Cairo to Kyiv: Social Media’s Rocky Ride Through Conflict Zones

When Yarema Dukh arrange Ukraine’s official Twitter account in 2016, he knew that social media was the easiest way for his nation to get its message out.

“We never had the means like the Russians to found multinational media like RT or Sputnik,” the previous authorities communications adviser instructed AFP over the telephone from Kyiv.

Since Russia’s full invasion final month, the Kyiv authorities has used social media to spotlight atrocities, subject messages of defiance and even share a joke or two.

Younger Ukrainians have used TikTok to chronicle life beneath Russian siege and tech lovers have commandeered Telegram channels to organise donations of cryptocurrency.

However, Russia has launched an onslaught in opposition to Western tech companies and all however ended free speech on-line.

The Ukraine battle marks the growth of social media in conflicts from a software of the outsider to a genuinely ubiquitous presence.

However the tortuous historical past of its relations with protest actions and governments — from 2011’s Arab Spring to Myanmar right this moment — suggests Ukraine could have to combat to maintain on to its good points.

Amplifying the message 

Again in 2011, Facebook was removed from the behemoth it’s right this moment and Twitter barely registered in lots of international locations.

“We were fighting to carve out a space in the margins,” stated Hossam El-Hamalawy, an Egyptian activist who turned a distinguished voice throughout the Arab Spring protests.

The revolts throughout the Center East and North Africa turned often called the “Facebook revolution” however the jury remains to be out on its total function.

Hamalawy stated social media’s actual energy was not as an organising software however as a means of amplifying the message.

“I knew that anything I wrote on Twitter would get picked up (by mainstream media),” he instructed AFP from his house in Berlin.

Within the early 2010s in Ukraine, Dukh says the most well-liked social media was a running a blog platform known as LiveJournal.

However then a journalist posted a message on his Fb in 2014 promising to launch an anti-government rally if he acquired 1,000 replies.

When he obtained sufficient replies, he went to Maidan sq. within the coronary heart of Kyiv and launched a protest that introduced down the pro-Russian authorities.

The publicity additionally helped Fb grow to be the primary social community by far in Ukraine.

Throughout this era, the US tech large was pleased to embrace its affiliation with outsiders and protesters.

Firm boss Mark Zuckerberg wrote in 2012 that the agency was not thinking about income however reasonably in empowering folks to perform social change.

Nevertheless, social media firms have been already in a way more complicated place.

Extraordinarily naive

Burmese journalist Skinny Lei Win stated 2012 was the second when Fb “became the internet” in Myanmar.

“Everything was on Facebook and everybody was sharing everything,” she instructed AFP.

However a number of the messages being shared have been incendiary, spreading false data that stoked violence between Buddhist nationalists and the Muslim Rohingya minority.

By 2018, a UN rapporteur known as the platform a “beast” and accused it of inciting racial hatred.

The wheels got here off in Egypt too, the place faction combating amongst protesters on the road was mirrored by bitter feuds on-line.

Protest chief Wael Ghonim, whose Fb messages had helped to galvanise the motion, instructed US broadcaster PBS in 2018 that he quickly turned a goal of on-line disinformation.

“I was extremely naive,” he stated, “thinking that these are liberating tools.”

In the meantime in Ukraine, the Maidan revolution was additionally turning bitter.

Moscow had used it as a pretext for annexing Crimea and sowing unrest in Ukraine’s east.

Dukh, as a brand new recruit within the authorities’s communications workforce, discovered himself battling Russian troll farms.

Three-finger salute 

Activists in Arab Spring international locations now lament how the platforms they as soon as lauded have been retooled to serve the highly effective.

A gaggle of NGOs wrote an open letter to Fb, Twitter and YouTube final yr accusing them of supporting repression by systematically shutting accounts of dissidents throughout the area.

In Myanmar, a navy junta seized energy in a coup early final yr, ending a number of years of liberalisation.

Dissent rapidly unfold throughout social media with the three-finger salute borrowed from the “Hunger Games” films proving widespread.

However Skinny Lei Win stated the authorities have been conscious that Burmese folks have been enthusiastic sharers and started stopping folks within the streets and demanding to see their telephones.

“If you had posted anything on your social media critical of the junta or supportive of the NUG (National Unity Government) you could be arrested,” she stated.


Fb and different platforms closed accounts of the Burmese generals shortly after the coup and, in accordance to Skinny Lei Win, established platforms have massively improved their document with disinformation.

Skinny Lei Win and activist teams level out that the generals have since hopped on to different networks and their messages nonetheless get by way of.

“It’s like whack-a-mole, you close something, something else pops up,” stated Skinny Lei Win.

Youthful firms like TikTok and Telegram have been criticised for persevering with to host Burmese navy propaganda.

In Ukraine too, TikTok and Telegram have each been accused of failing to sort out Russian disinformation.

However Dukh, who left the Ukrainian authorities in 2019, continues to see the optimistic facet of social media.

He stated Ukraine had learnt classes from its years of coping with Russian disinformation and will share them with the world.

“We are good learners and I hope after the victory we’ll be good teachers as well,” he stated.

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