Many of us have grown accustomed by now to the role that Twitter and Facebook and other forms of social media like Instagram play in our lives, especially the way they are used during communal events like the Olympics or the Super Bowl. But watching them during a crisis like the recent uprisings in Ukraine and Venezuela reinforces just how powerful this kind of crowdsourced, human-scale media can be as a real-time information source.
Ukraine has been in an uneasy state of tension for several months now, ever since president Viktor Yanukovych reneged on his earlier promises to sign a trade deal with the European Union in favor of strengthening the country’s ties to Russia. But just a few days ago, that tension exploded into violence, after police tried to crack down on a demonstration in Kyiv’s Independence Square.
Ever since, there has been an unending stream of photos, videos and texts flowing from Ukraine and from supporters of the movement outside that country through Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Instagram — including some heart-wrenching messages such as the one from a young medical volunteer at the EuroMaidan demonstrations who tweeted after being shot and said she was afraid she was going to die (the last report I saw said she had survived).
Venezuela, meanwhile, has been gripped by country-wide protests and demonstrations over the ongoing problems in that region, including rampant inflation and crime. As The Atlantic noted in a recent piece, Twitter in particular has become a real-time news feed for both Venezuelans and expatriates, including the back-and-forth between president Nicolás Maduro and opposition leader Leopoldo López — an exchange no less significant than the one that occurred when the rebel group Hamas started tweeting at the Israeli army.
A post at Politico criticized the tendency for American websites such as BuzzFeed to engage in what it called “disaster porn” by creating “apocalypsticles” — posting horrific images from the Ukrainian demonstrations, including protesters who had caught fire and the bodies of dead activists, and getting some kind of goulish thrill from comparing it to the Second World War (although Mediaite noted that Politico had also created its own listicle on the unrest).
But that same stream of images and videos has also allowed both professional and amateur journalists to do some incredible live-blogging about the unrest, and created a lifeline of information about what was happening for those outside the country. A friend of mine on Facebook — herself a journalist — said that for her, “mainstream media has been largely irrelevant” during the demonstrations.
We saw the same kind of phenomenon recently in Turkey, where anti-government demonstrations erupted and quickly turned into a firefight with activists. In that case, Twitter and other forms of social media became a crucial source of information for Turkish citizens and expatriates in part because the national media in the country — who are friendly to the government — avoided covering the news.
In the case of Venezuela, the mainstream press has been eager to write about the news, but has been unable to because of various government restrictions on their activities. The most ironic of these has left newspapers unable to print anything because they have literally run out of paper. Meanwhile, the Venezuelan authorities have been shutting down internet access and engaging in censorship of various kinds to try and curb dissident activity.
The power that social media has to route around authority is one of the reasons why governments routinely criticize Twitter and other tools for fomenting unrest and do their best to shut them down, to the point where Ukrainian authorities send text messages to activists letting them know they are being watched. But as I tried to point out in a recent post about Turkey, social media makes that kind of surveillance a two-way street in ways it never was before.
Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr user Petteri Sulonen