Are the New Media Helpful? Lessons from the Ukrainian crisis
As an international relations analyst, I observed the Ukrainian events of November 2013-February 2014 closely. At the moment, I am analysing Russia’s aggressive response to these events. What I see beyond the surface of facts and analyses is a constant dispute about whether the widely-understood new media played a constructive role in these events.
There are two notions strongly present in commentaries referring to the EuroMaidan and the Ukrainian-Russian conflict. The first one goes into an optimistic direction and tells us that Ukraine became the newest example of a revolution that has been done with smartphones. The second one is pessimistic and focuses on the strength of Russian anti-Ukrainian propaganda that is being additionally reinforced by new media. A natural question appears – where is the truth? Is information and communication technology helpful? Is it on “the bright side of history”? The obvious answer is that just like any other technology, it can be used both for good and for bad. And I am not going to provide any kind of deep analysis of the chances and threats for democracy in the digital age. What is surprising for me is that most analysis is trying to focus on only one of side of the coin.
Basing on my observations from last four months, I would like to try to formulate three principles that might be helpful for analysis of our digitally-augmented reality in longer perspective. What is important, I focus only on information flow and information management, leaving aside more complex issues of privacy, surveillance or internet regulation.
At the beginning, it is important to note that one should not focus on any specific technical instrument or channel of communication. Instead, it is best to focus on new quality: connectivity and transparency. Connectivity is our omnipresent technical ability to get information almost immediately, to connect with the others through digital channels. Transparency gained a new meaning in the digital age, because all of us – individuals, institutions and even states – have limited possibility to control what kind of information about ourselves can become public. Having this short introduction in mind, the three principles are the following:
First, thanks to connectivity and transparency we can easily identify important trends (understood as significant events or sequences of events that have the potential to influence reality). You see an increased flow of facts in your news feed and you know that something is happening. Half of your politically ignorant friends are going to a meeting, and you are invited? That might be the beginning of important protest. Most of your friends share amateur footage of helicopters entering Ukrainian airspace in Crimea from Russian side. You can be sure that it is a beginning of something important.
Next, as soon as the main facts become clear and trends are identified, information noise appears. It should not necessarily be orchestrated in details by some mysterious (or not mysterious) force. It appears from a simple human tendency to share information, to comment, to express opinions. Due to connectivity, everyone can share his or her thoughts with the world (although not everyone is listened to). And whenever you have an exceptional situation – like a revolution or war – it is quite normal that most people do not remain aside. A noise starts when information ceases to be clear, understandable, manageable. The biggest problem with it is that we can easily confuse facts with interpretations. Although information noise is natural, it can also be initiated artificially.
Finally, information trends are fragile. As soon as new trends appear, attention is switched to them almost immediately. It is an effect of constant distraction. A couple of days would be enough to switch attention of public opinion to alternative problems. Once again, it is a natural consequence of our constant information hunger. Of course, a sophisticated “political technologist” (a term widely used in the post-Soviet space) could help this process.
Instead of thinking whether instruments like social networks are supportive for democratic change, we should think about how to steer information trends in order to achieve goals that are favourable to us. Or at least we should try to understand what phase of development of an information trend we are speaking about.
My final appeal is for everyone to think twice before entering a pubic debate referring on any problem. In a digital age, our responsibility of both consumers and (re)producers of information grows significantly. Without critical thinking we can easily become tool in another’s hands.
Igor Lyubashenko is a contributing editor to New Eastern Europe. He is an academic teacher, new media enthusiast and international relations analyst. He has a PhD in Political Science from the Maria Curie-Sklodowska University in Lublin.