On the 1st of March, Russia’s Federation Council unanimously approved president Putin’s request to use military force against Ukraine. This started a chain of events, which could arguably lead to large-scale war.
Many news articles have been written about the crucial role that social networks had in shaping the Ukrainian-led revolt during last year’s Euromaidan protests, which eventually forced the former Ukrainian president to resign and flee to Russia.
In addition, Bloomberg Businessweek published an interesting article showing how there were also instances in which pro-Russian supporters (and the Russian secret service!) used social media to spy on participants attending protests.
However, no publication was able to measure and quantify the increase in social activity in the region. So, using SimilarWeb PRO, I looked into the social statistics for the main social networks during this period of upheaval to better understand the role that social media plays when conflict strikes. Being Ukrainian myself, I have a special interest in the course of events and there’s a significant amount of controversy and debate on how, why and if social networks are effective in shaping political conflicts – hopefully I will be able to shed some light on the subject!
Overall social media traffic
The three leading social networks in Russia and Ukraine are Vk.com, Odnoklassniki.ru and Facebook.
All of them showed a significant spike in site visits since tensions between Russia and Ukraine started to gain momentum. The tipping point was the 1st of March, which is when the Crimea peninsula was invaded by the Russian military forces – the graph below shows a comparison of the site visits to the three social networks over the past six month. To look at it from a different angle, if we compare the amount of visits these three sites received between February and March, SimilarWeb shows an uplift of 59,8% in Ukraine and 55% in Russia. The leap in Russia from 1.3 billion monthly visits to 2 billion monthly visits for the aggregation of the 3 social networks is unprecedented.
Vk.com remains the leading social player in the region, and experienced a monthly uplift of 55% in Ukraine and 58% in Russia. When combined, Vk accounted for over 1.5 billion visits – more than half of all the social traffic in these countries if we take these three platforms as ‘the industry’.
The second most popular social platform in the region is Odnoklassniki, which experienced a month on month growth of 60% in Ukraine and 50% in Russia following the conflict. Despite not being as big as Vk, Odnoklassniki received more than 800 million visits in March alone, making it Facebook’s closest competitor.
Is this Facebook’s chance to enter the region?
Facebook has tried hard to penetrate the complex Russian market and extend its presence in other countries in the region. Mark Zuckerberg even visited Moscow in 2012, to meet with Prime Minister Medvedev and discuss the possibility of building a Facebook research center in Russia.
It’s somehow ironic that, two years later, the prospect of a potential war is helping Facebook achieve its long-standing aspiration.
Facebook traffic in Russia:
- Month on month growth: 60% uplift of monthly visits from 139m to 210m
- Spike on 1st of March: 40% rise from 4.8m to 6.7m daily visits.
Facebook traffic in Ukraine:
- Month on month growth: 75% uplift of monthly visits from 73.5M to 129M
- Spike on 1st of March: 51% rise in visits from 2.8m to 4.2m daily visits.
Can social media help democracy?
The data clearly shows the direct link between the increase in social media use and the conflict, making it interesting to see how the internet and social networks, in particular, are a barometer of society’s state of mind. Whether people use these networks to stay up to date with the news, predict and prepare for an uncertain future or share their opinion in a safe and uncensored forum, it is fascinating to see the ability of these software platforms to unite people and make the world more open and connected.
While the impact of an individual is limited, and there is a lot of debate on whether people should take to the streets to protest rather than ‘hide’ behind a computer screen, it’s impossible to ignore or take lightly the level of noise that this critical mass of citizens is making – more often than not, advocating for peace by sharing their stories and insights alike.