Monthly Archives: December 2013

As protests in Ukraine escalate, Twitter hashtags less relevant. A trend?

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Image by: Oleksandr Ratushniak on Twitter

The protests in Ukraine, which started after the current President Victor Yanukovych and his government reneged on promises to sign an association agreement with the European Union, are the most populous since the days of the 2004 Orange Revolution. The Euromaidan (European Square), observers say, was made possible in large part thanks to online social media and coordination through people’s personal networks (more at KyivPost and Global Voices). Facebook and Twitter have emerged as key platforms for coordinating protest activities and sharing information, photos and videos about protest numbers, locations and problems such as police violence and provocations from all sides. As one could imagine, hashtags (Ukrainian #євромайдан, Russian #евромайдан, and English #euromaidan) were useful as an instrument of preliminary coordination and for informing the internet users. They gave people a sense of the scale of events (here’s an interactive graph showing tweet volume), allowed to see how big the social media use actually was during the initial stage of protests (up to 3200 tweets per hour on November 25, and up to 4800 per hour on November 30). The key words and the aggregating potential of the hashtags was much needed to bring people together, and focus the attention of media, both foreign and local, where it was most needed.

But as protests escalated on November 30, after law enforcement violently dispersed a group of protesters camped out on Maidan for the night, and on December 1, when massive crowds blocked and occupied key government buildings, with some groups in violent standoffs with riot police, the hashtags started to disappear from many tweets about Euromaidan protests. A large proportion of tweets about the unrest still uses the hashtags, but there are many Twitter users who are dropping the tool. Why does this happen and why is it important?

As sociologist Zeynep Tufekci observed when she followed the Gezi protests in Turkey, as the #occupygezi events unfolded, the popular hashtags used to coordinate people and set the protest agenda gave way to conversations among people in what most of them viewed as an already established network of like-minded citizens. Once the hashtag-set conversation became dominant, the tool itself was no longer relevant, although the discussion and action online and offline remained very much alive.

Popular information sources in the Ukraine-EU protests, like the newly hatched online public TV outlet HromadskeTV (@HromadskeTV), which provided one of the few live streams from the protests) and key online news outlet Ukrainska Pravda (@ukrpravda_news) assume people who want to stay updated follow them anyway or retweet them to their networks, so they simply don’t bother with hashtags most of the time. The same goes for consolidated activist efforts at spreading info about the protests, like @euromaidan, @EuroMaydan, or their English counterpart, @EuroMaydan_eng — as events progressed, their editors stopped attaching the relevant hashtags to every tweet, only using them occasionally.

Some people have assembled lists of reliable sources of info and livestreams of events, in an attempt to help the general public who may not be as internet savvy (see here, for instance http://inspired.com.ua/news/euromaidan-newssites/).

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English-language and foreign journalists covering affairs in Ukraine, like Christopher Miller (KyivPost) or Jim Roberts (Mashable), along with local journalists, simply use the general hashtags #Ukraine or #Kiev to locate events they are describing.

Often, there is simply no time for a hashtag — things occur too quickly, events unfold unpredictably, and valuable space for informing the public is necessary. But these hashtag behavior trends do mean that researchers aggregating data about protests from just the hashtags miss a lot of the content. The data gathered in this way may distort the scope of the protests, their tone and may result in glaring omissions of key voices present in the civic and political activity around a protest.

The solution to this “very partial view through hashtags”, as Tufekci calls it, seems to be to look at other information channels, besides scraping Twitter and Facebook, but also to follow up with field work, interviews with participants of protests and to be on the ground as soon and as much as possible when events occur. The qualitative part of any protest, even those that are coordinated through social media, is crucial to discovering the meaning behind the tweets and hashtags and the stories of people using them. An excellent example of a comprehensive approach to understanding the “social media-fueled” style of protests is Tufekci’s article on protests in Turkey and Egypt. May it be that Ukraine’s Euromaidan is similar in style? There is certainly some evidence to support this claim, but we will need more than data scraped from Twitter hashtags to be sure.