- By Hanna KozlowskaHanna Kozlowska is a fellow at Foreign Policy. She previously worked as a fixer, researcher and freelance contributor for the New York Times in Poland, and as the associate editor for Poland Today, an English-language magazine. Her work has also appeared in the Huffington Post and several Polish publications. She graduated from Swarthmore College where she was coeditor in chief of The Daily Gazette.
From Kiev to Istanbul, Brasilia to Cairo, it’s become a natural corollary of any modern protest movement: The battle isn’t just won on the streets, but also in cyberspace.
In the case of the anti-government protests that have roiled Ukraine, the Twitter hashtag "#EuroMaidan" — a portmanteau of the protesters’ object of affection, Europe, and the square in which they have set up camp, Maidan — has become a ubiquitous feature of the online conversation about the movement.
This week, another hashtag joined its ranks. After taking off Monday and trending worldwide, the hashtag "#DigitalMaidan" has become something of a constant presence in Twitter posts about Ukraine’s protests. The hashtag stayed popular throughout the week, and the Twitter users who have adopted it have taken on a strident, anti-government tone.
— Alexandra Nirschl (@fun_lesya) January 30, 2014
— Sasha Rents (@FuerieX) January 30, 2014
— Elizabeth Bandura (@LizaBandura) January 30, 2014
But where did this hashtag, which over the course of the week has reached several million people, come from? Not Kiev, it turns out. Rather, this online campaign has its roots in New York.
Andrea Chalupa is a Brooklyn-based journalist of Ukrainian descent, and after seeing the the violent footage pouring out of Kiev, she was so distraught by the situation that she couldn’t think of anything else. "I was crying and crying, I didn’t want to go to work, I didn’t want to see my friends," she told Foreign Policy.
Following the events on Twitter, she re-tweeted information coming out of Kiev from journalists on the ground. Soon after, strangers began harassing her on the social platform, calling the protesters "terrorists," saying that they were paid by the United States, and arguing that the anti-government upheaval was an American conspiracy. "I took it upon myself to educate them," she told FP.
And that’s how #DigitalMaidan was born. Along with a friend who runs a digital marketing agency in New York, she launched Digitalmaidan.com. The site can make any Twitter user an instant Maidan activist. The tweets at the top of this post weren’t just inspired by Chalupa’s website. She wrote them with her friend. Twitter users merely take her pre-written tweets, plug them into their browser, and hit send. Suddenly, you’re part of an online army.
The movement began to take off last weekend, when Chalupa invited her friends to join a "Twitter storm." By flooding Twitter with tweets containing the hashtag, she hoped to make #DigitalMaidan trend around the world, placing her message in the browser of nearly all of Twitter’s 200 million users. Chalupa and her co-founder then invited 99 of her friends to a Facebook event promoting the initiative on Friday last week — and before the storm was to take place on Monday, that number had grown to 30,000.
Its reach far exceeded Chalupa’s expectations. #DigitalMaidan trended worldwide in just few minutes during the hour-long event Monday. Another "storm" took place on Thursday, Jan. 30. "If [the demonstrators] can protest in freezing temperatures, risk being tortured by the police or killed, then we in the diaspora need to do all we can to jolt the West into action," Chalupa wrote FP in an email.
Here’s what a manufactured Twitter storm looks like. Welcome to activism in the digital era.