Digital disruption in Ukraine: from revolution to information defence

legatum stopfake-ukraine

On 22 July 2015, Legatum Institute hosted a discussion on the critical and ambiguous role of the internet and social media in Ukraine and Russia since the beginning of Euromaidan, as part of its Beyond Propaganda series. The key speakers were Katrina Elledge (US Defence Department and the University of Cambridge), Margo Gontar and Tetyana Matychak ( The discussion was moderated by Peter Pomerantsev.

Elledge started by presenting her forthcoming work focused on the analysis of social media networks that have become active in Ukraine during Euromaidan. She outlined the major powerful aspects of social media: speed and ability to send mass volumes of multimedia content; credibility connected with a tendency of users to trust the information shared by friends; interactivity; and ability to translate online activity into social mobilisation. The speaker demonstrated a YouTube video portraying the Maidan protests in a dark but attractive way as an example of emotional mobilisation that can be promoted via social media.

There was a significant increase and diversification of the ways of using social media since the beginning of the upheaval in Ukraine. Online activity was sustained by decentralised networks with multiple hubs. In terms of particular social networks used, Facebook gradually outpaced Vkontakte as an online tool for coordination and mobilisation. Twitter was less used, but also popular as a means of quickly sharing tactical information.

At the same time, the Yanukovych government, like many authoritarian regimes, also gradually learnt how to use social media for its own aims, noted Elledge. For that matter, although the use of social media or even purchase of mobile phone SIM card does not require obligatory registration in Ukraine, many activists were concerned about possible surveillance, or risks of their personal data being collected over the internet. Another downside of the proliferation of social media was the increase of online activity of Antimaidan groups, resulting in harassment and obstacles to web-based activism. Antimaidan has quickly expanded from one initial web page to over 70 networks, most of which are still active and specialise in promoting negative images of Euromaidan and pro-Ukrainian activities and forces. According to Elledge, during the Maidan these initiatives mainly came from Crimea, Donbas, Odessa, Poltava, and Kharkiv regions.

Elledge concentrated on the capabilities of social media based on their functions and needs that they fulfilled. She mentioned the importance of the role of social media in delivering international outreach, sharing stories that were not covered by mainstream English-language media, and sustaining links with audiences abroad including the Ukrainian diaspora. Online resources like Euromaidan Press  and Voices of Ukraine have been influential in this respect. Diaspora-led Twitter storms using the hashtag #digitalmaidan was a notable globe-spanning social media initiative. Social media was also used instrumentally, to recruit volunteers, request donations, coordinate logistics, share information about transportation, shelter, donors and medical services, and provide advice on various matters. Hacktivism and activities of the Anonymous was another way of contributing to Euromaidan online.

The speaker underlined: the Maidan demonstrated that even without previous planning and with little experience, social media allowed for a rapid self-organisation and proved efficient to support the coordination of various initiatives. The development of social media, from increased use of darknet to protect privacy and avoid surveillance to smaller versions of social media apps to make connection more accessible, will be taken into account by future dissidents, asserted Elledge. She also stressed that social media can be used for manipulation, spread of disinformation, harassment and trolling; personal information of the activists may be accessed and used by the government that often may have more resources to develop its media capabilities. However, she concluded, there will always be gaps that the opposition activists will exploit.

Tetyana Matychak chimed in, speaking about witnessing the power of social media during the protests. Connecting the previous speaker’s ideas with her own and Gontar’s reflections on their work on debunking fake news about Ukraine, Matychak suggested that the ‘real’ protest was not sparked by the much-hyped Facebook post by journalist Mustafa Nayyem; the most influential social media trigger, she claimed, was a tweet that went viral about a young female medic allegedly dying after being shot by police, but later turning out to survive. The (mis)information about her death, although it cannot be considered as a deliberate fake, resulted in a real-life offline mobilisation. Matychak recalled that when she worked at Euromaidan Civic Sector and was asked to post online calls for people to take to the streets during the most violent period in the end of February 2014, she simply couldn’t do it: internet has already proved to be too powerful a tool of social mobilisation that could have deadly consequences.

According to Matychak and Gontar, currently almost 50% of StopFake’s audience comes from Russia. While since its inception the project was primarily targeting the Ukrainian audience, after a while part of this audience developed a certain fatigue, as well as a general understanding that Russian media tends to lie. Currently, media users from Russia are an important part of StopFake’s readership. This is why the project decided to keep its Vkontakte web page: although many Ukrainians have migrated to Facebook, it remains a way of reaching out to other audiences. European and US audiences are also covered by the project, which has an English-language version, and is about to launch a Spanish-language page. The project is planning to start a series of training workshops in regions of Ukraine. StopFake does not only target Russian media: Ukrainian fakes comprise around 20% of what they debunk. Rather than being genuinely provocative or malevolent, these kinds of fakes usually result from lazy journalism or lack of reflexivity of new opinion leaders who emerged during the Maidan; often, such fakes can be shared by Ukrainian media primarily because they portray Russia in a bad light.

Estimating the impact of StopFake’s work is still difficult: Gontar said that only recently she started to receive emails from people thanking the project for changing their minds. She noted that the audience of StopFake includes those in the ‘loyal zone’ and in the ‘grey zone’: while the ‘loyal’ ones are already ‘converted’, the success of the project depends on its ability to influence those in doubt.

Gontar spoke about the ways in which Russian media uses internet in the information war against Ukraine. The state funding for Russian media agencies is increasing, and the web is also part of Russia’s strategy in the conflict. Online media outlets exist for each channel. The spread of disinformation is facilitated by a plethora of ‘separatist media’ – marginal sites that share the same fake news stories. Fake stories are multiple and may even get into mainstream English-language media: this was the case with the infamous John Pilger article published in The Guardian in May 2014 which quoted a fictional statement. The use of pictures by media provokes emotional responses. The army of paid trolls can inundate the comments sections of online articles with provocative and disparaging comments.

One of the questions raised during the discussion was about the possibility of media projects like StopFake reaching Donbas. Matychak noted that a significant part of the local population has access to internet and can visit StopFake website; the other question is whether they would be willing to do so. The speaker stressed the importance of broadcasting the news on TV and radio, as people tend to believe these sources; however, it is difficult to broadcast to occupied territories. Marina Denysenko, a media expert from the audience, referred to surveys commissioned by NGO Telekritika, specifying that access to Ukrainian TV still exists in the Donbas region, although trust to Ukrainian media in the occupied territories is relatively low. Gontar mentioned that StopFake hopes to broadcast to the East in collaboration with Hromadske radio and Russkoe Radio Ukraine.

In conclusion, LSE researcher Gregory Asmolov commented on the current social and political role of media. Asmolov pointed out that the position of social media in the conflict between Russia and Ukraine is clearly prominent; but even more significant is its role in the relationship between the state and its citizens. Indeed, the high degree of legitimacy of the ongoing conflict in the Russian society means that people are strongly engaged in the information war. In these circumstances, it is difficult to differentiate between vertical and horizontal propaganda, as the horizontal one is often manipulated and directed in a vertical way. Today’s news rapidly seeps into personal communication and social interactions, making the conflict an omnipresent part of everyday life, as a result of the simultaneous processes of socialisation and internalisation of conflict.

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