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Why Do Eastern Europeans Need the Internet?

The internet as a medium is essentially neutral; it might provide us both with pro-government, opposition and independent content. In this regard it slightly differs from other media.

November 17, 2013 - Paweł Pieniążek - Articles and Commentary

600px-Graffiti_internet.jpg

600px-Graffiti_internet.jpg

If there is something that distinguishes it from other forms of media it would be the unprecedented way of communication, as exemplified by the Russian protests.

In the latest issue of New Eastern Europe (IV/2013) we read a series of articles on the role of the internet in Eastern Europe entitled “Digital Eastern Europe”. Five individuals from Poland, Russia, and Ukraine attempt to describe the influence of the internet on social and political changes taking place in the region of Eastern Europe, especially in Ukraine. The authors, however, focus above all on the internet as a platform for new media. Public relations specialist Eryk Mistewicz even states that because of Twitter, news journalists are no longer needed as politicians can report on the main arrangements from press conferences or meetings on their own. Moreover, instead of a lengthy article, users can achieve the same result in several 140-character tweets.

Oddly enough, among the articles in this issue, the internet-itself as a platform for communication appears very rarely, and if so it is rather treated with a grain of salt. Sociologist Natalya Ryabinska writes that “Marc Lynch, a researcher of the Arab revolutions from the George Washington University, is correct when he insists that social media cannot substitute hard and patient party work or grassroots organising.” On the other hand, political scientist Igor Lyubashenko states that the “International experience (for example, the Arab Spring and more recently Turkey) shows that a society equipped with social media tools is more likely to protest, although this does not necessarily lead to constructive solutions”. Nevertheless, he admits that a “slow revolution” is taking place thanks to the internet in Ukraine. This notion is understood by the author as a slow process of connecting more and more Ukrainian citizens to the internet, which, as he believes, might result in a higher potential for protests, organisation, and space for new media. However, similarly to the other authors, the strongest emphasis is placed on the expansion of internet journalism, an alternative for it, as well as a chance for social and political change to take place within a dozen or so years.

The power of the internet

I find it surprising that communication is pushed off the main road in terms of the internet debate. In the end, the power of the internet lies in communication. For several years now we have been able to observe the meaning of this statement. It is not only the possibility of directly writing to a prime minister, trivialising Mistewicz’s thoughts, but a tool for a society or specific social groups to organise themselves and communicate. New media are not an issue of the first priority, as observed by Ryabinska. New media could transform into communication tool in the same manner as television did in this region in the previous system – it could first and foremost serve the government.

Manuel Castells’ book Networks of Outrage and Hope. Social Movements in the Internet Age was published last year. It is a book that, despite not addressing any Eastern European issues, has so far been the most complete study of the new global revolutions (since 2010) that I have read. It seems extremely useful in understanding the role of the internet in today’s world.

 
 

Castell points to the substantial role that the internet plays in the society organising itself. By no means does he imply though that it substitutes grassroots activity. Instead, the internet becomes a supplement or inspiration to this activity. “From the safety of cyberspace, people from all ages and conditions moved towards occupying urban space, on a blind date with each other and with destiny they wanted to forge, as they claimed their right to make history – their history – in a display of the self-awareness that has always characterised major social movements,” writes Castells. In essence, the internet cannot be treated as the only means, but rather one that helps overcome fear in society and allows people to come out onto the streets – which is just the beginning.

Castell also writes: “In recent years the fundamental change in the realm of communication has been the rise of what I have called mass self-communication; the use of the internet and wireless networks as platforms of digital communication”. It is mass because every message reaches multiple recipients and its range is virtually unlimited. The message itself is the autonomous decision of the author. “Mass self-communication” is based on horizontal networks, which makes it difficult to control. A message might be modified or expanded depending on the context. And due to a message, the social actor is given a platform for social action. This all means that the internet is much more than just a provider of content.

Outrage and hope

To this point, in the region of Eastern Europe, this feature of the internet has only been used in Russia. At the same time, Russia is the only state in this region that is a part of the new global revolution. What made people in Russia go out onto the streets to demonstrate their disapproval in a crowd of over 100,000?

In Russia, the internet has been buzzing for years now – after all, this is where the criticism of the authorities began. “The internet clearly demonstrates a scale of social changes that have taken place in Russia in the last ten years. Runet (i.e.the Russian segment of the global network) has everything that is missing in ‘the real political world’: it is a real polyphony of opinions and the foothold both for democratic opposition and for nationalist groups (for example) … it is a real paradise for a crowd of anonymous mockers getting away with mocking the government. It is also a concentration of civic initiatives and a tool for integrating active individuals and communities,” wrote analyst Jadwiga Rogoża in the Polish Nowa Europa Wschodnia (nr 3-4/2011). The article was published before the outbreak of protests in Russia. Hence, a platform was created which allowed for more social activism.

Moreover, Castells refers to two indispensable emotions: outrage and hope. The first one is obvious in the context of Russia. It was a growing outcry against United Russia and President Vladimir Putin who chose to ignore society and believe that because of a strong rule they would be capable of managing the situation indefinitely. The turning point was undoubtedly Putin’s decision to run again for president (for the third time). Whereas Dmitry Medvedev, perceived as more progressive, was forced to stand in his shadow. And during the election, thanks to an effective communication platform (such as YouTube and Twitter) numerous electoral frauds were posted online. Growing outrage within a society has built a common experience in which people can unite and demonstrate.

Outrage alone, however, is only a partial success. It is essential to possess positive emotions, namely hope, which gives the impression that a struggle is meaningful and the aim is in sight. So, why didn’t it take place in Russia then? This issue requires an analysis of its own.

Nevertheless, the recent protests in Russia have been the largest since the 1990s. Thanks in part to the internet, Russians stopped being afraid and did not consider the consequences, which, combined with outrage and (and some) hope, led to a social explosion on a large scale.

Ukrainian “exceptionality”

Readers of this article will surely ask why protests have not broken out in Ukraine where outrage is incomparably larger than in Russia. In the end, the Ukrainian society trusts Viktor Yanukovych much less than Russians trust Putin. And the social and economic situation in Ukraine is becoming more and more complex. The answer to this question shall be sought in the theory of historian Yaroslav Hrytsak who claims that Ukrainians do not operate in a global context and they treat their problems as exceptional and unique in the world. Hence, Ukrainian citizens were unable to rekindle hope.

According to data cited in his article for New Eastern Europe by a member of the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine, Mykola Kniazhytsky, Facebook occupies the fourth position in popularity among social media (30.1 per cent). The most popular ones are two Russian services and one international service: VKontakte (56.9 per cent); YouTube (41.2 per cent); and Odnoklassniki (30.8 per cent). On the other hand, Twitter is on the bottom in terms of social media use. A social movement organised via Ukrainian Twitter cannot be compared with a Polish one or even Russian one.

The weak penetration of global social media in Ukraine and a media (including internet) that seems uninterested in the situation around the world can lead to the situation in which more and more countries – mainly inspired by the Arab Spring – would revolt; while in Ukraine nothing would happen. Ukrainians find no source for optimism that could help them picture a better future.

It is not clearly stated, however, that all is lost. In the end, as Lyubashenko remarks, in Ukraine a “slow revolution” is taking place and, as a result, the situation might be undergoing some dynamic changes. Provided, of course, that when this slow revolution reaches an adequate level Ukrainians will finally find their hope.

Translated by Justyna Chada

Paweł Pieniążek is a journalist specialising in Eastern Europe. He is a contributor to the Polish daily Dziennik Opinii, New Eastern Europe, the Polish magazine W Punkt and the portal Zaxid.net.

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