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Implications & discussion

Using this framework we arrive at several major implications related to the Internet as an important provider of alternative political information, and effective tool to organize opposition under non–democratic regimes.

Internet penetration rate and organizational considerations

We see that even a low level of Internet penetration is enough for its serious use in the political process. In autumn 2000, the Internet penetration rate in Ukraine was only about one to two percent, but it grew very fast as soon as people realized its importance in getting information unavailable otherwise; see row #1 in the Appendix. Today, an overwhelming majority of countries have rates of Internet penetration much higher than these levels [60]. This positions the Internet as a powerful political tool with serious global potential to organize people and to supply them with alternative information.

In the case of Ukraine we observed that, due to the two–step nature of the information communication process, the provision of alternative information to even a relatively small number of dissenters was apparently sufficient to initiate a network–related effect, when the information spreads exponentially, like an epidemic. We can therefore conclude that the Internet does not need to have a mass penetration rate in order to effectively help in the promotion of a major socio–political change. As we saw in Ukraine, respected people with especially good connections, such as university professors, popular journalists, known political activists, and famous athletes like the heavyweight boxing champions the Klitschko brothers [61], helped to attract public attention to the events of the Orange Revolution. While Ukrainian traditional mass media did not spread opposition–supporting information, the appearance of these celebrities on the Internet helped spread their views to a wider audience, many of whom could also become supporters of Yushchenko. In turn, we can surmise that the new supporters spread information further and further, similar to the process of information dissemination we observed in the AUR and UKL examples.

Another important finding was the necessity of locating the oppositional Web sites beyond the reach of the repressive authorities by hosting them on servers located in strong democratic countries. Moreover, in order to protect them relatively robustly from the cyberattacks initiated by authoritarian regimes, the servers should be situated in countries with relatively strong technical defenses and a highly ramified Internet network, such as the United States (see also in Table 1 the respective sub–function of the technical support function). Additional strength is achievable by the creation of several mirror sites situated at different servers in physically different parts of the Internet. It is also essential that the national Internet domain name registrars remain free from control by the non–democratic authorities to prevent the authorities from suspending registration of the oppositional Internet resources and thus switching them off.

The Internet as an alternative information channel

Our study provides evidence to support Internet–based media as major alternative sources of information free from the authorities’ total control over most traditional mass media (TV, radio, major printed media; see also row 7 in the Appendix). In particular, the opposition effectively used the informational power of the Internet to bypass the government’s media censorship, and provide people with more objective information (see also in Table 1 the respective sub–functions of the informational function). The Internet also provided an effective oppositional two–way communication channel: during the Orange Revolution Internet–based mass media could both reach and reflect perspectives under–represented in traditional Ukrainian information outlets (see row 10 in the Appendix). This created an important informal information feedback network: the opposition was able to use suggestions and evidence from numerous laypeople all around the country to constantly improve its campaign during the very long three–round election period. In contrast, the authorities had very limited feedback on their campaign, primarily from the secret services who proved to be ineffective during the Revolution, and from sociological consultants, which were often biased or unprofessional.

The Internet helped change the situation during the Revolution in favor of the opposition, both by effectively disseminating oppositional information and by gathering important informational feedback (see also in Table 1 the respective sub–function of the organizational (coordination) function). Mobile technology continues to develop as new models of Internet–enabled hand–held devices equipped with large, color, high–definition screens and still or video cameras become more widely available. As a result, the potential of Internet–based technology to supply dispersed individuals and groups with alternative information and to gather feedback from them only grows. The latest example of this potential took place in June 2009, when, despite strong restrictions on alternative mass media in Iran, the world received reports from citizen journalists armed with video–enabled cell phones: they recorded what was going on in the streets and uploaded their reports to YouTube and, or used Twitter to share short, multi–part text messages with the world (Bright, 2009; Labott, 2009; Weir, 2009).

Of particular importance during electoral revolutions in non–democratic countries is the use of the Internet to provide alternative election–related information (see rows 2, 3, 10, and 12 in the Appendix). During the Orange Revolution, the Internet effectively and efficiently disseminated exit poll results, particularly given the rapidly changing political situation around the time of the second vote. This proved to be decisive — when the authorities announced Yanukovych’s victory despite the fact that all independent exit poll results, as posted on oppositional Web sites, indicated a decisive victory for Yuschenko, the Ukrainian people felt indignation and immediately started mass protests. A similar situation occurred in Iran in June 2009. Given the nature of the repressive regime, it was also important that the Internet provided some (albeit limited) anonymity for both authors and readers of Internet publications, thus restricting government access to their identities. While about 300 Pora activists were detained by the authorities shortly before the first round of the Ukrainian presidential elections of 2004 (Bandera, 2006), this anonymity ensured that the majority of Pora’s informal leaders were not affected by the repression. This allowed the whole civic campaign to continue its successful political struggle. The horizontal network structure of Pora, as well as its mirrored Yellow and Black “versions”, added robustness to the organization (see also row 3 in the Appendix).

Also important during the Orange Revolution was the use of the Internet to broadcast oppositional radio (Prytula, 2006) and TV. The Internet was used to overcome government–imposed limitations on their broadcasts’ geographical reach, and thus to provide important alternative information to a wider range of people. This was especially effective in reaching a foreign audience in developed countries, which already had widespread and affordable broadband Internet access and was able to watch the Orange Revolution live 24/7 on Channel 5’s Web site. The importance of Internet–based TV and radio broadcasts is now constantly growing in less technically developed countries, with more and more people having unlimited broadband Internet access at affordable prices.

Finally, the cost of Internet broadcasts compare favorably to the costs of broadcasting with traditional mass media. Internet–based information outlets are relatively low–cost, because the costs of a suitable computer or the rent of a secure remote server and a dedicated broadband Internet channel are much less than the costs of radio or television broadcast equipment or the costs of printing equipment and supplies. Thus the Ukrainian opposition was able to supply its supporters with the same number of information units at a much lower cost than the authorities, and so was much more cost–effective. There is an additional major cost reduction associated with the use of Internet and related technologies: an Internet–connected computer network minimizes the costs of storing and distributing huge amounts of information, with archive spaces capable of storing instantly accessible and easily searchable textual, video and audio materials. In our research, we were the beneficiaries of this as we were able to instantly access the Maidan site’s huge online archive and Channel 5’s online video archive.

Use of the Internet in combination with traditional informational means

But since Internet penetration was rather low in Ukraine, especially outside the capital and other major cities, the role of print material in spreading oppositional ideas was still highly important. Fortunately, since the mid–1990s Ukraine had an unusually highly developed publishing and printing industry. This was particularly notable given the collapse of other major industries in Ukraine after the fall of the Soviet Union. When the end of the Cold War rendered industries connected with the military–industrial complex unnecessary, the publishing and printing industries received many highly skilled and quick–learning engineers, designers and IT specialists from the collapsing military–related ones. All they needed were short re–training courses.

By 2004, the Ukrainian publishing and printing industry was eager for new orders, while offering its services at very attractive prices. Moreover, many owners of publishing and printing businesses were supporters of the opposition, willing to ensure the fulfillment of oppositional orders under a condition of secrecy. As a result, the opposition was able to use the Internet to spread print–ready campaign materials through the whole country, including major cities like Kharkiv, Donetsk, Lviv, and others with substantial printing resources for further distribution of materials on the streets in adjacent regions (see also in Table 1 the respective sub–function of the informational function). Those materials, in turn, promoted the opposition’s Internet resources, providing their URLs along with the main text and accompanying images [62]. As a result, tens of millions of copies of oppositional materials prepared using the Internet were distributed literally door–to–door by tens of thousands of Pora and other activists throughout the whole of Ukraine, thus playing an important role in organizing and mobilizing people for the protests and in promoting oppositional Internet resources. Here we see a synergistic, mutually supportive relationship between traditional and Internet–based publishing.

Humor as a political weapon online

The creation and spread of political humor via Internet and related information technologies is another phenomenon that probably played a significant role in the victory of the Orange Revolution (see row 4 in the Appendix). Young people, with their creative and highly skillful use of the Internet, played an important role in that process; they quickly transformed a difficult political struggle into attractive infotainment. Despite the efforts of the authorities to block access to the anti–Yanukovych humor Web sites, the opposition was able to use the speed and robustness of the Internet as a communicative channel to effectively destroy the government candidate’s political image (see also in Table 1 the respective sub–function of the informational function).

Humor and satire can be considered as playing a similar role in the overthrow of a non–democratic regime in the downfall of the U.S.S.R. In a talk at Radio Liberty (RFE/RE, 2009), noted Russian political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin and popular satirist and writer Victor Shenderovich concluded that after the Soviet people dismissed their fears and began openly deriding the regime in the 1980s, it was doomed to fail in short order. Moreover, in present–day non–democratic and (semi–)authoritarian Russia the first sign of political resistance comes in the form of people starting to laugh:

Oreshkin: … Resistance of the middle class is already starting.

Shenderovich: In which forms it is manifesting?

Oreshkin: First of all, [they] are starting to laugh. At those elections they laugh. They have not laughed for a long time.

Shenderovich: … Yes, this is the indicator. …

Oreshkin: Yes, this is the way it [(resistance)] starts — and then gradually spreads.”

Oreshkin also believes that this laughter is an indicator that in contemporary Russia the processes of resistance will start much earlier than they did in the U.S.S.R.: “It seems to me that the level of [latent] resistance in the contemporary [Russian] society is already much higher and much closer to the beginning of the [protest] actions than it was in the Soviet times.” (RFE/RL, 2009) As we see from our research, Internet–based ICTs can help to promote the spreading of anti–authority political humor and so contribute to the ignition of active cyberprotest, defined by Fuchs (2008) as a highly interrelated combination of online and off–line political activity.

Youth and cyberprotest

The opposition skillfully used the important resource of young people, with their natural inclination towards progressive change, freedom and fairness; their high levels of competence with the Internet and related technologies; and, their energy and enthusiasm. This was a generation that already had no physical fear of the authorities because it hardly remembered the times of the Soviet Union, when opposition was cruelly and violently suppressed. Particularly significant was the younger generation’s use of Internet tools; thus, with the arrival of the digital native generation, the role of the Internet in political processes can be increasing.

Iran, where about 70 percent of the population is less than 30 years old, provides another example of this phenomenon (T. Friedman, 2009). One of the young Iranian protesters explained why the repressive authorities could not prevent the use of Internet–based mobilization tools, particularly Twitter: “Twitter is the only method of communication they haven’t found a way to mess with. They don’t understand, but average folks are very technologically competent. Most of the people protesting are in their twenties. It was a big miscalculation on the government’s part.” (Ben–David and Geizhals, 2009) Since a large percentage of the population of many (semi–)authoritarian countries (like Iran) is young, the Internet–based tools facilitating political protest can have even higher potential in those countries.

Mobilization of international support

In the Ukrainian case the global nature of the Internet was effectively used by the opposition to provide information worldwide (e.g., alternative exit poll results were immediately sent through the Internet to major international news services) and so to mobilize a wider international audience for support. Unlike the case of Ukraine’s Orange Revolution, the Iranian protestors did not rouse the wider international circles to action. There are several potential explanations for this phenomenon; among them: different global political and economic situations in 2009 versus 2004, relatively fast suppression of the protests by the Iranian authorities [63], and the relative weakness of the Iranian diaspora worldwide.

English–language Web sites and blogs created by both local and expatriate Ukrainians also played an important role in disseminating information about the Orange Revolution to an international audience — as well as the English–language news digests like AUR and UKL (see row 11 in the Appendix). Several relevant features (see also Bandera, 2006) made them convenient Internet–based information dissemination tools: form, content, language, feedback possibility, immediacy, and readiness for re–distribution. The e–mail subscription list form enabled them to be widely promoted to a potentially interested audience via peer–to–peer information sharing and by active promotion on popular political Web sites. The content was constantly targeted at the main events related to the Revolution. Their use of English, the de facto international language, enabled the involvement and awareness of much of the influential world community. Feedback from readers was another important feature, thus maintaining a two–way communication channel. Events were publicized immediately, providing instant full coverage. Finally, the text–only presentation facilitated its spread by simple copying and forwarding. Due to these features, such digests could effectively involve people worldwide in the events occurring in Ukraine.

Such e–mail–based publications, as well as more sophisticated Internet resources like the oppositional Web sites, apparently also played important roles in soliciting financial support for the opposition (see also in Table 1 the financial support function). Ukrainians who lived in Ukraine were relatively poor, on average having ten times lower salaries than members of the Ukrainian diaspora in the West. Therefore, ads requesting financial support primarily targeted the diaspora. In some cases, these ads were even promoted on the Web sites of leading Western information and news providers. Another reason to target financial support inquiries mostly to the West was the underdeveloped system of Internet payments, money transfers, and credit cards available in Ukraine at that time. In addition, it was not safe for the representatives of the opposition in Ukraine to provide open financial support through Ukrainian banks, which were for the most part either state–owned or controlled by the same government–affiliated oligarchs who controlled Ukrainian traditional mass media. It looks that ultimately, the system of funding the Ukrainian opposition through Internet donations, mostly from the Ukrainian diaspora, and of accumulating the funds in politically neutral, reliable, and usually Western banks proved to be effective.

Information wars online

Information wars were actively conducted around the time of the Orange Revolution (see row 9 in the Appendix). Apparently, the main opposing forces in those events understood well the importance of shaping the minds of people by powerful messages in various kinds of media: “what does not exist in the media does not exist in the public mind.” [64] Therefore, the pro–Yanukovych forces, including Russia with its strong technical and organizational capabilities, tried to use every opportunity to impose their worldview on the Ukrainian people. In particular, the main Russian TV and radio channels, as well as its main printed information sources, were widespread in Ukraine. During the Ukrainian elections, Russian and Ukrainian authorities tried to use the Internet to wage informational war against Viktor Yushchenko and the pro–Yushchenko forces. The Internet was also purposefully used by Russian political technologists to barefacedly circumvent the official Ukrainian publication ban on sociological data on the election day and its eve.

When Yushchenko was poisoned with dioxin, even one well–respected Western information agency was apparently purposefully manipulated to spread information, later proven false, about the reasons for his illness (Bandera, 2006). While the agency quickly retracted that information, the misinformation was readily carried on by Russian and pro–governmental Ukrainian mass media, including Internet–based media outlets. These media sources cited each other in chains to create the illusion of credibility and the illusion that multiple independent sources were reporting it. When Russia–based news search engines like Yandex, which mostly index Russian–language Internet resources, indexed these sources, they added to the inaccurate perception of credibility. These search engines could be under the influence of the Russian authorities. For example, in September 2009, Yandex “voluntarily” gave its golden share to the leading Russian state–owned bank, Sberbank, and the very next month certain rumors appeared that the Yandex search results were “readjusted, cleaned out, and tuned up” in favor of certain views on topics sensitive for the authorities (Bychkova and Osetinskaia, 2009). Taking into account the high popularity of both Russian–language search engines and Russian mass media of various forms in both Ukraine and other former Soviet republics, it is difficult to overestimate the potential danger of such informational special operations in former Soviet republics that are of interest to Russia.

During the Orange Revolution, the Ukrainian opposition was able to restore the information field by generating a fast and massive counter–response through its Internet–based information outlets (see also row 5 in the Appendix). They were aided in this endeavor by their supporters’ general mistrust of Russian mass media. English–language Internet–based independent resources on Ukraine, such as the previously mentioned news digests, apparently also played an important role in counteracting the Russia–instigated information war on the opposition (see row 11 in the Appendix). Thus, the opposition was able to use mostly Internet–based oppositional informational resources to skillfully and successfully level the information field against the massive information intrusion of the powerful foreign state, which had all kinds and forms of both traditional and new media at its disposal.

The Internet as an effective communicational and organizational channel for opposition

During the Orange Revolution the Internet was also actively and successfully used to coordinate major oppositional campaign activities. Combined with cell phone technology (see row 12 in the Appendix), it allowed activists dispersed across Ukraine to communicate in real–time having either Internet or cell phone access (see also in Table 1 the respective sub–function of the organizational (coordination) function). Apparently, this allowed Pora and Maidan campaigners to keep in constant touch and to coordinate actions (see row 3 in the Appendix) — a huge strategic advantage over the generally slow–to–react pro–governmental forces. The Internet also provided dissenters with limited anonymity and the ability to restrict governmental access to their operative discussions — as in the previously mentioned case of Black Pora, which used an overseas–based secure server with coded password access to secretly communicate and coordinate its actions (see also in Table 1 the respective sub–function of the technical support function). The reliance of the Iranian opposition on Twitter during the protests in June 2009 probably created a problem, as the Iranian authorities could easily follow the open information channel’s Twitter reports which provided detailed descriptions of the protest events in the streets. In this situation, the Iranian opposition might have been better served by utilizing more secretive technologies, as excessive information openness can sometimes play a negative role in events which naturally require some secrecy. It seems that in Ukraine, the secret services were too ill–prepared to effectively intercept oppositional communication over the ICT–enabled networks; in Iran, the situation was, apparently, different.

Internet–based systems for the monitoring of elections under non–democratic regimes

Internet–based election monitoring systems can also be useful in electoral revolutions to prevent falsification of the election results. In the Orange Revolution we saw (row 2 in the Appendix) how the Internet could be combined with other information and communication tools, like databases, cell phones, and call centers, to create an election monitoring structure. Such an online system, which could gather voting complaints, streamline their processing, and later help in filing litigation, could prove very effective for monitoring and contesting elections in non–democratic countries (see also in Table 1 the monitoring function). Such a system might have proven itself useful in situations such as the April 2009 elections in Moldova and the June 2009 elections in Iran. The Internet’s ability to widely and immediately disseminate independent exit polls results, including those that contradict the official election results, can be considered as another crucial factor in the ignition of mass protests.

Authorities’ attitudes and use of the Internet

The Ukrainian opposition during the Orange Revolution was greatly aided by the authorities’ underestimation of the informational and organizational potential of the Internet. It seems that the authorities’ attitude towards the Internet was mostly passive and defensive (see row 8 in the Appendix) due to their reliance on their near–complete control of the traditional mass media, which they considered much more powerful than Internet–based media. They did not take any legal actions to restrict Internet access, as Ukraine never had Internet–related laws which could be used as a base for such actions. Apparently, by the time the government realized the real political potential of the Internet, it was already too late — it did not possess the necessary legal, technical or human resources to conduct any serious and effective anti–oppositional actions on the Internet. While the Ukrainian government, in apparent coordination with Russian forces, attempted covert Internet actions such as using hacker attacks, blocking access to oppositional Internet resources, or sending virus–containing e–mail mesages targeting dissenters’ computers (Bandera, 2006), these had only very limited and short–term success. These examples demonstrate that the dissenters used Internet–based ICTs, often in combination with cell phones, more skillfully than their opponents.

However, this does not mean that Russian and other oppressive authorities do not currently possess serious potential for Internet intrusion. Russia has evidently learned some lessons from the Orange Revolution (row 6 in the Appendix) as it apparently was able to conduct a rather effective cyberwar against Estonia in spring 2007, nearly disabling Estonian Internet communications for several weeks (Bright, 2007). The opposing forces learned their lesson in turn. During the Russian war against Georgia in summer 2008, experience gained from the Estonian situation enabled the Georgians to restore their Internet communications in a matter of days (Thomson, 2008).

In the case of the Orange Revolution, we could observe the only major effect on the election results from the authorities’ Internet involvement — their manipulation and falsification of the official returns using the “transit server.” Probably the best way to eliminate such intrusions in the future is the usage of a completely independent, monitored, isolated and defended detached special communication system to transmit election results.

General findings

We have substantiated that the Orange Revolution was actually a prolonged process which lasted from 2000–2004 and had two active phases — the Kuchmagate crisis and the Orange Revolution of autumn–December 2004. While the Kuchmagate crisis of 2000 to 2001 was eventually unsuccessful for the opposition, it apparently played an important role in the initial formation of the oppositional movement in Ukraine and established the Internet as an authoritative source of alternative information and as a means for the mobilization of the opposition, leading to the eventual success of the Orange Revolution in 2004. Given this pattern, we may consider the relatively unsuccessful electoral revolutions of April 2009 in Moldova and of June 2009 in Iran as the first manifestations of the political power of the Internet in those countries, which may be successful in the near future. Later events in Moldova seem to support this supposition — April’s crisis quickly led to the dissolution of the elected Parliament and to the scheduling of new Parliamentary elections in July 2009, which resulted in the defeat of the communists (Turgut, 2009).

The events in Ukraine, Iran, and Moldova highlight several other findings that, while not major, are still seem significant. We have seen evidence that the Internet ensures robust information and communication channels for the opposition. Due to its architecture, the Internet is highly resistant to malicious efforts to control the information it provides (see Tu, 2000). Thus, the repressive authorities cannot rely on their ability to shut it down or control it for any significant length of time. It seems that the Internet can also provide, at least at the subconscious level, some psychological confidence to dissenters and their supporters — if they believe that it would be difficult for the government to shut down the Internet, their important information and communication medium. Palfrey, et al. (2009) use the recent events in Iran to provide additional contemporary evidence of the difficulty for the authorities to completely shut the Internet down. All of these revolutionary situations confirm the “dictator’s dilemma” [65]:

“Totalitarian societies face a dilemma: either they try to stifle these [information and communication] technologies and thereby fall further behind in the new industrial revolution, or else they permit these technologies and see their totalitarian control inevitably eroded.”