The conference “Tweeting the war - Social Media and War Coverage in Ukraine” took place in Berlin on November 17-20, 2015.
22 young journalists and media scholars from Germany, Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus came to FU Berlin to discuss academic and practical aspects of conflict coverage in the new media environment.
The conference was the second part of the project with the same title funded by the Federal Foreign Office of Germany and co-organized by the Emmy Noether Group and the International Center for Journalism of Freie Universität Berlin. The project started in October 2015 in Kiev with a workshop “Tweeting the war - Social Media and War Coverage in Ukraine” which brought together media scholars and young journalists researching and covering the Ukrainian conflict.
WAS EUROMAIDAN REVOLUTION TWEETED?
Vitalii Moroz, head of new media at Internews Ukraine, gave an overview of the history and role of Twitter for the Ukrainian journalists before, during and after the Euromaidan. “At the beginning it was just a club of interests”, he said. The Twitter activity of both politicians and journalists in Ukraine significantly rose at the time of protests. Twitter has played a key role in spreading information about the organization of the protests. It also became an important platform for the leading online media in the country. According to Moroz, today online media like Ukrainskaya pravda get on average 15 percent of their traffic from Twitter. For Hromadske.tv, which was launched shortly before the Euromaidan, this figure is up to 40 percent.
Aliaksandr Herasimenka, a journalist and researcher from Belarus, presented his research on “Digital activists and communication technologies during and after the Euromaidan in Ukraine”. He conducted interviews with activists and analyzed texts produced by communication professionals who were involved in the Euromaidan protests from its early days. “These people were able to leave their jobs, to put their personal security under threat in order to join the protest and to work there sometimes 24h a day”, he said. “Thanks to their efforts, ICT emerged not simply as tools, but as platforms for autonomic communication, crowdfunding, self-organization, and cultural expression.”
Herasimenka concluded that during and following the Euromaidan, digital activists planned and coordinated their activities on Facebook at large, which was just the ninth most visited internet platform in Ukraine. “Not all popular digital platforms were fully opened for pro-Ukrainian groups”, noted Herasimenka. “Particularly, the Russian internet censorship made it less possible to work with VK - the most popular social network in Ukraine. Consequently, the activists concentrated on other platforms.”
THE STATE SUBSTITUTES THE WORD 'CENSORSHIP' WITH 'SECURITY'
One of the central topics of discussions among the journalists and scholars who participated in the conference was the regulation of the internet in the post-Soviet countries and the increase of state control over new media during the war in Ukraine. Florian Toepfl from the Emmy Noether Group presented his research on news literacy of young Russians. He pointed out different understandings of freedom in Russia and in the West. For Russian people, political freedom is often associated with the “chaos of the 1990s”, therefore many people are ready to give up liberal values for the feeling of stability.
Michael Shtekel, a war correspondent from the Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty in Kiev, said that nowadays “the state substitutes the word ‘censorship’ with ‘security’”.
Shtekel talked about the transformation of work of Ukrainian correspondents during the conflict in Eastern Ukraine. He concluded that the Ukrainian Army press office has not worked reliably during the conflict, which led to difficulties for journalists. At the beginning of the conflict, acccodring to him, “lots of pieces of news and reports were made through unofficial sources only. There was no system of working with the regular army, there was no military PR strategy and there were not enough press officers to guide journalists”. In 2014 the Ukrainian government tried to put press officers in almost every unit, “but the experiment was not very successful because of bureaucracy”.
Daria Orlova from the Mohyla School of Journalism elaborated on the topic she talked about during the workshop in Kiev - “Dilemmas of covering 'our war': evidence from media content and Ukrainian journalists’ firsthand accounts”. Orlova presented the results of the research project led by Södertörn University, Sweden, that analyzed how the war conflict was framed by Ukrainian media. One of the conclusions of the analysis of 661 news pieces publishd in three Ukrainian media (Segodnya, Den, 1+1) is that the conflict coverage was “pro-Ukrainian, largely one-sided”. According to Orlova, it was also largely a “reproduction of the official narrative - typical for the coverage of ‘our war’”. Interviews with journalists conducted as part of the project showed that the “conflict has become a challenge for Ukrainian journalists”, Orlova said.
Anna Litvinenko from the Emmy Noether Group summed up key research areas within the topic “Social media and conflict coverage” that were discussed during both parts of the project, in Kiev and in Berlin. They are: the role of social media in the work of journalists; changes in journalism cultures; challenges for the functions of journalism (the rise of activism, patriotism, merging of private and public spheres); challenges for journalistic ethics in the era of social media; media regulation during war times vs. the democratic value of press freedom; new forms of propaganda on social media; communicative aggression on new media; media psychology and conflict coverage on social media.
A big part of the Berlin conference was dedicated to field trips and talks with journalists and politicians on the role of social media in the coverage of the Ukrainian conflict. Thus, participants visited the editorial office of Zeit Online and talked with journalists who covered the war, as well as with a member of the “community team” of Zeit Online that manages the social media of the news platform. Participants also met with Reinhard Hönighaus, the spokesperson of the European Commission office in Germany, to discuss the new EU action plan for strategic communication, as well as with Sebastian Fischer, head of internet- and social media editorial staff of the Federal Foreign Office of Germany.
The full programme of the conference can be found here.