Kiev, Ukraine – On a cold night here in the nation’s capital, Olya Shatna is headed towards the frontlines of clashes between protesters and police amid Ukraine’s three-month political crisis.
She holds a smartphone which is live-streaming her walk from Independence Square – where protesters have been gathered since November, after President Viktor Yanukovich accepted a bailout deal with Russia over a free trade agreement with the European Union.
The 22-year-old is a volunteer with Spilno TV, one of a few online live-streaming websites that have covered protests and given people throughout the country around-the-clock views of the demonstrations.
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“[With] one hand you can… take video, then in the second take pictures, and speak with people and ask them questions without stopping streaming, it’s the best way of new journalism,” Shatna says.
Before passing through barricades, she stops at a security checkpoint set up by the opposition and shows her press card. She is given a helmet and enters the epicentre of the clashes.
The charred ground is littered with barbed wire and empty glass bottles.
She films about 40 police lined up. Past them, she says, are the Berkut – Ukraine’s special forces who have allegedly attacked activists and journalists.
Spreading the word
Olga Onuch, a research fellow at the University of Oxford who helped carry out a survey of protesters, said such live video sources have offered protesters crucial facts about what activists were doing at the protests and how large the gatherings were.
“That is incredible information for a protester, because if it looks safe, if there are people of different ages and people of different genders then they’re more likely to feel that it is safe for them to join,” she said.
Bogdana Babych, one of the founders of Spilno TV, says the medium has at times even deterred violence. In a white tent in Independence Square, Babych sits on a silver beanbag alongside her colleagues.
She is constantly afraid that Berkut officers will come and shut down their operations.
However, she credits the web channel with protecting activists and volunteer street journalists. Babych claims that they will not be attacked by police when officers realise they are being recorded live.
“They [become] very polite,” she says. “There are also a lot of people watching… and they don’t want to have a [clash] with us.”
Spilno TV has had 16 million viewers since they started filming the demonstrations at the end of November, according to Babych.
She said the channel was created to provide an uncensored medium, independent of the traditional media ruled largely by oligarchs, many of which are fiercely loyal to those in power. She said that a license is not beeded for online channels, so the organisation does not get caught up in bureaucracy.
“We want to change the system,” she said. “And for that, we need to have an instrument.”
The role of social media
The government has tried to push back. In January, a law was passed banning the dissemination of “extremist information and slander”, sparking fears that journalists would be muzzled. However, the law was later repealed.
As well as the live channels from the streets, activists also have access to social media – which was still in its infancy the last time the country saw mass protests, ten years ago during the Orange Revolution.
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While social media users are but a small fraction of protesters, Onuch said the technology provided access to unofficial sources and likely allowed demonstrations to happen in areas that have been considered pro-Yanukovich.
“People in places that didn’t maybe have access to other information have it, because of the internet and social media,” she said. “If I were to venture a guess, it would be that internet and social media did facilitate the diffusion of protest events throughout the country.”
Sviatoslav Yurash heads public relations for the activist group Euromaidan. He says social media gave him the ability to help the movement and its message connect with those abroad.
The 17-year-old second-year university student said the Facebook page he helps run would get 700 likes a day at the height of the crisis. He boasts the Twitter account is now followed by journalists from some of the largest news outlets in the world.
“It’s a simpler, quicker way of delivering information to the world,” he said. “It [has] shown Ukraine to many people.”
In January, activists organised a “Twitter storm”, during which they would tweet with the hashtag #digitalmaidan at an allocated time. It resulted in the hashtag trending worldwide. More storms are on the horizon.
Onuch said the preliminary findings of her research showed that, while social media did not seem to play much of a role in mobilising people, it does help information spread – and spread quickly.
Half of the respondents in Onuch’s survey of more than 1,200 protesters said they initially found out about the demonstrations from news websites.
But an accelerating speed of information dispersal also means rumours spread more quickly. She says that a picture was going around which people claimed was of a Russian sniper.
“If there was a suspicion that some police officer is a Russian sniper, and that did go viral, and then someone decided to do something… these can have very serious repercussions,” she said.
If wrong information is linked to protesters, it could backfire on the movement – because the government could use such incidents to discredit the opposition.
Misinformation is something journalism student Yulia Zakutnia often has to combat. She started an English-language blog and a Euromaidan Facebook page which has attracted almost 11,000 “likes”.
She says people would post things that were not true, and she would then have to tell enquiring journalists that the stories were wrong.
Facebook, however, has given people such as Zakutnia freedom to cover the crisis and have their messages shared more widely to a foreign audience.
“It’s more easy to post something on Facebook and to spread it because everyone [can] like it and post it,” she said.
“You can be a journalist for yourself.”
Follow Kristina Jovanovski on Twitter: @K_Jovanovski