The Rocky Journey of Social Media in Conflict Zones

Paris (AFP)- When Yarema Dukh created Ukraine’s official Twitter account in 2016, he knew social media was the best way for his country to get its message across.

“We never had the means like the Russians to found multinational media like RT or Sputnik,” the former government communications adviser told AFP from kyiv.

Since Russia’s all-out invasion last month, the Kyiv government has used social media to highlight atrocities, spread messages of defiance and even share a joke or two.

Young Ukrainians used TikTok to tell stories of life under Russian siege, and tech enthusiasts commandeered Telegram channels to organize cryptocurrency donations.

On the other hand, Russia launched an attack on Western tech companies and all but shut down free speech online.

The war in Ukraine marks the expansion of social media in conflict from a tool of the foreigner to a truly ubiquitous presence.

But the torturous history of its relationship with protest movements and governments – from the Arab Spring of 2011 to Myanmar today – suggests that Ukraine will have to fight to maintain its gains.

– Amplify the message –

In 2011, Facebook was far from the juggernaut it is today, and Twitter was barely registered in many countries.

“We were fighting to carve out a space on the margins,” said Hossam El-Hamalawy, an Egyptian activist who became a prominent voice during the Arab Spring protests.

The revolts across the Middle East and North Africa have become known as the “Facebook revolution”, but the jury is still out on its overall role.

Volodmyr Zelensky harnessed the power of social media in Ukraine UKRAINIAN PRESIDENTIAL PRESS SERVICE/AFP/Dossier

Hamalawy said the real power of social media was not an organizing tool but a way to amplify the message.

“I knew that everything I wrote on Twitter would be picked up (by the mainstream media),” he told AFP from his home in Berlin.

In the early 2010s in Ukraine, Dukh says the most popular social media outlet was a blogging platform called LiveJournal.

But then a journalist posted a message on his Facebook in 2014 promising to start an anti-government rally if he received 1,000 responses.

When he received enough responses, he went to Maidan Square in the heart of Kyiv and launched a protest that brought down the pro-Russian government.

This exposure also helped Facebook to become by far the leading social network in Ukraine.

During this period, the American tech giant was happy to embrace its association with strangers and protesters.

Company boss Mark Zuckerberg wrote in 2012 that the company was not interested in profits but rather in empowering people to drive social change.

However, social media companies were already in a much more complex position.

“Extremely naive”

Burmese journalist Thin Lei Win said that 2012 was when Facebook “became the internet” in Myanmar.

“Everything was on Facebook and everyone shared everything,” she told AFP.

But some of the posts shared were inflammatory, spreading misinformation that has fueled violence between Buddhist nationalists and the Muslim Rohingya minority.

In 2018, a UN rapporteur called the platform a “dumb” and accused it of inciting racial hatred.

The wheels also went off in Egypt, where factional fighting among protesters on the streets was mirrored by bitter rows online.

Protest leader Wael Ghonim, whose Facebook posts had helped galvanize the movement, told US broadcaster PBS in 2018 that he had quickly become the target of online misinformation.

“I was extremely naïve,” he said, “in thinking that these are liberating tools.”

Meanwhile, in Ukraine, the Maidan revolution was also turning sour.

Moscow had used it as a pretext to annex Crimea and stir up unrest in eastern Ukraine.

Dukh, as a new recruit to the government’s communications team, found himself battling Russian troll farms.

– Three finger salute –

Activists in Arab Spring countries are now lamenting how the platforms they once vaunted have been retooled to serve the powerful.

A group of NGOs wrote an open letter to Facebook, Twitter and YouTube last year accusing them of supporting the crackdown by systematically shutting down the accounts of dissidents in the region.

Images of young people in Myanmar doing a three-finger salute spread quickly on Facebook
Images of young people in Myanmar doing a three-finger salute spread quickly on Facebook STR AFP/File

In Myanmar, a military junta seized power in a coup early last year, ending years of liberalisation.

Dissent quickly spread on social media with the three-finger salute borrowed from the “Hunger Games” movies proving popular.

But Thin Lei Win said authorities were aware Burmese people were enthusiastic sharers and started stopping people in the streets and demanding to see their phones.

“If you posted anything on your social media criticizing the junta or supporting the NUG (national unity government), you could be arrested,” she said.

– ‘Hitting a mole’ –

Facebook and other platforms shut down Burmese generals’ accounts shortly after the coup, and according to Thin Lei Win, established platforms have significantly improved their track record on disinformation.

Thin Lei Win and activist groups point out that the generals have since hopped onto other networks and their messages are still getting through.

“It’s like a mole, you close something, something else pops up,” Thin Lei Win said.

Younger companies like TikTok and Telegram have been criticized for continuing to host Burmese military propaganda.

Also in Ukraine, TikTok and Telegram have both been accused of failing to tackle Russian disinformation.

But Dukh, who left the Ukrainian government in 2019, continues to see the positive side of social media.

He said Ukraine had learned lessons from its years of fighting Russian disinformation and could share them with the world.

“We are good learners and hopefully after the win we will be good teachers as well,” he said.

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