Ukraine And The Stage For Social Protests: When Familiar Visuals Go Viral

Feb 20 2014, 5:25pm CST | by

Ukraine And The Stage For Social Protests: When Familiar Visuals Go Viral
Photo Credit: Forbes Business

Watching the incredible images of savagery and a government shooting its own citizens with high-powered sniper rifles to preserve its power these last few days, I was reminded instantly of other powerful visuals that were shared so rapidly and widely in the era of colliding digital technologies and social unrest. The images of Kiev bore a familiar pattern. They didn’t portray a countrywide series of protests, marches and confrontations. Rather, they took place in a confined and well-known public space - Independence Square, also known as the Maidan. That space was symbolic to the regime, and the country’s history. It was small enough to make a large-scale protest tactically significant – there was real currency in holding the space. And it provided an instantly recognizable and dramatic backdrop to photos and video in files created by media and citizen journalists that could be shared quickly.

In some aspects, it looked like a Hollywood production. Indeed, I was reminded of a visit I made several years ago to the Warner Brothers backlot in Burbank. As I walked those “streets,” every turn around every corner felt familiar; the background of every photo triggered some distant cultural memory (some of the outdoor sets there date to James Cagney’s gangster era). The building facades were part of some vast common databank.

I’ve never been to Kiev, but the images from its streets carry some of that social familiarity – the main square, the statues, the public spaces, the government buildings, the hotels, the setting for public life, commerce, and culture in quieter times. In turmoil, that backdrop looked like Tahrir Square and Gezi Park, and to this New Yorker, lower Manhattan during the far less violent days of Occupy.

These protest movements all convulsed large nations (and still do) but the territory that mattered when the demonstrations evolved in scale into something large and threatening to official power was relatively small – but cultural significant. And I’m beginning to believe those backdrops, which always frame opposition movements in the seat of power – from Dublin to Moscow to Prague to Beijing – are even more important in the digital world.

Moreover, both the creation and the consumption of these images on mobile devices speaks to the relative ease of tapping into that familiarity. The native photographic and video capability of social apps – the camera function inside Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Vine et al – encourages both speed and expertise. Thanks to the startups and digital entrepreneurs of this last generation, we are all minor league auteurs or videographers, used to framing the shot, creating more drama, working the lighting.

We are also used to seeing these battles in real time, and not just via credentialed media (officially and by dint of their professional status) but by citizens carrying smart phones connected to the Internet. There’s been a long-running debate in some wired intellectual circles about whether social media powers revolutions, whether Twitter or Facebook really assist movements – and on the other side, whether digital technologies now help malign governments in sniffing out and crushing dissent. Those arguments can be reductive – and really, did Tom Paine et al benefit from the speedy technological growth of American job printing embodied by a social entrepreneur named Benjamin Franklin?

Of course the networks matter – because they always have. But I’m more interested in what is different, what is creating that sense of speed and shared interest, what is drawing the world in. My Twitter timeline is enflamed with startling and tragic images from the streets of Kiev – of government snipers taking aim, of riot police under siege, of protestors armed with crude shields and stones, of dead bodies lined up in hotel lobbies made into makeshift morgues, of statues backlit by fire and violence. This is how we learn of such things today, and this is how social movements – and yes, even revolutions – spread so quickly. In an essay for Medium, the eminent digital age sociologist Zeynep Tufekci discussed the pro-democracy protests in her native Turkey, and how citizens heard a call to action in their timelines:

 Yet Turkey is an increasingly wired country. You can hardly find a young person without a cell phone in Istanbul, and more and more of those are smart phones that connect to the Internet. So when a few dozen protesters tried to stop the bulldozers uprooting the trees in Gezi, and were pushed back with pepper spray, and had their tents burned, people learned about it from social media, not television. Twitter isn’t a traditional broadcast company; there’s no editor-in-chief who can be bought or pressured. So when the hundreds more protesters showed up, and were met with police, tear gas, and water cannons, people learned about it again on social media. Soon the protest was an order of magnitude larger. There were tens of thousands of protesters, in the center of the most central square in Turkey’s biggest city, fighting with the police.

This is very different, in my view, from war coverage. The central squares and historic downtowns ordered from central casting for stand-offs against police and military, signify the relatively small scale battle over a small piece of symbolic turf. It is very different from ongoing conflicts with their shifting lines and alliances, their larger ordnance and mass destruction. Those images are familiar in a different way, to my eye. They horrify, but they don’t necessarily empower – or encourage action. But we can instinctively understand the smaller scale conflict against a familiar backdrop in the same way we can grasp what happened at the Boston Massacre or even Lexington and Concord versus how Washington conducted the siege at Yorktown. And the visuals – really the currency of social media – have that quality of being instantly understood.

This is not a digital age phenomenon. The American civil rights movement, for example, deeply understood the connection between familiar backdrops and confrontation – the Edmund Pettis Bridge, West Park in downtown Birmingham, the doors to the University of Mississippi. What’s different is speed (no wait for the 11 pm news) and the ability of everyone to share those images, along with comments and outrage. Further, that ability to share can also unite people. Writes Tufekci: “Facebook ‘likes’ are often ridiculed as meaningless, but they can make a person realize that their social network feels the same as they do—and that’s a socially and politically powerful thing.”

So as the images from Kiev flicker through your social media streams – and you feel the urge to condemn, to decry, to share, to comment – pay attention to that feeling of familiarity. It’s not deja vu – you really have seen this before, and not that long ago. And it’s my guess you’ll see it again.

Source: Forbes Business


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