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02.10.1411:26 AM ET

When Social Media is Your Only Hope

A Ukrainian-American protester on how technology is fueling the movement around the world.

When was the last time you heard of someone being crucified? Literally crucified. That is what happened at the end of January to Dmytro Bulatov, 35, a pro-democracy activist in Ukraine who says he was kidnapped by government forces, tortured, and left to die. The news from Ukraine is not all grim: there has been a wedding proposal at the Kiev barricades, which, despite arctic temperatures, attract artists, folk musicians, a “masked piano” player; there's even a catapult with its own Twitter account—all demanding closer ties with the European Union, an end to widespread government corruption, and that the current president step down.
The protests are aimed at Viktor Yanukovych, the president of Ukraine, who was elected democratically, but since taking office he has consolidated power with regular changes to the constitution. In January, he illegally passed sweeping anti-democracy laws, which have yet to be completely repealed. In January, he illegally passed sweeping anti-democracy laws, which have yet to be completely repealed. Government forces have kidnapped seriously injured protesters from hospitals. The list of the disappeared keeps growing , echoing the Soviet purges.

Thousands of Ukrainians all over the world have joined the battle. On Jan. 27, they united on Twitter to share messages about their fight for democracy. Within minutes, they made Ukraine the No. 1 trending topic on Twitter worldwide, beating out the Grammys and Justin Bieber. Using the hashtag #digitalmaidan as a rallying cry, they continue to organize“flashmobs” on Twitter. The movement has received Tweets of support from the Prime Minister of France, Russell Brand, Gary Kasparov, among others.
DigitalMaidan is an organic, leaderless movement that includes people in Argentina, Algeria, Dubai, Norway, and Japan. Like the protesters freezing on the streets of Kiev, and marching in Odessa and elsewhere, they are unpaid. Their persistence is baffling Ukraine's dictatorship-style government and its ally, Russia. After he was found alive, Bulatov reported that his torturers, speaking in Russian accents, interrogated him, demanding to know who is paying Ukrainians to protest. The repressive governments of Ukraine and Russia refuse to believe that Ukrainians simply want to live in a democratic society.
The Kremlin's high-powered propaganda machine are why DigitalMaidan is so important. With its deep pockets, the Kremlin has employed the PR firmKetchum to place op-eds on its behalf. The Ukrainian government funnels its money through the Orwellian-named European Centre for a Modern Ukraine that pays for powerhouse lobbying firms in Washington the Podesta Group andMercury/Clark & Weinstock. Meanwhile, “useful idiots”—to use a term long attributed to Vladimir Lenin—spread misinformation about Ukraine in Western media. Stephen Cohen recently argued on Democracy Now, using one of the Kremlin's favorite framing devices, that the protesters in Ukraine are anti-Semitic. Seumas Milne, the Paris Hilton of British media, spouted off the same argument in a recent column.
Jewish-Ukrainian historian Vitaliy Nakhmanovich last week published an open letter to the international Jewish community debunking this cynical tactic. As Josef Zissels, the vice president of the World Jewish Congress, pointed out, the website of Ukraine's special police force—the Berkut—has been flooded with materials “proving” that the pro-democracy demonstrations are a Jewish conspiracy. Gays aren’t left out either. Government forces are also alleging that if the Jewish pro-democracy activists win, Ukraine will be forced to legalize same-sex marriage.
With a reach of 3.6 million people and counting, DigitalMaidan will continue to raise awareness of the human rights crisis in Ukraine until democracy is restored. To quote one of the thousands of Tweets posted by Ukrainians: What would you do if this were happening in your country?
Andrea Chalupa is a journalist and the author of Orwell and The Refugees: The Untold Story of Animal Farm. She is a co-founder of DigitalMaidan.