Tweeting the unrest: data overload as a force for good
A woman views flowers placed on a burnt out vehicle near Independence Square. The information emerging online from Ukraine over the past week is simply astonishing. Photograph: Getty Images
Social media is now a Situation Room. The information emerging online from Ukraine over the past week is simply astonishing. While the digital battle cry that the revolution will in fact be live streamed was heard during the Arab Spring, the barrage of video, photography and chatter across Twitter coming from Kiev illustrates an almost infinitely expanding picture.
In 2011 Frank La Rue, human rights lawyer and UN Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression (a title that takes up 75 per cent of a 140-character-length tweet), submitted a report to the UN Human Rights Council about freedom of expression online and access to the internet. He highlighted the importance of free, unrestricted internet access and of the net as a tool for exercising freedom of expression. Many took this as an overarching belief that access to the internet itself was in fact a human right. It’s an assumption that has its critiques, and indeed having access to the internet as a human right does in many ways feel overblown. But positioning online communication platforms as tools for freedom of expression is merely expanding that expression, as opposed to seeing the hardware and software as a right.
As YouTube videos of Kiev going up in smoke were uploaded, and the hashtag #euromaidan trended, protests were happening simultaneously in Venezuela. Unrest in Venezuela was triggered by the arrest of opposition leader Leopoldo López on charges of arson and criminal incitement arising from a large rally earlier this month.
There’s also a war on information. How many photographs did you see from Caracas? Probably fewer than from Kiev. How many videos did you watch of protests from the city of Valencia in Venezuela, where on Friday a 22-year-old woman died after being shot in the head during demonstrations? Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro threatened US network CNN with expulsion: “Enough war propaganda, I won’t accept war propaganda against Venezuela. If they don’t rectify themselves, out of Venezuela, CNN, out.”
Maybe the amplification of information from Ukraine has as much to do with its being on our European doorstep and the number of journalists on the ground as it does with wifi-ready protesters. RTÉ’s Paul Cunningham tweeted photos of a hotel lobby being turned into a makeshift hospital. Vice posted dramatic, almost movie-set-apocalyptic photographs. The Guardian had a live blog running on the protests, sucking in images and videos as they were uploaded. Irish Times foreign correspondent Dan McLaughlin sent audio reports run over video on the newspaper’s website.
And along with the journalistic viewpoint, history – or at least digital history – is begin written by civilians. A Facebook a page called Maidaners is telling protesors’ stories. Last week a moving YouTube video, ‘I Am A Ukrainian’, explained from the point of view of a female protester why people were on the streets. And locally there’s Russian social network VK, on which medic and protester Olesya Zhukovskaya posted “I’m dying,” after she was shot in the neck – a photo widely circulated online by activists. At the time of writing, her status update translates as: “Sorry for not answering calls, very painful to talk.”
When we think about the now rudimentary ways in which civic unrest has been covered previously, the contrast is astonishing. The resourcefulness pioneered by news reporters – Serbia’s resilient B92 youth radio station, or more recently, Alex Crawford of Sky News rolling into Tripoli as the city was falling, reporting live from her MacBook by plugging a mini satellite dish into the car’s cigarette lighter – is now also the preserve of brave citizens.
There’s a surrealism to digesting the information from Ukraine. Videos of police snipers picking off protesters from a rooftop, or protesters themselves huddling amongst makeshift shields before being shot, are almost unreal. Recorded as it happens, the witness becomes the cataloguer, the reporter, the broadcaster, and the archivist.
And there’s so much information. Of all the data that exists today, 90 per cent was created in the past two years. If that’s hard to believe, just think of something like WhatsApp, acquired by Facebook last week for $16 billion, plus another $3 billion for staff and founders. WhatsApp, a mobile messaging service, has 450 million users, with about a million joining each day. In January an average of 18 billion messages were sent daily through its network. To put that in context, in 2006, the US Postal Service delivered 213 billion pieces of mail. That’s less than 12 days of WhatsApp’s message numbers.
Information bingeing and online discourse comes in for a lot of criticism regarding its tone, usefulness and negative impact. But we also need to remind ourselves that when the noise is tuned out, real clarity and learning can emerge. The role of social media in protest can be overstated. But the role of information can not.