Russia's social media crackdown worrisome amid escalating conflict with Ukraine

Images of the Russian attacks and destruction in Ukraine cuts straight to the heart of Yuriy Gorodnichenko, a professor of economics at UC Berkeley who is from Ukraine and is trying to stay in contact with many family members and friends there.

Relief comes in the briefest moments when he says he hears from them by phone or social media.

"There is no reception, very spotty internet, and so you have to wait until they come out of the bomb shelters, then you can have a brief connection and then you have five ten minutes," said Gorodnichenko.

The UC Berkeley professor of economics says many Ukrainians are using Twitter and Facebook to share what's happening, but Russia has been destroying communication towers, power stations and internet infrastructure.

Adding to the tension, Russia announced Friday it is cutting access to Facebook and Twitter in Russia as well as imposing criminal penalties for anyone who posts what the Kremlin deems to be "fake" content.

There's also a cyberwar with hackers on both sides launching attacks.

"Prior to invasion, Russian hackers defaced and took offline some Ukrainian websites and attacked some Ukrainian government systems with malware," said Gloria Duffy, President and CEO of the Commonwealth Club is a former U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense.

On Friday, Ukraine announced it has a force of more than 400,000 people who are working on cyberwarfare to disrupt Kremlin-controlled military, media, and railways

"The number one export from Ukraine to the United States is IT...we have a number of people who have advanced degrees in computer science," said Gorodnichenko.

There are also independent hacking groups that are getting involved.

"The hacker group Anonymous has declared war on Russia and now there's a Russian hacker group...that's trying to disrupt Anonymous," said Duffy.

Hacker attacks by groups not authorized by a government, however, also come with great risk.

"International law only governs the behavior of nations and it doesn't govern the behavior of private actors," said Herbert Lin, a senior researcher in cyber policy and security at Stanford's Center for International Security and Cooperation.

"Now you have to ask yourself what happens if some hacker that's anti-Russian tries to hack them and this is not a government?" said Lin, "Is there somebody that's going to say this is an act of war perpetrated by a bunch of people under the Anonymous label? This could get out of hand pretty quickly."

Those consequences could be disastrous, according to Steven Pifer, former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine.

"Could something by a non-governmental actor trigger escalation and have this thing get ratcheted up in a way that Moscow and Kiev did not intend?" said Pifer, posing the potential problem at a Commonwealth Club panel this week.