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How Ukraine's EuroMaidan Revolution Played Out Online

BY Carola Frediani | Friday, February 28 2014

Protestors in Kiev on Dec. 22, 2013. (credit: grocap/flickr)

After three months of demonstrations and fighting on the streets, ending with the ouster of President Viktor Yanukovych, there are few doubts that the Internet and social media played major roles in the revolution. While the Ukrainian press coverage was often limited, technology and online platforms not only materially sustained the protesters, but also helped them to reach an international audience.

Protestors began to mobilize on Nov. 21, 2013, after the Ukrainian government suspend preparations for the EU-Ukraine Association agreement. They gathered in Independence Square (Maidan) in Kiev and used the hashtags #euromaidan and #евромайдан on Twitter and Facebook. The Facebook posts of Hromadske TV journalist Mustafa Nayem, encouraging Ukranians to gather at Maidan, received more than 1,000 shares in a few hours. At the same time, a number of independent video streams were set up, on platforms like UStream, live broadcasting what was happening on the streets.

The demonstrations swelled on November 24 when ultimately 250,000 people took to Kiev’s streets, demanding reforms as well as Ukraine’s European integration. The first social media pages also started to gain traction: the Euromaidan Facebook page gained 70,000 followers in less than a week. As noted by two NYU researchers in the Washington Post, Facebook was being used much more actively than Twitter, acting as a news hub, as well as coordinating protests by noting the location of demonstrations, providing logistical and support information, distributing flyers for printing and dissemination, giving tips on how to behave and react to police, and uploading videos of police brutality.

A recent independent research study conducted by Kyrylo Galushko and Natalia Zorba from the National Pedagogical University 'M.P. Drahomanov' in Kiev confirmed the predominance of Facebook in organizing the protests. According to a poll of 50 Ukrainian social media experts and Internet opinion leaders, conducted between December 2013 and January 2014, Facebook played the largest role in mobilization. Twitter came in second place, followed by the Russian social networking site, Vkontakte, which is the second most popular social networking site in Europe. “Social networking services were the leading communication feature of protesters, instrument of mobilization for taking part in different actions and establishing other forms of social support,” explains Galushko to techPresident.

The EuroMaidan Facebook pages were set up in both Ukranian and English with the latter, “aiming to deliver information on ongoing events in Ukraine to the non-Ukrainian and non-Russian speaking community,” explains EuroMaidan News Team coordinator Irina Pakhomova to techPresident. “The project consists of two parts: a blog, that is meant to be a publishing source of analytical materials and a Facebook community that gives timely releases of events around the clock.” The EuroMaidan News Team is a group of 25 volunteers, including 4 people from Brazil who broadcast the news in Portuguese.

Pakhomova notes how online social networks has also allowed for unprecedented speed in communication. “Back in 2004, during the Orange Revolution, neither Facebook nor Twitter existed, so information was available only through conversations with witnesses who were present at demonstrations, or through newspapers, journals and TV,” says Pakhomova. “Today, social networks spread information in seconds, which helps to inform communities – be it news broadcasting or requests for assistance.”

There is a negative side to that speed, however. “Many share incorrect information citing unreliable sources,” says Pakhomova. “Preventing this epidemic is nearly impossible, yet these rumors can greatly affect people’s reaction.” Before releasing any information on their pages, the EuroMaidan News Team volunteers fact check using multiple sources to verify the material received.

One of Ukraine’s earliest English-language bloggers, Taras Revunets, says to techPresident, “Social media helped mobilize protesters and keep them informed. Better and faster than traditional media, which clearly took a backseat.” During the protests, he managed the Ukrainian Updates Twitter account. He sketches the demographical uses of different platforms: Facebook is mainly used by educated adults and professionals; Twitter is for the “fast and furious” and mainly younger users; YouTube, is very effective since a video is worth a thousand words; Vkontakte is used by Russian speakers, younger folks, and students.

“Social media was the lifeblood of the protest movement,” says Revnuets. “Still is and will remain so until the job is done. The protests aren’t over. We have to make sure the new government doesn’t screw up like the Orange folks did back in 2005. After over 80 people killed by the regime, we have no right to let that happen again.”

Taras Demchu, another well-known blogger from Kiev, agrees. “Twitter was a source of the newest news and information while Facebook was for long discussions and coordination of protests,” she explains to techPresident. “Also, video streams were important at a time when traditional TV-channels didn’t tell the truth. For example, Hromadske.tv, which is like a new media crowdsourcing TV-channel, has become very popular.”

Ukrainian activists have also moved beyond social media to embrace what might seem as an odd digital tool for street protestors: bitcoin. Since Ukraine's EuroMaiden revolution is still under way, it needs funds to stay afloat. Not an easy matter, especially if money is sent from abroad. So in the last few weeks, campaigners have started to collect donations via Bitcoin. Photos are popping up online depicting protestors holding signs with QR codes, which are the digital addresses for sending Bitcoins. By using the most popular cryptocurrency, anyone in the world can send money immediately, in any amount, and with almost no fees. The Helpeuromaidan.info website, specifically set up to organize people and resources, added an English-language donation page, where funds can be sent through credit cards, PayPal, but also through several digital currencies: Bitcoin and even Litecoin and Dogecoin, two emerging cryptocurrencies.

Social media was not only used in organizing but also to counter the dark side of the net. According to a few experts, one of Yanukovych's biggest strategic mistakes was engaging in violent public repression. As a result, police brutality was widely documented and globally broadcasted by protesters who used it to rally greater support.

There are a number of websites and Facebook pages set up for just this purpose, such as Euromaidan SOS, which gathers information about victims of police beatings and detentions. Or the website Personalaccountability.info, which aims to “hold accountable those who have willfully participated in or benefited from the repression of peaceful protests, the violation of human rights, or the criminalization of power in Ukraine.” There are also many online groups providing legal assistance, such as the Facebook group The Revolution's Legal Department.

While protestors proved tech savvy, the use of communication technologies by the Yanukovych government appeared confused and clumsy. On and around January 19, many activists and journalists in Maidan square reported to have received an unsettling text message on their phones: “Dear subscriber, you are registered as a participant in a mass disturbance.” The government denied involvement in sending the SMS, as did the telecom providers. So what happened?

According to one theory, the messages could have been sent through IMSI-catchers, that is, “pirate” base stations. It is a type of technology usually used by governments and law enforcement agencies. “I think the SBU, our security service, had a bunch of IMSI-catchers monitoring and messing with cellphone traffic in the area,” says Revunets.

However, whoever sent them, with the clear intent of intimidating protesters, didn't really achieve their expected results. “I got one of those Orwellian text messages while protesting on the street,” says Revunets. “From then on, I would often turn my phone off just to avoid tracking.”

Pakhomova explains that while many protestors received the messages, it did little to intimidate them and even emboldened a few. “The SMS is documented by screenshots of many cell phone plan holders,” says Pakhomova. “However, the messages did not scare anyone off, and some even sent back replies to the sender. I think that since the first cell phone attempt to scare protesters failed, there was no other known cell phone message attacks. For precaution reasons, some people in the streets used pre-paid SIM cards that are harder to track.”

The violent repression generated another side effect as well. It encouraged the formation of young militant groups called Sotnya or Sotni, which means “a hundred." They formed in one- hundred-member units and sought to physically defend the revolution and to react to police. “They were self organized by people after the first police crackdown at the end of November,” explains Taras Demchu. But they also collected radical far-right groups. And now European countries such as Germany are urging the new government to keep those groups at bay.

Nonetheless, the Sotni have become a model for protesters abroad. Video footage broadcasting Kiev's demonstrators and their tactics is already being studied by activists in Cairo, Egypt.

Carola Frediani is an Italian journalist and co-founder of the media agency, Effecinque.org. She writes on new technology, digital culture and hacking for a variety of Italian publications, including L’Espresso, Wired.it, Corriere della Sera, Sky.it. She is the author of Inside Anonymous: A Journey into the World of Cyberactivism.

Personal Democracy Media is grateful to the Omidyar Network and the UN Foundation for their generous support of techPresident's WeGov section.

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