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The Truth About Social Media And Revolution

2014 January 26

When the Arab Spring erupted in 2010, one of the first things people noticed was the very visible role social media seemed to play.  Many began to call the series of political uprisings “Twitter Revolutions” and a lively debate broke out about the importance of the new technology.

Malcolm Gladwell quickly moved to downplay the effect of social media and pointed out that organized action requires hierarchy.  Twitter’s Biz Stone fired back and argued that Gladwell simply didn’t understand the principles of self-organizing systems.

Having had some personal experience, I found neither compelling and said so at the time. Yet, now we can do more than speculate.  The current Euromaidan protests in Ukraine are, in many ways, a continuation of the Orange Revolution in 2004—before social media existed—and offer unique insight into how the world has really changed.

Revolution Before Social Media

To understand the impact of communication technology on political uprisings, you first have to understand what it’s like to be in the middle of one.  It is—and I don’t mean to trivialize things—very much like looking for a party in college.  You spend a lot of time milling around, looking for news about what’s going on and what to be sure to avoid.

In the slow motion revolutions the Eastern Bloc had before the fall of the Berlin Wall, fax machines were immensely powerful.  Jihadists have been known to use cassette and videotapes to get their message out.  Any medium that is beyond the control of the regime can be helpful, because information is your principal asset.

In 2004 Kiev, we didn’t have social media, but electronic media played an important role. Online chat boards were accessed from homes and offices and mobile phones would relay news to the streets.  If you were at the Maidan—the center of the protests—and something was happening at the Cabinet of Ministers, text messages would fly and off you would go.

There were also some independent news outlets.  At the time, I was working both with the Kyiv Post in English and Korrespondent in Russian.  We started printing a daily newspaper and distributed it free at the protests.  Others, such as TV Channel 5 and Ukrainska Pravda also played important roles.  .

So mass media was there and played an important role.  Yet, social media certainly adds crucial new elements and I think recent events in Ukraine should dispel any doubts that it makes a significant difference.

The Heinous Case of Oksana Makar

Across the street from my apartment in Kiev, there was a cafe frequented by oligarchs and politicians.  They would flaunt their bodyguards like Gucci purses and every night there were a dozen or so burly men on my street.  I used to walk my dog past and exchange familiar nods with the regulars.

There is a persistent myth that, although the Soviet system was wicked, at least it had equality. Everybody, in effect, was sailing on the same rotting ship.  However, the truth is that it was every bit as hierarchical as it had been under the Tsars.  The basic system —aristocrat and serf—never really changed and still hasn’t to this day

To a certain extent this is a remnant of history that was accepted.  Government officials, elites and their families didn’t get arrested for violations, even vehicular manslaughter.  Nobody liked it, but that’s how it was, so just like on my nightly walks, most Ukrainians quietly took note of those living by different rules and went about their business.

Yet even in the most corrupt society there are limits and once crossed, there is no going back.  Such was the case with Oksana Makar, a young woman who was gang raped, burned alive and left for dead.  She somehow survived and named her attackers, who were arrested and, thanks to influential intervention, were promptly let go.

The girl’s mother uploaded the video above to the Web, showing a heavily sedated Oksana with her now amputated limbs.  Soon after, another video was leaked of the chilling confession of one of the attackers.  Both went viral, sparked outrage and protests ensued. The men were re-arrested and sentenced to prison.

It was then that the seeds for the current protests were most probably sown.  The incident symbolized a rash of crimes committed by the mazhory—people of privilege—and reminded the populace that President Yanukovich himself had twice been convicted of violent crimes in his younger days.  It was simply too much for an educated society to bear.

It is one thing to have people steal from your country and then flaunt their extravagant wealth, it is quite another for elites to commit horrible crimes indiscriminately and escape punishment.  What was once the province of backroom deals, was now being videotaped and shared by millions.  For all their power, the elite can no longer control information.

So when President Yanukovich backed out of a trade deal with the European Union—one that he had previously promised to pursue and sign—the same process went into play.  The Internet exploded and the streets filled with protests.  Yet this time, the matter cannot be settled by firing a prosecutor and throwing a few miscreants in prison.

The New Media Landscape

In 2004, the state controlled most of the major media outlets.  Reporters had to toe the line or were fired and relegated to obscurity.  They had little choice.  So it wasn’t surprising when allies of the Yanukovich regime began to buy up media companies and install new management.  Controlling the media has always been an authoritarian imperative.

Shortly before the current protests ensued, a new media purge began and two of my former colleagues, Vitaly Sych and Yulia McGuffie—both of whom are friends I know well—were told they would either have to start reporting what they were told to or they would be fired.  Both resigned and most of their staff left with them.

But this time they weren’t relegated to obscurity.  Now, released from any restrictions of journalistic propriety, they actively supported the protests on Facebook, not only reporting events but actually announcing them beforehand.  As two of the most prominent journalists in the country, they were immensely powerful messengers.

Many of their posts were shared thousands of times and were read and discussed widely. As journalists, they had been providing objective analysis.  Now on social media, they are often issuing rallying calls.  Control of the media, once a mainstay of autocratic regimes, has become a pipedream.

How Disruption Happens

In the past, media provided a filter.  If something was on the front page or the evening news, it was considered important.  If not, it wasn’t.  Yet today, anyone can broadcast—whether it be a distraught mother or a crusading journalist.  Nobody needs to ask for permission, even in a corrupt, authoritarian country.

And that’s why social media is playing an increasing role in shaping events.  A small group of passionate people can influence others that are slightly more reticent, still others take notice and also join in.  Before you know it, a movement ensues like in this TED video.

That’s how disruption happens and social media makes it happen much, much faster.  So fast, in fact, that the well positioned and powerful can do little to stop it.  It’s not that people didn’t have ways of communicating before, it was just that the power of mass media dominated.  Now the playing field has been leveled.

The End of Power and The Challenge Ahead

As Moisés Naím explained in his book The End of Power, technology, along with globalization and economic trends, has made “power easier to get, but harder to use or keep” and that brings us to the present dilemma.  We now know how to disrupt, but we still have no clear formula for bridging the gap from disruption to legitimacy.

We’ve already seen this in the countries of the Arab Spring, many of which have descended into chaos.  I fear that social media will be little help in this regard.  Malcolm Gladwell had a point when he argued that hierarchy plays a crucial role in organizing sustained action.

So the road ahead is somewhat murky, but a few things are clear.  The days of the Tsars are over.  Power is no longer absolute, but must be grounded in shared principles.  If the social contract is breached, there will be a heavy price to pay and social media will play a major part in exacting that price.

As for Ukraine, the story is far from over.  This past week, the protests turned violent, with several of the protestors killed and others being abducted in the night.  They responded with Molotov cocktails, sticks, improvised maces and the seizure of several regional offices.  Yesterday, the regime offered a weak compromise, which was promptly rejected.

So, while the future is uncertain, one thing is for sure.  Whatever the resolution, if it doesn’t satisfy the people, the streets will surely fill again.  Social media has made that a near certainty.  As US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Melia recently put it, “the embers that sparked the protests in late November are still burning and will not be easily extinguished.”

– Greg

Note:  If you’re interested in learning more about recent events in Ukraine, I’ve been covering it in my Forbes column.  Click on these links if you would like to know what the new Ukrainian revolution is about, why it matters and what we can do about it.

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