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The web is watching what happens in Ukraine

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opinion Brainerd, 56401
Brainerd MN 506 James St. / PO Box 974 56401

As Ukraine tinkers on the brink of collapsing into chaos, we want to draw interested readers’ attention to a series of social media interactions that we are following here at The Monkey Cage. The full list of posts can be found at www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/monkey-cage, but below are four highlighted points that can be learned from these posts.

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First, there is far from unified consensus in support of the protesters in Kiev throughout Ukraine. Equally if not more important, nor is there anything approaching unified support for the government, President Viktor Yanukovych or the actions taken on behalf of the president. Bottom line: Ukraine is a divided country, which makes the current situation especially dangerous. Policy makers should not rule out the possibility that the country could split, enter a period of prolonged violence, or even face something approaching a civil war. This does not mean that any of these outcomes are foreordained, but for anyone looking forward it is no longer unreasonable to speculate about the causes or the consequences of such outcomes.

Second, the causes of these splits across the Ukrainian population are complicated and have long historical antecedents. While there are ongoing debates about how much the current conflict reflects these long-term economic and political patterns of division in Ukraine, the fact that they exist further suggests that the possibility that conflict could advance beyond what we’ve seen Tuesday is real.

Third, social media is clearly being used to facilitate communication both within Ukraine and between Ukrainians and the outside world, especially as the government appears to have blocked access to pro-opposition television channels. We have previously written about this, but the pattern obviously continued Tuesday. Anyone following the hashtag #Euromaidan was bombarded with reports, images, calls for organization and cries for international recognition and involvement. My lab - the New York University Social Media and Political Participation laboratory - has been collecting tweets related to the protests for the past months, and we saw a huge spike in the number of tweets as the day went on:

The beginning of the first spike was on Tuesday between 2-4 p.m., followed by a slight drop-off and then a much more significant spike around 6 p.m. Our guess is that the first spike was related to news that troops might be massing and getting ready to attack the main Maidan protest site, while the second spike would represent the actual engagement of the police. Additional analysis will be needed to confirm whether this was indeed what was driving the traffic. That being said, if this was the case, it suggests that Twitter can function as a kind of “early warning system” about police actions during protests. From a more personal standpoint, if you want to follow the evolution of events in Ukraine in the coming days, simply keeping open a Twitter feed on the hashtag #Euromaidan will supply you with more information than you can process.

Fourth, what happens in Kiev does not necessarily stay in Kiev. Egyptian protesters are watching YouTube videos to learn about strategy. One can only imagine what they’ve learned Tuesday.

Tucker is a New York University politics professor with a focus on Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. He is a co-director of the NYU Center for Social Media and Political Participation. For other commentary from The Monkey Cage, an independent blog anchored by a group of political scientists from universities around the country, see www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/monkey-cage.

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