My colleague Joshua Goldstein recently researched the role of digital networked technologies in the Ukranian Orange Revolution (PDF). There are few case studies out there that address both digital activism and civilian resistance, i.e., digital resistance, so what follows is a detailed summary of Josh’s report for the Berkman Center along with some of my own research.
Compared to the other three panel presentations, this study takes a narrative case study approach and focuses on a single case study, the role of the Internet and mobile phones during the Orange Revolution.
For Josh, one of the most fascinating questions about the Orange Revolution is how the Internet became such an influential tool when only 4% of the population was online? Even though such a small percentage of the population had Internet access, “the Orange Revolution may have been the first in history to be organized largely online.”
To understand what contributed to this digital revolution, Josh draws on the Two-Step Flow Theory developed by sociologists Katz and Lazardsfeld (1955), which delineates a ‘two step’ information path. The first is the direct path between mass media and the general public. The second path is among elite opinion makers who strongly influence public opinion.
According to Josh,
This theory helps delineate how a relatively small group of activists and citizen journalists helped create a distinct information environment that challenged the narrative presented by state sanctioned media.
In the Ukraine, both the rise of citizen journalism and influential opinion makers from the opposition were in large part consequences of the widespread self-censorship that existed in the country.
‘Self censorship was not enshrined in law, but it was well known that oligarchs owned all of the major television stations. Station managers received temnyky, unsigned directives from the President’s office that urged them to cover the news in a particular way. Managers knew that if they did not please the ‘key viewer,’ the President and his regime, they would be in danger of losing their jobs.
As Josh notes, however, Channel 5 was the notable exception. The small television station had been bought by members of the opposition to promote an independent view on Ukranian politics. Although Channel 5 only available to 30% of the population, the station became well known for it’s alternative view on domestic affairs.
In addition, citizen opposition journalism posed a central challenge to the semi-autocratic regime. However, Josh writes that the Ukranian public already recognized the Internet as a legitimate news source. Online news sites including Pravda, Obozrevatel and ProUA, were well already well known. Moreover, they were a “hybrid between citizen and professional media [since] they were predominantly staffed by professional journalists but often received low pay or were motivated by changing the Ukranian landscape.”
To build on his theoretical framework, Josh also draws on Stephen Bandera’s empirical study on political participation during the Orange Revolution. The results of this study revealed that “Ukranians who use the Internet were more likely to be online political citizens than their American counterparts.”
Lastly, Josh recognizes that technologies alone do not explain the success of the Orange Revolution:
The ability to diffuse tension through humor and satire was crucial to the success of the Orange Revolution. [...] Every joke and pun created by this community of activists and directed at [the regime] further drew attention to the vastly different information environments and political futures that the two candidates represented.
Josh draws on two case studies to test out his theoretical framework. The first is Maidan and the second Para.
Maidan was a group of tech-savvy pro-democracy activists who used the Internet as a tool to support their movement. Maidan in Ukranian means public square and Maidan’s website features the slogal “You CAN chnage the world you live in. And you can do it now. In Ukraine.”
The main activity of Maidan was election monitoring and networking with other pro-democracy organizations around Eastern Europe. Maidan hosted around 27 election monitoring trainings, in nearly every Ukranian region, with support from Serbia’s Otpor movement. [...] In the year leading up to the election, Maidan trained 500 Ukranians to observe the election. This evidence collected [...] was central to proving the existence of massive election fraud.
However, the founder of Maidan argues that “websites cannot produce an activist organization.” As Josh explains, it was crucial for Maidan to frequently host real world meetings as their membership base increased. The human element was particularly important. This explains why Maidan encouraged users to disclose their identity whenever possible.
Maidan was not a completely decentralized organization. The community benefited from centralized leadership that developed the organization’s culture, controlled its assets and provided the strategy to achieve desired goals. The Maidan experience thus demonstrates a hybrid organization.
In sum, the Internet was clearly a vital, multi-faceted tool for Maidan. The Internet facilitated outreach, training, awareness raising, fundraising and marketing. At the same time, centralized, top-down leadership was necessary to accomplish the organization’s goals.
Pora, meaning “It’s Time” in Ukranian, was a well-organized group of pro-democracy volunteers that “emerged as an information sharing campaign and during the elections morphed into coordinators of mass protest centered around tent cities in towns throughout Ukraine. The grassroots movement took its inspiration from Serbia’s Otpor movements as well as “older civic movements in Hungary and Czechoslovakia.”
The organization described it’s raison d’être as follows:
Under conditions of far-reaching censorship and absence of independent media, the main idea of Pora is the creation of alternative ‘mass media,’ in which volunteers deliver election-related information ‘from hand to hand’ directly to people throughout the Ukraine.
Pora promoted “the active use of modern communication systems in the campaign’s management,” and “mobile phones played an important role for mobile fleet of activists.” According to Pora’s post-election report, “a ssytem of immedate dissemination of information by SMS was put in place and proved important.” In addition, “some groups provided the phones themselves, while others provided SIM cards, and most provided airtime.”
The Internet also played a role in Pora’s campaign by providing rapid reporting in a way that no other medium could. As tent cities across the Ukraine became the sign of the revolution,
The news feed from the regions [became] vitally important. Every 10 to 15 minutes another tent city appeared in some town or other, and the fact was soon reported on the air. News from the region was read by opposition leaders on Maidan to millions of listeners in the streets of Ukraine.
While the government certainly saw the Internet as a threat, the government had not come to consensus regarding the “legal and political frameworks it would use to silence journalists that published openly on this new medium.” Ukrainian law considered the Internet to be a “peer-to-peer communication tool and not a mass media platform,” which explains why “online sites were able to blossom” and why many online journalists unlike mainstream journalists were free from the threat of defamation charges.
In addition to new technologies, the grassroots movement also “successfully leveraged traditional methods of spreading information [such as] print products (leaflets, brochures, stickers, and small souvenirs), public activities and demonstration, visual representations (posters and graffiti), media presentations (clips and interviews), and periodicals.”
Josh argues that these activities make the Orange Revolution one of the earliest examples of what Steven Mann calls “sousveillance,” meaning, “the monitoring of authority figures by grassroots groups, using the technologies and techniques of surveillance.” In short, Pora’s campaign represents the clearest link between the small percentage of Ukranian elite who were online and the general public.
Josh concludes that the Internet and mobile phones proved to to be effective tools for pro-democracy activists.
First, the Internet allowed for the creation of a space for dissenting opinions of ‘citizen journalists’ in an otherwise self-cencosred media environment.
Second, pro-democracy activists used the convergence of mobile phones and the Internet to coordinate a wide range of activities including election monitoring and large-scale protests.
In sum, Josh observes that “pro-democracy forces used the Internet and mobile phones more effectively than the pro-government forces, such that in this specific time and place these technologies weighed on the side of democracy.” Nevertheless, as Ned Rossiter cogently points out,
Technology certainly does not make possible a direct democracy, where everyone can participate in a decision, nor representative democracy where decision makers are elected; nor is it really a one-person-one-vote referendum style democracy. Instead it is a consultative process known as ‘rough consensus and running code.’
This points to a larger question for further research, which forms the basis for my dissertation:
Are these tools inherently conducive to the expansion of civic engagement and democratization or will authoritarian governments adapt the technology to their own advantage?
My Own Conclusion
One very interesting anecdote not reported in Josh’s report demonstrates the real power of traditional media. Natalia Dmytruk worked for the Ukraine’s state-run television news program as an interpreter of sign language for the hearing-impaired. As the revolution picked up momentum, she decided she couldn’t lie anymore and broke from the script with the following message:
I am addressing everybody who is deaf in the Ukraine. Our president is Victor Yushchenko. Do not trust the results of the central election committee. They are all lies. . . . And I am very ashamed to translate such lies to you. Maybe you will see me again…
According to a Washington Post article at the time, “Dmytruk’s live silent signal helped spread the news, and more people began spilling into the streets to contest the vote.”
Overall, what really strikes me about Josh’s peace is the very real convergence between civil resistance and digital activism, or digital resistance. Citizen journalists and digital activists participated in civil resistance trainings across the country, courtesy of Otpor. The use of humor and puns directed at the regime is a classic civil resistance tactic.
I spoke with Josh just yesterday about his research on the Orange Revolution and he was adamant that one of key reasons that explains the success of the revolution has to do with the fact that “the protesters were very well trained and very good at protesting… very, very good.”
This highlights just how critical training in civil resistance is. Digital activists need to acquire the tactical and strategic know-how developed over decades of civil resistance movements. Otherwise, tactical victories by digital activists may never translate into overall strategic victory for a civil resistance movement.