I've been avidly reading all the mainstream media about the war between Russia and Georgia, like many in and out of this field of Eurasian studies, and of course reading alternative sites like Open Democracy and various blogs and lists, like Johnson's list, which has tilted pro-Russian as it often does. These are all standard Internet Web 1.0 tools for understanding the situation officially, or unofficially but within a kind of framework, along with your Skype and your private email where you can hope to write friends in both countries to try to round out the picture.
But this war is different in that it has richly played out on Web 2.0 tools as well, in ways that the mainstream media hasn't even noticed. I got my first pictures from the war outside the standard AP issue by seeing in Tweetscan that someone had Twittered about navoine.ru -- a harrowing photo essay that shows the raw ugliness of war -- burnt people, in jumbles of flesh and bone... Of course, the war began in cyberspace, and Georgia's government made use of Google blogging when temporarily disabled, and the war continues there (cyberspace is the continuation of war by other means, as Lawrence Weschler once said, "war was the continuation of TV by other means" in the Balkans. For the first time, you could hear an American General give a briefing in which he talked seriously about hacking of websites as a matter of international security, and how the U.S. became involved in hosting Georgian government sites temporarily.
I was actually surprised to log on in Second Life at the Memory Bazaar and find two posts on the bulletin board there saying RUSSIA OUT OF GEORGIA! and then of course the trolling maria30 klaar writing AND U.S. OUT TOO! I saw some discussions in Second Life, including one scheduled for 6:00 am SLT tomorrow by a European fearing to lose Internet service. I expected -- and got -- the belligerent Russian commentary which Evegency Morozov has effectively written about as the outsourcing of hate.
But nothing prepared me for this: a Facebook group I myself joined casually the other day thinking it would never have more than a few hundreds members that has grown to a whopping 16,650 people, called Stop the Russian aggression against Georgia. The group gained 3,615 More Members since I logged on yesterday, is showing 13 videos, has 67 Board Topics, and 2,276 Wall comments -- of course many pro and con. Five demonstrations are already being organized, in Washington, London, the Hague, and Tbilisi. Well, imagine all of this! Just imagine! Of course, as I've written before, we are not really 69 million of anything, and the 16,650 people, while impressive, and even if 1 percent go to demonstrations and write congressmen, often don't have any real social weight. And yet...and yet...
People are YouTubing, and complaining on Twitter that YouTube is taking out anti-Georgian comments. A Fox news clip showing a 12-year-old girl talking about Russia as the aggressor has to date 367,384 views.
If you have ever worked in social movements, even big ones, even ones that have demonstrations that can turn out 100,000 people at times, you know that you just never see these types of numbers form so instantaneously -- 16,000. But then...they face 367,000 viewers, many of whom will post the most outrageously hostile comments, and get a further viral life on sites like FriendFeed, where many "liked" what they felt was a man-bite-dog story on Fox, trying to portray Fox as "censoring" the "truth" as articulated by two obviously biased Southern Ossetians. The wars in cyberspace cancel each other out, and nobody really reaches any clarity.
But what do they add up to? Perhaps nothing more changed than a mindset. Perhaps nothing more than the levering open of a space where open discussion can still take place in the face of Russian propaganda, along with Georgian boasting and American self-servicing. The YouTube is a totally one-sided propaganda stunt, fanned by Fox, which seems curious, but they were desperate for an eyewitness I guess. The pro-Georgia forces are simply going to have to work harder at their videos to get those kind of YouTube views, which of course might have been artificially gamed up by Russians.
There's something to the old idea that you can topple dictators with humour, as this wag has found with his "Earth Facebook" where "Georgia is no longer friends with Russia" after Russia sends "gifts" to Georgia in the form of bombs.
Other social networks like Ning had only a few members discussing Georgia. I am waiting to see if someone will -- perhaps me! -- will start a Facebook group to boycott the Olympics in Sochi.