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In Ukraine, Covering The Election, One Tweet At A Time


Candidates, such as Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko (above), are increasingly using new media and social networking sites to spread their messages.
Candidates, such as Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko (above), are increasingly using new media and social networking sites to spread their messages.
KYIV -- I just gave a lesson in how to correctly recount the ballots. : ))

That was a tweet posted by Neman44 -- a.k.a. Oleksiy Brituk, a 37-year-old activist and Twitter enthusiast -- early on January 18, following the close of polls and the start of the vote count in Ukraine's presidential election.

Brituk, who lives and works in the eastern city of Lugansk, near the Russian border, is a member of Ukraine's 106th regional election committee, whose function following the January 17 vote was to receive and transmit information from local polls to central election officials.

Brituk this year took a new-media approach to the often low-tech world of ballot counting. Using his mobile phone, he kept the outside world apprised of the 106th committee vote tally by posting regular tweets, such as this:

We've gone through 76 percent [of the ballots]: 66.66% Yanukovych, 16 % Tihipko, 7% Yulia.

Brituk was one of approximately 100 citizen journalists participating in Elect UA, a project in which hundreds of citizen journalists were invited to use the Twitter social networking site to keep Ukrainians up-to-date on the latest developments during the voting and the ballot counts that followed. ("ua" is the Ukrainian web domain suffix.)

Opposition leader Viktor Yanukovych and Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko are set to face off in the election's second round on February 7.

Oleksiy Brituk
Supporters of the Elect UA project call it a step towards transparency. But skeptics say Ukraine still has a way to go before new technology becomes the norm, rather than the exception

As for Brituk, he sees the social networking tool as a key step forward in Ukraine's democratic evolution.

"During the 2004 [presidential] elections, there were some efforts made to democratize the media, as they were biased. But the efforts were unsuccessful," he says. "As far as I understand the philosophy of Twitter, eyewitnesses are now encouraged to report about what they do or see on the [Twitter] site. This way, everyone can access the news in real time."

Brituk has also turned to new media to support the work of an archaelogical NGO he heads in Lugansk, using a blogging campaign to save two World War I-era British-built tanks from demolition.

Pendulum Is Swinging

He says this year's campaign differed from the 2004 race because the candidates were more adept at using new technologies to promote themselves and their positions. (Many of them have Twitter feeds and Facebook fan pages.) But average citizens, he adds, were also ready to use new media for their own benefit.

"The most [technologically] advanced sector of society, and young people overall, received more up-to-date and more interesting, diversified information," Brituk says. "I'm talking about both classical websites and blogs, including Twitter. I think the pendulum has already begun to swing in favor of new media."

Vitaliy Moroz
Vitaliy Moroz (known as @insider_ua on Twitter) heads the new media division at the Ukrainian branch of the international media-promotion organization Internews, which spearheaded the Elect UA project, also known as the All-Ukrainian Twitter Broadcasting of Election 2010. (All tweets contained the term #Elect_UA, which allowed for easy searching.)

Moroz says the project's aim was to help every stage of the election appear as transparent as possible, and to provide additional sources of information for journalists and ballot committees.

The January 17 vote was given a clean bill of health by international monitors as almost violation-free. Moroz, too, says he is pleased with the results.

"The Twitter social network has proved to be one of the most efficient way of conveying information. There are about 100,000 tweets on our specialized website. The #elect_ua 'tag' is in first place in the top 100 tags."

Twitter Firsts

Just how many people were tracking the election tweets is hard to gauge, however. The Ukrainian branch of the Russian search engine Yandex estimates there are about 17,000 Twitter users in Ukraine. But Moroz says the ultimate number of people benefitting from the Elect UA project is far greater, as the Twitter posts quickly trickled down to the wider Internet and even into mainstream media.

Thanks to the Twitter project, Moroz says he was among the first Internet users to see video evidence of attempts to bribe soldiers at polling stations, as well as a post about the birth of triplets at a polling station in Odessa.

Moroz says Twitter has proven its worth as the quickest way to convey news to a wide audience, and points to the critical role the social networking tool played in the massive street protests that followed Iran's elections last year.

"A certain analogy can be drawn with blogging in Iran, but there are some fundamental differences," Moroz says. "In Iran, Twitter was used after the elections to mobilize people. But in Ukraine, it was used for elections coverage, as the most rapid source of information."

Meant Little To Many

But Elect UA has its skeptics. Natalia Ligacheva, the editor in chief of "Telekritika" media watchdog magazine, says the election tweets may have been a bonus for plugged-in professionals but meant little to ordinary citizens.

Ligacheva acknowledges projects like Elect UA may help enhance election transparency -- to some extent. But at the same time, she thinks that Internet technology still remains secondary to more traditional media.

Natalia Ligachova
"Television remains the main medium for political propaganda. And you can see that it's this media that proves decisive in the end," Ligacheva says. "Sergei Tihipko's campaign proves it. It lasted six months, and his main strategy was getting himself [traditional] media coverage. We don't know his team; he doesn't have the usual political forces around him. But he came in third place. I think that's due to his competent use of traditional media and outdoor advertising."

Ligacheva admits that new media has proved a powerful tool in other countries elections -- most notably in the U.S. 2008 presidential race, when then-candidate Barack Obama was credited with running the most Internet-savvy campaign the country had ever seen.

Ukrainian politics may someday reach a similar level of sophistication, she says. For now, however, Ligacheva suggests Ukrainian politics have a long way to go before Internet technology becomes a tool of civil communication rather than a negative attack tool.

"It was via the Internet that the American President Barack Obama communicated with a great number of U.S. citizens to explain his ideas and messages," Ligacheva says. "Unfortunately, in Ukraine, the Internet was used with another aim -- as a tool against political opponents. And despite a declaration about having blogs, not a single politician posted anything themselves."