can change history, and in this case it did.
Take a close look at Fedorov's tweet to Musk, and Musk's response.
Many observers praised Musk not only for supplying Starlink service, but for doing it in just one day. In fact, if you notice both the date and time of the tweets, you'll see that there were less than 12 hours between Fedorov's request and Musk's response. Now, if you're a fan of Musk's, you already know that he seemingly has superhuman powers. But not even he could get an array of satellites into position in the 10 hours and 27 minutes that elapsed between the two tweets. How did that happen?
In her talk, Shotwell revealed the answer. The satellites were already in place and ready to be used. The challenge was not technical, it was bureaucratic. "We had been working on trying to get permission--landing rights--to lay down capacity in Ukraine," Shotwell explained to an audience at the California Institute of Technology. The push was part of a larger Starlink expansion throughout Europe. "We had been working with the Ukrainians for a month and a half or so."
SpaceX was waiting for a formal letter granting permission to start the service, but the Ukrainian government--no doubt distracted by the impending invasion--never sent it. Then the Russians began their march through Ukraine and Fedorov posted his tweet. SpaceX decided that under the circumstances a tweet would do. "They tweeted at Elon and so we turned it on," she said. "That was our permission. That was the letter from the minister. It was a tweet."
Because of that tweet, Ukrainian officials can still communicate with one another even as the Russians dismantle their normal communication networks. Because of it, ordinary Ukrainians can let the rest of the world watch as they scramble from their ruined cities, as a concert pianist plays her piano for the last time before abandoning her home, and as the popular Ukrainian band Antytila, currently in uniform and defending Kyiv, offers to make an appearance alongside Ed Sheeran at an upcoming benefit concert for Ukraine--an offer that Sheeran also responded to by tweet.
Do you believe all these things have made a difference to a busy world's continued attention to the invasion of Ukraine? Do you think they've helped drive the unprecedented support Ukraine is receiving from a host of nations, and the equally unprecedented sanctions those nations have leveled against Russia? I do. I also think it's one big reason Ukraine hasn't fallen as quickly as the Russians clearly thought it would. Whatever happens next, there's no doubt that Fedorov's tweet has changed the course of this war.
"Funding secured," GameStop, and flamethrowers
Musk, who has 79 million Twitter followers, has better reason than most to recognize the platform's reach and power. Because of it, he had to give up the chairman role at Tesla for three years, and pay a $20 million fine, after tweeting that he had "funding secured" to take the company private when that wasn't true. He used it to drive the share price of GameStop to absurdly high levels, creating billions in losses for the short sellers he loathes. And, back in 2018, a cash-strapped Musk used Twitter to raise $3.5 million in 24 hours by selling flamethrowers that don't even throw flames very far.
In a more mundane way, I've often used social media to make contact with busy people when my emails got buried in their inboxes. I'm willing to bet you have too. And, as Ukraine's experience shows, social media is particularly useful for taking shortcuts around lengthy policies, procedures, and review processes when you need a quick decision because you're faced with a big opportunity or an existential threat.
How do you use the power of social media? What can it do for you?