Social networks and social media in Ukrainian “Euromaidan” protests

January 2
Not all of the Euromaidan protesters are young (Photo: Olga Onuch/The Monkey Cage)
Not all of the Euromaidan protesters are young (Photo: Olga Onuch/The Monkey Cage)

Joshua Tucker: One of the biggest stories of 2013 was the continued rise of social media usage worldwide.  The end of the year also saw the emergence of unexpected protests in Ukraine, which we covered here at The Monkey Cage.  In the following guest post, Oxford University (Nuffield College) political scientist Olga Onuch reports on new survey data that sheds important light on both the “social” component of social media in driving the Euromaidan protests, as well as the continuing importance of social media both on and off line.

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Ukrainian activists, local and international news media, as well as political scientists, have pointed out the importance of social media in the recent “Euromaidan” protests in Ukraine. Many reports have credited initial tweets by journalists and activists as the key mechanism that brought hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians out into the streets. Other reports have focused on the “Millennials” as the drivers of and main participants of the protest-events. Yet, a recent British Academy funded survey of protest participants, by Tamara Martsenyuk and myself, launched on Nov. 27, points to a more complex picture.

Since Nov. 27, 20 interviewers have been conducting surveys at Kiev protest sites for two to three hours each day. A strict random sampling strategy has been employed, whereby only every sixth protester was approached. Thus far, we have surveyed 1,203 protest participants (and counting). We have complimented the survey data with daily documentation of protest slogans and signage (digital video and photography), as well as rapid interviews with a smaller sample of protesters (n= 200). Some of the preliminary findings from our study are surprising and incongruent with reports from news media outlets: 1) Protesters are older than expected. 2) Protesters are more diverse than expected. 3) Social media are important, but not simply as a provider of information about existence of protests. 4) Social-networks – both within and outside of social media – seem to be highly influential in bring people out into the streets.  5) Social media and Internet news sites seem to have been successfully used as key framing devices for protest themes.

1.    Who are they? Age of protesters, education, language and profession

While many reports have championed Ukrainian students and youths for being the predominant actors in the protests, the majority of the respondents (69 percent) are in fact older than 30. The average age of the Ukrainian protester in Kyiv is closer to 36, with approximately 24 percent of participants older than 55. About 8 percent are between 65 and 75, thus making up a surprising, interesting and under discussed group.  The protesters make up a diverse cross-cleavage group, with differing and at time competing demands. The majority of protesters are employed (63 percent), and have a higher professional education (76 percent), but approximately 9 percent are retired. 33 percent are Ukrainian Orthodox and 25 percent are Greek Catholic. More over, 59 percent of the protest participants are male. More surprisingly perhaps, or not, for those who study Ukraine, is the fact that while the broad majority of protest participants chose Ukrainian as their mother tongue (82.8 percent), only 67 and 68 percent use Ukrainian at work and at home respectively. Finally, a surprising 38 percent of current protesters did not participate in previous protests, and 37 percent did not participate in the “Orange Revolution”. Thus, not only do the protesters make up an impressive cross cleavage coalition in the streets of Kiev, there is a substantial number who are first time participants (and this holds when we account for the age of respondents).  This is of course not to say that students, youth and activists are not a significant group, but they do not represent the majority of participants.

Furthermore, the group of protesters has become much more diverse after the attack on the initial]protesters on Nov.  29. When protesters’ demands shifted from foreign policy claims to human and civic rights claims, the percentage of youth, activists and protesters with more experience protesting dropped.

 2.    Why did they protest? 

To better understand this diversity, we briefly interviewed the different groups (17 to 29 year-olds, 30 to 45 year-olds, 45 to 59 year-olds and those 60 and older ). We asked three primary questions: (1) Why are you here today? (2) Why did you decide to protest? (3) Why is your protesting important? We have found three dominant explanations sets of explanations that vary by age.

The students and youth under 30 use more media savvy language of “EU accession,” “global human rights” and employ abstract concepts such as “freedom.” They accuse the older generations of “letting the ‘bandits’ get away with corruption” and repeatedly state that as the “non-Soviet children of an independent Ukraine”, they have to “fight for democracy, because the older generations won’t”.

The 30 to 45 year-old protesters focus more on practical matters like “economic security,” “better opportunities for their children,”  “visa restrictions” and their desire to live in a “normal, European democracy.” They understand that they represent an important and active sector of the electorate, and insist that their presence lets the regime known the “voters are here.”

The protesters over 55 explain that they “have lived through many injustices” and that because they are “retired, [they] can protest in the place of the young, who have to work and raise families.” Thus, they see themselves as guardians of the protests, when others cannot be there.

3.    With whom are people protesting? 

Most protest participants come with family or friends to the protests and so it is clear that social networks (and specifically close ties) are key in understanding how people come to join a protest. In our survey 18 percent of respondents came alone to the protests. This group is predominantly made up of youth and activists, who are known to have low risk threshold, and all of these respondents have previous protest experience. First time protesters all came with a group of friends or family members. When we interviewed respondents, they explained that they felt “safer going with a close friend or family member.”

Figure: Olga Onuch; Data: Ukrainian Protest Project
Figure: Olga Onuch; Data: Ukrainian Protest Project

4.    Social media and social networks 

When we asked protesters how they got information about protests, we found a wide range of sources. Large numbers learned about the protests from internet sites like Facebook (49 percent), VKontakte (a Facebook-like social media site that is popular among Russian speakers, 35 percent), and Internet news sites, such as Spilno TV and Hromadianske TV (51 percent). Social networks also played a key role: 47 percent received valuable information from their friends, 18 percent from work colleagues and 15 percent from family members. When we interviewed protesters, they explained that they found Facebook and Internet news sites more reliable sources of information than television. That they gave a “general idea of the mood and what was going-on.” Thus, social media and Internet news sites play an important role in diffusing information and for this reason may have been highly influential – perhaps even at  unprecedented levels compared to prior protests internationally – in motivating people and framing their protest claims.

But when participants were asked specifically how they found out when and where to go to participate in the protests (see chart below), most participants agreed that seeing protests on television was instrumental (48.9 percent), while 42 percent were sent a text message by a family member or friend.

Figure: Olga Onuch; Data: Ukrainian Protest Project
Figure: Olga Onuch; Data: Ukrainian Protest Project

Social networks appear specifically essential for first time protesters, all of whom reported receiving text-messages, e-mails and telephone calls directly from friends and family members pushing them to join-in and telling them were to go.

Finally, when we account for the day of protest, isolating Nov. 23 and 29 and Dec. 1, 8 and 15, (the largest protest events), we see that protest participants who joined in the protests on these days were also more likely to receive a direct text message or e-mail from a close friend or family member.

5.    Social Media and Protester Demands 

Although our analysis of demands (as reflected in slogans and signage), is still very preliminary, it does seem to follow certain patterns of words mentioned on Twitter, Facebook, chain e-mails and internet news sites. We have noticed a pattern whereby a sign or slogan first goes viral on Facebook, and then seems to show up more often in protester signs. While making any serious conclusions from this method is complicated, first impressions point to an “Internet-to-the-streets” directionality of claims and framing of demands. In interviews protesters admitted to seeing signs and statements on Facebook, which inspired their own version (such as the famous UKRAINEUKRAINE sign). Thus, activists, journalists and politicians should note that while these new technologies alone may not be able to give the feeling of safety needed to join the protests, social media and Internet sites seem to be crucial in providing new information about, as well as the language of, protest, which protest participants can employ and make their own once they join their friends and family members in the streets

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For more from The Monkey Cage on the protests in Ukraine, see:

What you need to know about the causes of the Ukrainian protests

Why are people protesting in Ukraine? Providing historical context

How Ukrainian protestors are using Twitter and Facebook

As police raid protests in Ukraine, protesters turn to Twitter and Facebook

Six reasons to be cautious about likelihood of opposition success in Ukraine

Three reasons why protests in Ukraine could end up helping Yanukovych

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