The war in Ukraine shows how social networks have established themselves as a major conflict ground and an essential tool for political opponents.
From the Arab Spring to Burma, the authorities have learned to use social media to their advantage. Of course, it is also a tool for opponents, but also for the suffering population.
Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the government in Kiev has made extensive use of the platforms to pass on the atrocities committed, to summon aid or sanctions, and even to be humorous. “We have never been able to create multinational companies like (the channels) RT or Sputnik among the Russians,” said Yarema Dukh, a former Ukrainian communications adviser who set up the government’s official Twitter account in 2016.
The population is not left out: young Ukrainians talk about life during the TikTok bombings, NGOs collect donations in cryptocurrencies on Telegram … On the contrary, Russia has almost reduced freedom of expression online to nothing. , including blocking Facebook and restricting Twitter.
In 2011, both networks were still far from the ubiquitous giants they have become, but some explored their potential. “We had to fight to secure our place on the edge,” said Hossam El-Hamalawy, an Egyptian activist now living in Berlin. But “I knew that what I wrote on Twitter would be captured (by the media)”. He participated in the Arab sources, which were later dubbed the “Facebook revolutions”, although the exact role of the platform remains controversial.
In Ukraine, a journalist discovered the power of the network in 2014 thanks to a message in which he promised to organize an anti-government meeting if he received 1,000 responses. The demonstration, launched at Maidan Square in Kiev, marked the start of a pro-European uprising that overthrew the pro-Russian government and also propelled Facebook as the first social network in the country.
At that time, the image of the platform was not yet spotted. Mark Zuckerberg, its founder, wrote in 2012 that his company was not interested in profits and wanted to help actors in social change. According to Burmese journalist Thin Lei Win, in 2012 Facebook became the “Internet” in Burma. “Everything was on Facebook and everyone shared everything,” she told AFP.
Including inflammatory messages and misinformation that fueled violence against the Rohingya, the Muslim minority. In 2018, UN Special Rapporteur Yanghee Lee called the network a “monster” and accused it of inciting racial hatred. In Egypt, too, activists are facing some disillusionment. “I was extremely naive to believe that these were tools for liberation,” activist Wael Ghonim said in an interview with US television station PBS in 2018. His Facebook post had helped encourage the movement, but he had become a targets of misinformation.
In Ukraine, Yarema Dukh, then a new government recruit, quickly found himself fighting against manipulation campaigns led by Russian troll farms, which were also active in sowing discord in Europe and the United States.
Activists in Arab Spring countries are now complaining that the platforms are now mostly for the authorities. A group of NGOs last year wrote an open letter to Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, accusing them of supporting the repression by systematically closing accounts for dissidents in the region. In Burma, opponents of the military junta that seized power in early 2021 find themselves on the networks thanks to unifying signs, such as a three-fingered salute, inspired by the “Hunger Games” films.
But according to Thin Lei Win, security forces began inspecting the phones of people on the street, and “if you posted anything criticizing the junta (…), you could be stopped”.
Facebook and other platforms closed Burmese generals’ accounts after the coup, but military propaganda is still being broadcast elsewhere, such as on the TikTok application or Telegram messages, she says. Also in Ukraine, TikTok and Telegram have been accused of not tackling Russian disinformation adequately.
But Yarema Dukh, who left the Ukrainian government in 2019, still sees the positive side of social media. He believes Ukraine has learned the lesson of long years of dealing with disinformation coming from Moscow: “We learned a lot and after the victory I hope we can share it with others too”.