Social networks have played an important role in the mass protests in Ukraine from the very outset. But are external actors now using them for their own political agenda?

Protesters use electronic devices like smart phones and tablet computers at the IT tent, where protesters are provided with free wireless internet access and iPads to check emails and connect to social networks. Photo: ITAR TASS

Social media has been an influential factor in the growth and spread of popular uprisings. Consider that the Arab Spring revolutions were popularly referred to as “Twitter revolutions” or “Facebook revolutions” in the mass media, resulting in broad debates on the role of social media in mass political protests. The current violent protests in Ukraine fall within this trend.

Social media plays an essential part in the organization of public uprisings and is widely used by both Euromaidan supporters and groups opposing them. External forces are also using social media as communication tools. It now appears that the information campaign in social media intensifies according to the growing level of violence on the streets of Kiev.

In his 2010 article “Blogs and Bullets,” Sean Adday and his colleagues concluded that the role of social media in political struggles could be analyzed according to five levels of analysis: individual transformation, intergroup relations, collective action, regime policies, and external attention. New media has the potential to change how citizens think or act, mitigate or exacerbate group conflict, facilitate collective action, spur a backlash among regimes, and garner international attention toward a given country. The analysis of the practice of social media usage in Ukraine correlates with this scheme. Social media are used by various interested groups to coordinate collective action and increase intergroup solidarity, and to influence public opinion in Ukraine and foreign countries.

At present, various websites allow watching the events on Independence Square via live streaming. For the outsider, this looks like an online reality show. Still, social media does not only provide information coverage of the events, but also provides for dialog and interactive communication, thus shaping attitudes and managing public opinion. Moreover, these social networks offer the possibility to get involved by donating money or providing other help to the protesters.

But the most important role social media play is coordination. Social media has proved to be a useful tool in organizing protests, being instrumental for convenient information exchange, management of logistics and other organizational tasks. A good example is an interactive map of Euromaidan that uses icons to pinpoint the location of hospitals, pharmacies, kiosks with free food, bathrooms, rest areas and the barricades. Or, consider the Facebook group ‘Euro Maidan SOS’, where users exchange information on recent accidents, search for lost people, warn against possible sites of attacks, and much more, thus sustaining the everyday functioning of the protest movement.

Social networks became primary organizing tools from the onset of the protests. According to the Kiev Post, initial protests in Kiev were organized by journalist Mustafa Nayem, who called for the public to go out to Independence Square in a Facebook post. This post got more than 1,000 shares in several hours. Soon the Facebook page ‘Euromaidan’ was launched, which became the most popular on Ukrainian Facebook. Other widely used social media resources include the Facebook group ‘EuroMaydan’ with around 321,000 likes; the group ‘Ukrainian revolution / Euromaidan’ on Vkontakte, which has around 350,000 followers; and the Twitter accounts @EuroMaydan and @EuroMaydan_eng. Twitter was not a popular social network in Ukraine until the protests started. Its popularity grew as it was used to inform the global public and to attract attention to the events in Ukraine, as most tweets are in English.

However, the social media landscape in Ukraine is quite complicated, with a diverse range of actors using social media to advance their own interests and promote their position. Contrary to Egypt, where the Internet was blocked during the first stage of protests, in Ukraine pro-government groups are using social media to share information and win public support (still, social media are more important for the protesters as a coordination tool).  There are pages ‘Antimaidan’ with 926 participants on Facebook, and ‘Antimaidan’ with around 53,000 followers on Vkontakte. Government officials are also involved. Last month, some Euromaidan demonstrators received an ominous message on their smart phones from Ukrainian authorities. It read: “Dear subscriber, you are registered as a participant in a mass disturbance.”

Foreign actors are getting increasingly involved in the Ukrainian information wars. The U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine, Geoffrey Pyatt, tweets pictures and videos of the protests at Maidan square on his Twitter account. This seems to be in line with the overall strategy of U.S. digital diplomacy (sometimes referred to as ‘Web 2.0 diplomacy’ or ‘Electronic diplomacy’).

According to the 2010 official document “Public Diplomacy: Strengthening U.S. Engagement with the World,” the strategic mission of U.S. public diplomacy is to “advance national interests, and enhance national security by informing and influencing foreign publics and by expanding and strengthening the relationship between the people and government of the United States and citizens of the rest of the world.” A lot of attention is paid to the changing methods of public diplomacy in the digital realm, which should be focused on the use of social media and other digital platforms by U.S. officials to proactively present U.S. views and communicate with the foreign public, as well as to empower democratic–minded masses in authoritarian countries.

But U.S. digital diplomacy in Ukraine was compromised by the leaked phone call between Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland and the U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine, Geoffrey Pyatt. This YouTube leak showed that the U.S. is actively involved in Ukraine’s internal political struggles, where Washington pursues U.S. national interests.

The incident with the leaked phone call shows that the USA is no longer the only influential actor in the global information sphere able to control social media discourse; there are other actors involved, which can sometimes contest American attempts to shape the narrative on the Internet.

According to the American political scientist Joseph Nye, in cyberspace the process of diffusion of power from powerful states to less influential ones and non-state actors is underway. The low price of entry, anonymity, and asymmetries in vulnerability means that smaller actors have more capacity to exercise hard and soft power in cyberspace than in many more traditional domains of world politics. That is what is going on in Ukraine. Maybe powerful states put some efforts to help in the organization of the initial stage of protests, but at present the situation has its own dynamics, with radical groups gaining prominence.

The vast array of actors involved leads to the complexity and unpredictability of outcomes of the protests fuelled by social media. The Arab Spring has already shown that the results of mass uprisings are difficult to calculate. Social media provides an effective tool for coordination and online information exchange, thus serving as a catalyzer for mass uprisings. It’s now easier to influence public opinion, to organize people and to sustain and coordinate the protest movement online. According to Greg Satell, a journalist at Forbes, technology has made power easier to get, but harder to use or keep.

Technology has proved to be effective tool for protesters,  but there is no clear formula for bridging the gap from disruption to legitimacy. As a result, social media as a political tool should be used with prudence and care. Viewed in this light, the Russian approach to social media - which strives to create international rules to regulate information security as not only a technical but also a sphere of ideas and communication - seems rational.