The information war and the real one have almost become synonymous for a Ukrainian Twitter blogger from Slovyansk, and he is sick of both. While Slovyansk was occupied by the separatist rebels, his account became the go-to source about the troubles in his city and gained hundreds of followers, but it brings him no joy.
It's difficult to gauge the level of support for armed separatism in Eastern Ukraine these days. Data from polls carried out back in early April by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology indicated that 30.3% of Luhansk Region inhabitants mostly or definitely supported joining Russia and that 27.5% of people in Donetsk Region did. Similarly 24.2% of Luhansk Region inhabitants mostly or definitely supported the seizure of administrative buildings, with a figure of 18.1% for Donetsk Region.
Despite this, antipathy to the new government in Kyiv and suspicion of Ukrainian nationalists from the west were relatively high in these regions, local forces were corrupt, and the new central government was weak and preoccupied with the Russian takeover of Crimea. Within two short months, large swathes of Donetsk and Luhansk were under the control of armed men calling themselves the “People's Militia.” Up until it was abandoned by rebel forces on July 5, the epicentre of this uprising was Slovyansk, a city of about 130,000 people in Donetsk Region.
As RuNet Echo's profile of Maksim Osovskiy demonstrated, openly reporting on events in the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic and Luhansk People's Republic can be extremely dangerous, especially for those who don't support the rebels. Against this background anonymous online reporting has become a key source of information from Ukraine's conflict zone. One of these sources is @ExileUA, whose Twitter account has 11,800 followers and who is regularly retweeted by Ukrainian media outlets. He tweets under the name “Хуевый Славянск,” which roughly translates to “Shitty Slovyansk.” The is part of a trend of pro-Ukrainian Twitter accounts self-deprecatingly referring to themselves or their cities as “shitty.” A few of these existed on VKontakte and Twitter before this year. But then, according to @ExileUA, the trend went viral and gained many new participants during the Eastern Ukraine conflict, when “Хуевый Луганск” or Shitty Luhansk, tweeted in May:
Хуевые города мира объединяйтесь!
— Хуевый Луганск (@peoplelugansk) May 15, 2014
Shitty cities of the world, unite!
Наши ники с приставкой Ху*вый- отражают ужасную ситуацию в городе и то в каком именно городе мы живем, чтоб когда пишешь, что слышно взрыв, не спрашивали в каком городе. Единственное, что мы делаем вместе, это любим свою страну, свою Украину.
Our nicknames with the qualifier “Sh*tty” reflect the horrific situation in the city, and the city in which we live in is there so that when you write that you hear an explosion, they don't ask you which city it was in. The only thing we do together is love our country, our Ukraine.
Although Slovyansk is now controlled by Ukrainian government forces, @ExileUA has decided to remain anonymous. When approached by RuNet Echo, he explained simply that “the war hasn't ended and it isn't clear what tomorrow will be like.” @ExileUA‘s desire to remain anonymous is clearly based on safety concerns, but likely also has roots in his personal preferences. He says he had stopped participating in social media several years earlier, but opened a Twitter account when events started in Slovyansk so he could find out more about the situation online.
@ExileUA explained to RuNet Echo how he became reluctantly drawn into disseminating information and opinions despite his dislike of social networks.
Писал, что видел […] читал других с моего города и других городов , где так же идет война. Так мы общими усилиями сравнивали информацию и пытались понять, где же правда, а где пропаганда и ложь. Чуть позже я [разместил] на своей странице карту своего города с пометкой районов, чтоб жителям других городов было проще понять где идут бои. Так же начал высказывать свои мысли, так сказать анализ всего, что происходит с моей точки зрения.
I wrote what I saw […] read others from my city and from other cities where the war is going on. Those of us in similar situations compared information and tried to understand, what was true and what was propaganda and lies. A bit later I put a map [ru] on my account with notes for areas, so inhabitants of other cities could more easily understand where the war was going on. Then I started to reveal my thoughts, my sort of analysis of everything that was going on from my point of view.
@ExileUA is at pains to make clear that he doesn't think he's “doing anything special.” While he admits he is relatively widely read, including by media, he explains there are practical reasons for this, as Ukrainian media who attempted to enter Slovyasnk when it was under rebel control were liable to have equipment stolen or be detained, thus forcing them to rely on social media accounts such as his. Local media were forced to work for the rebels or lose their jobs. Like most pro-Ukrainian bloggers and citizen journalists profiled in the course of this series, @ExileUA has a low opinion of Russian media.
СМИ РФ (которые к слову не легально проникают в страну и ведут явно пропаганду, а не освещение событий) работают на стороне террористов, делая им имидж защитников, списывая все обстрелы городов на действия ВСУ.
Russian media (who, incidentally illegally enter our country and carry out obvious propaganda, not [simply] covering events) work on the side of the terrorists, creating for them the image of defenders, chalking up all the bombardment of cities to the actions of the Ukrainian Armed Forces.
He did, however, list radio station Echo Moskvy, TV Rain, and the newspaper Novaya Gazeta as three media outlets that attempt to cover the situation in Ukraine more objectively, and admitted that Ukrainian media were also liable to do biased or shoddy work at times.
Despite the popularity of his account, @ExileUA seemingly takes no pleasure in running it, and seems to consider what he does a chore or a duty. Indeed, given his situation, it seems almost as if the information war and the real one are synonymous, and he is sick of both.
я не люблю внимание к себе, не люблю похвалу и рекламу…не для того я писал, кстати очень жду, чтоб скорее война закончилась и тогда опять уйду из соц сетей насовсем.
I don't like attention, I don't like praise or advertising… It's not why I write and, what's more, I really hope this war ends quickly so I can once again completely delete myself from social networks.