When Yarema Dukh set up Ukraine’s official Twitter account in 2016, she knew that social media was the best way to spread the message of her country.
“We have never had a way like the Russians to find multinational media like RT or Sputnik,” the former government’s communications adviser told AFP by phone from Kyiv.
Since the full Russian aggression last month, the Kyiv government has used social media to highlight atrocities, issue messages of disobedience and even share one or two jokes.
Young Ukrainians have used TikTok to describe life under Russian siege, and technology enthusiasts have commanded telegram channels to organize cryptocurrency donations.
Russia, meanwhile, has launched attacks on Western technology companies and blocked online freedom of speech.
The Ukraine war marks the proliferation of social media in the conflict from a foreign tool to a truly ubiquitous presence.
But the protest movement and its difficult history of relations with the government – from the Arab Spring of 2011 to Myanmar today – suggests that Ukraine must fight to retain its profits.
Spread the message
In 2011, Facebook was far away today and Twitter was rarely registered in many countries.
“We were fighting to make the quarter a place,” said Hosam El-Hamalawi, an Egyptian activist, during the Arab Spring protests.
Rebellions across the Middle East and North Africa became known as the “Facebook Revolution” but the jury is still outside its overall role.
Hamalawi said the real power of social media is not as an organized tool but as a way to spread the message.
“I knew I would pick up anything I wrote on Twitter (mainstream media),” he told AFP from his home in Berlin.
In Ukraine in the early 2010’s, Dukh said that the most popular social media was a blogging platform called LiveJournal.
But then a journalist posted a message on his Facebook in 2014 promising to start an anti-government rally if he gets 1,000 replies.
When he got enough answers, he went to Maidan Square in central Kiev and started a protest that led to the fall of the pro-Russian government.
The exposure helped make Facebook the number one social network in Ukraine.
During this time, the U.S. technology giant was happy to embrace its association with outsiders and protesters.
Company boss Mark Zuckerberg wrote in 2012 that the firm is not interested in profit but in empowering people for social change.
However, social media companies were already in a more complex position.
Burmese journalist Thin Lei Win said 2012 was the moment when Facebook “became the Internet” in Myanmar.
“Everything was on Facebook and everyone was sharing everything,” he told AFP.
But some of the messages shared were provocative, spreading false information that led to violence between Buddhist nationalists and the Muslim Rohingya minority.
By 2018, a UN reporter called the platform an “animal” and accused it of inciting racial hatred.
The wheel has also turned off in Egypt, where sectarian fighting between street protesters was reflected by bitter disputes online.
Defendant leader Wael Ghonim, whose Facebook messages helped strengthen the movement, told U.S. broadcaster PBS in 2018 that he had soon become a target of online confusion.
“I was very stupid,” he said.
Meanwhile in Ukraine, the Maidan revolution was also becoming talkative.
Moscow used it as an excuse to annex Crimea and sow unrest in the east of Ukraine.
Sadly, as a new recruiter in the government’s communications team, he found himself fighting a Russian troll firm.
Three finger salute
Workers in the Arab Spring countries are now lamenting how they once re-used the acclaimed platforms to serve those in power.
A group of NGOs wrote an open letter on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube last year accusing them of systematically shutting down dissident accounts across the region in support of the crackdown.
In Myanmar, a military junta seized power in a coup earlier this year, ending years of liberalization.
Disagreements quickly spread across social media with the three-finger salute borrowed from the popular proven “Hunger Games” movies.
But Thin Lei Win said authorities were aware that the Burmese people were enthusiastic partners and began to stop people on the street and demand to see their phones.
“If you post anything critical on your social media in support of the junta or the NUG (National Unity Government), you could be arrested,” he said.
Part of a mole
Facebook and other platforms shut down Burmese generals’ accounts shortly after the coup, and according to Thin Lei Win, the established platforms greatly improved their record with distorted information.
The Thin Lay Win and activist groups have noted that the generals have since moved to other networks and their messages are still available.
“It’s like a hack-a-mall, you close something, something else pops up,” said Thin Lai Win.
Young companies like TikTok and Telegram have been criticized for continuing the Burmese military campaign.
In Ukraine, too, both Tiktuk and Telegram have been accused of failing to deal with Russian confusion.
But sadly, the one who left the Ukrainian government in 2019 is going to see the positive side of social media.
He said Ukraine had learned lessons from its years of dealing with Russian confusion and could share them with the world.
“We are good students and I hope we will be good teachers after the victory,” he said.