News Bots, Anyone?

Can automated bots be successfully used in news making and journalism work? Nicholas Diakopoulos wrote a great piece for EJO about our research on “news bots” and their implications for journalists, designers, and editors.

There are obvious economic benefits to robot journalism, but aside from writing a pile of straight news articles in finance or sports could they one day serve higher-order public interest journalism? For instance, could such robot journalists bring or enhance a critical mass of attention and public pressure to important civic issues? How are such technologies going to change the public media sphere that we inhabit?

Read the whole article at EJO: Can Robots Do Public Interest Journalism?

New Case Studies on Ukraine for Civic Media Project

The Civic Media Project from MIT Press is finally live. This is a great collection of over 100 case studies from all over the world, covering everything from open data to emerging technologies, community activism with social media and more. It is bound to be a great learning tool for students and a solid source of contextual information for scholars.

The long list of wonderful contributions includes two of my case studies, “Mapping the 2012 Election: Use of Crowdmapping in Ukraine” (Systems & Design section) and “Galas: Mobilizing & Managing Volunteer Humanitarian Efforts Online During Euromaidan Protests In Ukraine” (Community & Action section). I am very excited to be a part of such a wonderful community of civic media scholars and to join the conversation on the website. Go and read the case studies and the insightful comments and reviews available at civicmediaproject.org.

Bringing You The Latest from The Russian Internet

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On August 1 I joined RuNet Echo, a Global Voices project, as a Coeditor and will now be helping the esteemed Kevin Rothrock to interpret the Russian-speaking internet for our English-language readers. I am thrilled to work with Kevin and the rest of the Global Voices team, and hope to bring you the latest about Russian internet laws, politics, protests, memes and social network gossip from the Russian-speaking part of the net. Here are some of my recent contributions:

RuNet Echo is also covering the developments in Eastern Ukraine, and we have an excellent series of interviews with Ukrainian bloggers, citizen journalists and active social media users, Eastern Ukraine Unfiltered, courtesy of Daniel Kennedy.  Read all of these and follow other stories about the amazing world of Russian internet. Dig in!

Bits and Pieces: Recent Media Appearances

Two Recent Stories on Ukraine: YanukovychLeaks and Fact-Checking Crimea

Linking to two recent stories I did for Global Voices on the developments in Ukraine:

Ukrainian Journalists Take Regime’s Corruption Public With YanukovychLeaks: Journalists deep dive for drowned documents left behind by ousted President Yanukovych at his lavish estate, and create a public online database of regime corruption.

Ukraine’s Activists Debunk Russian Myths on Crimea: As tensions escalate with Ukraine accusing Russia of invading its autonomous southern region Crimea, Ukrainian activists are busy debunking false news in Russian media by sifting fact from propaganda online.

Follow more Global Voices coverage of Ukraine, Russia and Euromaidan protests.

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Ukraine Protests and Violence: Links To Latest Updates

"Fighters, don't shoot your own people!" -- sign in office building in Kyiv, Ukraine, February 20, 2014. Courtesy of @ngumenyuk on Twitter

“Fighters, don’t shoot your own people!” — sign in office building in Kyiv, Ukraine, February 20, 2014. Courtesy of @ngumenyuk on Twitter

As the situation in Ukraine gets more and more ugly and inhumane, with dozens of people dead and hundreds wounded by the regime, I find it hard to write any of my own thoughts here. There are simply no right words to describe what I feel as a Ukrainian and as a human. So here are a few links to useful summaries, lifestreams and news sources.

For up-to-the-minute news, follow me on Twitter as I retweet and translate into English the main events and highlights (not exhaustive, but the most I can do): @tanyalokot

Round-up of lifestreams from Kyiv and Twitter lists of English tweeters about Ukraine that I and my colleagues from Global Voices compiled: Follow the Escalation of Ukraine’s #Euromaidan Protests Live

More social media sources and liveblogs from @Brown_Moses.

A subReddit for the content and news from the protests: /r/UkrainianConflict

KyivPost (local English-language news outlet) liveblog of the events.

I will try to to update with more sources as the situation develops.

I am currently in the US. Going to work today seems much less real and important than following and tweeting about events in Ukraine. Death & suffering are not virtual, and pain is felt across thousands of miles. The injustices and crimes against humanity are not acceptable and must stop.

New Post on Global Voices: Euromaidan Storms Twitter

Read my new piece on Global Voices about today’s Twitter storm: Ukrainian #DigitalMaidan Activism Takes Twitter’s Trending Topics by Storm

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Also, here’s a cool interactive visualisation from @TwitterData showing how tweets about Euromaidan spread around the world during a few days:

 

Draconian Laws Passed by Ukraine’s Parliament Limit Freedom of Speech and Expression

This morning the Ukrainian Parliament spent about 20 minutes violently voting for a set of new measures which are aimed at limiting freedom of speech and expression in Ukraine, throttling the peaceful protests, introducing new means of control over the independent media, the internet, the civic organisations and NGOs and cracking down on Euromaidan in any way possible. The main law #3879 (Full text here in Ukrainian, comparative table of changes here, also in Ukrainian) was introduced by Vadym Kolesnichenko and Volodymyr Oliynyk, members of the Party of Regions faction, and adopted by the Verkhovna Rada on Jan. 16. The main provisions of the law are very well recapped in this post by the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group (in English).

The Facebook group Euromaidan SOS, which unites activists posting about the latest developments of Euromaidan and offering legal advice to protesters, summarised some of the new punishments that come with the laws:

Meet the innovations whose adoption the bandits today in parliament ( all readings once a show of hands and naming “the number” of votes cast ):

1. Driving in an organized group of more than 5 cars – confiscation of your car and drivers license for 2 YEARS (!!!)
2. If an information agency doesn’t have a special license from the government – all of their servers , computers and information will be confiscated and they will have to pay a big fine
3. Disturbing peaceful meetings – up to 10 days in jail
4. Taking part in peaceful protests while wearing a hard hat, any uniform or carrying fire – up to 10 days in jail
5. Setting up tents, a stage, or even a sound system (!) without the permission of the police – up to 15 days in jail
7. Not obeying with the request/order to limit access to the internet – fine of 6800 UAH (a little bit over 800$)
8. Not obeying the “lawful orders” of SBU (Ukrainian Security Department) – a fine of up to 2000UAH (around 250$)
9. The protocol of administrative law infringement doesn’t have to be presented to the person accused anymore (a testimony from “witnesses” is enough)
10. The confirmation that you have been “served” with court papers now is not only your signature, but “other data of any kind” (!)
11. Blocking the access to someone’s residence (a brand spanking new law) – 6 YEARS in jail (!!!)
12. Slander (Has been returned to the Criminal Code!!!!) – 2 YEARS in jail
13. Distribution of extremist materials (!!!!) – 3 years in jail
14. “Group disturbance of peace” – 2 years
15. Mass Disruptions/protests – 10 and even 15 YEARS IN JAIL (!) – ANY and ALL participants of the protests on Maidan can be sent to jail via this law!!!
16. Collecting information about “Berkut” police special forces employees, judges and other similar government workers – 3 years in jail
17. Threatening a policeman and other similar government workers – 7 YEARS in jail
18. Collecting information about judges – 2 years in jail
19. NGO (non-government organizations) that receive money from abroad, are now considered “foreign agents”, and will have to pay taxes on their “revenues” and will officially be called/known as “foreign agents”.
20. NGO cannot take part in “extremist activities”
21. Churches cannot take part in “extremist activities”
22. The “government” can decide to PROHIBIT ACCESS TO THE INTERNET
23. A civil organization is considered to be one that: takes part in political activities, and if that said organization wants to influence the decisions that the “government” makes – it needs to first ask the “government” for permission to function and the permission to be financed.
24. A person can be persecuted and ruled guilty or not guilty (including sending someone to prison for many many years) without the presence of the person being persecuted in court.
25. From now on, for traffic offences, instead of the person who was actually driving and who violated the rules, the owner of the vehicle can be prosecuted if the violation was registered by automatic means.
26. A national deputy (Member of Parliament) can be stripped of immunity from legal persecution and be arrested without an assessment by a specialized committee – immediately, during a parliamentary session.
27. “Berkut” police special forces and government employees that have acted with criminal intent towards Maidan activists, are freed from persecution for their crimes (!!!!!)

So, a quick recap: more control over the internet and independent media, virtually complete abolition of any kind of peaceful protest observed during Euromaidan, criminalising libel, SIM-cards can only be bought with a passport, default judgement in courts, increased surveillance, labelling NGOs as foreign agents and more. To say this is a step back is to say nothing. This vote has nothing to do with European values, democratic development or any kind of progress towards a peaceful resolution of the current stalemate.

Hope to write more on this and other laws, as we wait with bated breath to see if President Yanukovych actually signs the proposed laws into being – his signature and the signature of the Speaker of Parliament are the last things required for the laws to come into force.

UPDATE: The President has signed all of the laws, including the 3879 one. Ukrainians’ reaction online so far is mostly wondering what country we’re turning into: Russia, Belarus or North Korea.

Here’s a great visual from Chesno.org, depicting all of the consequences of the harsh new anti-protest legislation for Ukrainians:

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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.