KIEV – For every Ukraine protester smashing in a window, throwing a Molotov cocktail or being hit by riot police, there are several people standing nearby with their smartphones aloft streaming the event live.
Web channels have sprung up — some with presenters in improvised studios commenting in real time on the live feeds from protests in Kiev and beyond — and clips of some of the most shocking clashes have gone viral on social media.
Social media have given international resonance to the events in Ukraine but also had a much more practical effect of helping to spread news from Kiev to other parts of the country, where copycat protests have broken out.
The live web-streaming has been a huge feature of the protests, allowing anyone a multichannel 24-hour view of the main protest zones to check the numbers on the streets and watch for police abuses.
“It’s a technology that is available to protesters, and they are using it in diffusion to the regions,” said Olga Onuch, a research fellow at Oxford University’s Nuffield College in Britain who has been analysing Internet use. “It gives the viewer a feeling of being participant observer and allows them access to the protest zones 24/7.”
Onuch said some social media, however, have allowed rumors to spread.
She gave the example of a picture going around on social media of a man alleged to be a Russian sniper who fired on protesters during deadly clashes. There is no confirmation such an incident took place.
The researcher said her survey of social media use found that, while the Internet was the main source of information for protesters, the decision to take part was more likely to be prompted by peers through phone calls and text messages.
Out of more than 1,200 respondents, Onuch found 51 percent first learned about the protests from Internet news websites.
Commenting on the sharp increase during the protests in the use of Twitter, which was previously relatively unknown in Ukraine, she added, “A spike of a few hundred thousand is not much in a country of 45 million people.”
The authorities have been quick to respond, and passed a law in January punishing the dissemination of slander on the Internet — part of a package of draconian anti-protest laws that were repealed last week.
“They have been unable to block the Internet to the extent of Egypt and Turkey,” Onuch said, referring to protest movements in those countries.
A poll published last week found that 83.7 percent of respondents were receiving their news about the protests through the Internet — a far higher proportion than for television, radio or friends and family.
“There has been a spike in Internet use during the political crisis, particularly for online news sites,” said Ivan Mateiko, a public relations manager at TNS Ukraine, a market research company in Kiev that conducted the poll.
The closely followed Ukrainska Pravda news site has reported a tenfold increase in access from Twitter and Facebook in recent weeks.
But Mateiko said the increases were seen on particular days at the height of the clashes and that growing usage should be seen in the context of “a huge increase” in the Internet audience in Ukraine in recent years.
Social media have also amplified the Kiev protests well beyond Ukraine.
Last week, for the first time ever, a Ukraine-related hashtag — #digitalmaidan — made it to Twitter’s top world trending topics following an activist-organised “Twitter storm” helped along by Ukraine’s large diaspora in the West.
“BINGO!” was the delighted reaction on Twitter from Mustafa Nayyem, or @mefimus, a Ukrainian journalist of Afghan origin who is credited with organizing the first of the protests in Kiev back on Nov. 21 — via Facebook.