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Digital media in Ukraine conflict: blessing or a curse?

Social media sites are gaining more influence as the crisis continues to unfold in Ukraine. But can they provide reliable information on the situation in the country? DW's Global Media Forum looked for an answer.

"A battle of narratives" was how Ingo Mannteufel, head of DW's department for Europe and Russia, described the

media coverage

of the violent conflict in Ukraine over the last seven months.

Aside from the armed clashes, a different war is underway in the country - one led by various digital media outlets which have been used as a tool by both sides involved in the conflict, said Mannteufel, who moderated a workshop on the topic at the three-day Global Media Forum (GMF) that came to an end in Bonn on Wednesday (02.07.2014).

Oksana Romaniuk, Reporters without Borders, Ukraine

Romaniuk: "Russia is killing its independent journalism"

Internet use increasing in Ukraine

Panelists, who included prominent journalists and media experts, pointed out that social media are playing an increasingly important role in the coverage of events in Ukraine. But they also warned that there are dangers lurking behind this growing influence.

One advantage of social media is that they give Internet users access to a variety of sources, enabling them to choose the information they need, said panelist Oksana Romaniuk, a representative of Reporters Without Borders in Ukraine.

Highlighting their importance during the crisis, Romaniuk pointed out how social networks were used to mobilize people in Kyiv who took to the streets in late November after then-president Viktor Yanukovych abruptly refused to sign an association agreement with Europe.

According to a survey carried out by the International Republican Institute in May, 42 percent of Ukrainians rely on the Internet as a source of information, said Sergii Leshchenko, deputy editor-in-chief of news website Ukrainska Pravda. Only television ranks higher on the list, with 91 percent of those surveyed relying on it for their news and information, he said at the GMF panel.

The other side of the coin

Sergii Leshchenko, Deputy Editor-in-Chief, Ukrainskaya Pravda online

Leshchenko pointed out that 62 percent of Ukrainians use a Russian social media network

Leshchenko also pointed out that 62 percent of Ukrainians using social media are members of Vkontakte, Russia's largest social network. Founder Pavel Durov fled Russia in April claiming that staying in the country wasn't possible after he "publicly refused to cooperate with the authorities," TechCrunch website reported at the time.

Earlier that month, Durov announced on his Vkontakte page that Russian security services had demanded that his company reveal the personal information of users who had organized the groups devoted to the anti-government protests on Maidan square in Kyiv earlier this year.

According to the panel experts, Vkontakte - often called a Russian clone of Facebook - is home to

huge amounts of false information

, including on the situation in Ukraine. Common examples of such misinformation are fake photos, one of which was shown at the GMF workshop and featured a cloud of grey smoke rising above an unidentified city. But what was identified on Vkontakte as a residential area in the town of Slovyansk after it was bombed by the Ukrainian army turned out to be an image of a train crash in the Canadian province of Quebec.

Ivan Yakovina, reporter with Ukrainian Novoe Vremya Magazine

According to Yakovina, Russia had until recently underestimated social media

Ivan Yakovina, a reporter with Ukrainian weekly magazine Novoe Vremya, told the panel that the Russian government had until recently underestimated the importance of social media, only to begin realizing its influence after the conflict broke out in Ukraine. This resulted in the authorities trying to restrict users' activity in the social media, he added.

In late April, the Russian parliament passed a law introducing tighter controls on popular blogs. The new initiative, which targets websites with at least 3,000 daily visits, sets strict requirements on the information published on those sites.

Russia tightening control

The move is part of a broader crackdown on independent media in Russia. In March, Galina Timchenko, the long-time chief editor of the popular independent online publication Lenta.ru, was replaced by a Kremlin-friendly manager. Earlier this year, independent television channel Dozhd was cut by the major cable providers, depriving it of its primary source of financing. The move was largely seen as an attempt to put pressure on the media outlet, which is known for its critical reporting.

"Russia is killing its independent journalism. It killed Lenta.ru, which was the biggest independent online media in Russia, and it's heavily pressing other more or less independent outlets," said Romaniuk of Reporters Without Borders. Russian authorities are building "a real vertical censorship in the country," she added.

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