Online Communities as Local Media

Civilians and Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in Ukraine are using Vkontakte (a Russia-based network akin to Facebook) to share problems and concerns, communicate with the “opposite side” in the Ukrainian conflict and explore options for peace building, after nearly three years of conflict.

As in many parts of the world, Ukrainians on social media frequently self-organize into so-called “city groups.” City groups have become the place where people share their problems and search for solutions, ask for advice on a broad range of topics, down to looking for contacts for a local plumber or nanny. But in the conflict-affected cities of East Ukraine, where separatist-instigated Russian-supported conflict with the Ukrainian army has raged since early 2014, these groups have become the source of important and urgent information.

During the frequent escalations in the conflict, city groups have even filled the role traditionally played by local media.

Internews began studying the social media entries of IDP and city groups in conflict-affected Luhansk and Donetsk when the conflict transitioned from an active to a frozen state around the second half of 2015, in order to learn how best to reach those affected by war with useful information. According to Internews’ latest media consumption survey, up to 50% of Ukrainians use social media, and of those, most prefer Vkontakte.

A chart showing usage of online communities
Credit: Media Consumption Survey — Ukraine 2016 (Internews)

City groups remain relevant in and out of conflict

One of the most active city groups Internews monitors is connected to Avdiyivka, a town in government-controlled Ukraine just 13 kilometers from Donetsk, the city at the heart of the non-government controlled area. Avdiyivka has been the site of some of the war’s deadliest battles and remains one of the epicenters of military actions. The Avdiyivka city group called “Avdiyivka — my Мotherland” has evolved with changes in the intensity of the conflict, according to the group administrator (who preferred to comment anonymously).

“Definitely, group content is changing over time. During peaceful times we mostly shared city news and events; when conflict began we had a lot more information about distractions, situation with power outages and water supply, casualties, etc. There were times with no mobile networks covering the city and people were coming to the group to get the news and share the actual information about the situation in their part of Avdiyivka — that was the only way to gather information about neighbors and relatives who stayed, who weren’t able to escape from the hostilities.

“Volunteers who helped evacuate civilians placed information about the points of gathering on the group page. Now, when we have a fragile ceasefire, the news is turning to be peaceful again — the city is recovering, but if anything happens, we share news about destruction and water or electricity shortages. Ten thousand people visit us daily.”

Avdiyivka’s population is 35,000, but this city group had 31,000 members as of January 2017, up from the 700 members when it first launched in 2014. “Avdiyivka — My motherland” is visited not only by city inhabitants, but also soldiers and journalists, who source information about the city and the frontline, and by IDPs, who left the city for other parts of Ukraine but want to stay in touch with events at home.

Interest in IDP groups wanes over time

Unlike city groups, which maintain a core audience regardless of the situation on the frontline, specially-created IDP groups are losing their popularity as the conflict drags on and prospects for a lasting peace grow dim.

Ann-Mariya Cheberiak, the founder of an IDP-group Informational-discussion portal based in the city of Dnipro in government-controlled Ukraine, polled her members with the question: “Is our group still relevant?” Out of 4,000 group members, 210 responded. Most (66%) said they visited the group daily, around 30% said they visit “sometimes.”

As the group was primarily created as a platform for sharing information about humanitarian aid, one of the group members, an IDP, reasoned that as humanitarian aid dwindled, IDPs had “no one to complain about” so they posted less.

Ann-Mariya was concerned by this response, saying “But I thought we were a team! That this group is something more than just humanitarian aid hunters… We could have [changed] the world together, but instead we fall apart as soon as the aid funds are worn out.”

Building communication bridges: the peace building role of Vkontakte

City groups appear to be relevant and sustainable channels of communication for those affected by the conflict, becoming the bridges between people living on both sides of the frontline as well as between civilians and soldiers.

People in city groups often share information about hostilities (when, where, any other relevant information) in city groups, but they also use the social media groups to communicate with the “opposite side civilians” — pro-Russian civilians.

Here people not only share stereotypes — “Pervomaysk (the Non-Government Controlled Area) is a bulwark of separatism and collaboration” — but also combat them , “I don’t understand why you talk about all the people. Of course, some people do spoil our lives, but the others are not guilty. If separatists will come to Popasnaya (in the Government Controlled Area), a lot of people will not leave their homes, but will stay patriots inside. Are they separatists then? Those who live in Pervomaysk are hostages of the situation.” Another commented: “Don’t say this about all the people! They are also afraid being over there!

After one of IDPs shared a PDF of a hometown newspaper on Vkontakte, Internews launched a poll in two IDP groups on Vkontakte, asking which source of information they use to get news about their homeland.

Most of the IDPs who responded said they get the info from relatives and friends who stayed in their home city (60%), while 34% read social media city groups, and only 3% referred to local media.

A chart showing where people get information about their native city.

This mini-survey suggests that social networks, and city groups in particular, are an important source of information for IDPs who want to know how things are going in their hometown.

Internews’ analysis of the social media dialogues reveal that people are trying to find ways to communicate their messages to the non-government controlled area (NGCA) through the Vkontakte social media service. The Typical Popasna group in the government-controlled area of Luhansk shared a post about people opening a Memory Alley devoted to Popasna civilians who were killed during the conflict.

“We need to share this information to Odnoklassniki (a pro-Russian social media and the 2nd most popular social media site according to the U-Media media survey). Because when you go there, people in the NGCA think that only civilians from their side die. People leaving in the NGCA may not know about people dying here, in Popasna. Hopefully, people will think about the horrors of war on behalf of the life in Donbas and those who stayed alive.”

Online post in Ukrainian with photos showing people looking at posters hung along an alley.
A post showing a “memory alley,” honoring local residents who died in the conflict.

Civilians also use city groups as a platform to sound their needs and concerns. The Maryinka city group administrator posted a photo of kids simply playing on the streets before dark (when the hostilities usually start):

An online post in Ukrainian showing 4 children playing jump rope in the street.

The post says: “Vesper-ringing (shelling) is not stopping, that’s why we decided to remind everybody that there are CIVILIANS in our city. Please see the photos of our people playing on Molodizhna Street (next to the Maryinka crossing point).

The message is addressing both soldiers and Ukrainians in the NGCA, and is a touching way of expressing themselves as civilians struggling for peace.

Most residents would no doubt prefer to return to the days when city groups were used primarily to organize events or share recommendations for local services. But amid conflict, the groups have shown their integral role in the social fabric of the community — providing an information source and a virtual public square for residents and IDPs alike.

Valentyna Kuzyk is Humanitarian Liaison Officer for Internews in Ukraine. Internews’ work with IDPs and information in Ukraine is supported by the Government of Canada, through Global Affairs Canada.

(Banner photo: OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine patrols an area near Avdiivka, Donetsk region. Credit: OSCE/Evgeniy Maloletka/CC)