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You’re in the Army Now: How Drafted Ukrainian Journalists Cover the War in Their Online Diaries

Conscripted journalists have turned their social media accounts into personal military diaries. Images mixed by Anna Poludenko-Young

Conscripted journalists have turned their social media accounts into personal military diaries. Images mixed by Anna Poludenko-Young

Ukrainian journalists drafted into the military to serve in eastern Ukraine have turned their Facebook and Twitter accounts into personal field diaries. In their posts they discuss the state of the armed forces, their daily routine, and even their meals. Some of these diaries have achieved instant fame, raking in over five thousand readers during the first month.

Screenshot of his draft announcement from Michael Shchur's Facebook page.

Screenshot of his draft announcement from Michael Shchur's Facebook page.

Finally, here's an explanation as to why in the last episode of my show I said “I will see you in a year.” I've received a draft card. I will be joining the military.
On Monday I depart for training. The next two weeks will be spent gaining experience on the training range. See you around. #army

With this post on his Facebook page, Michael Shchur, the television host of a satirical news program, announced his career change. Shchur is a fictional persona created by Ukrainian journalist Roman Vintoniv. Many compare him to the former American The Daily Show TV host Jon Stewart, as both poke fun at the establishment and seek to bring attention to government inaction, corruption, and selective justice systems.

Now, a month since he was drafted, instead of ridiculing national politics from the TV screen, Shchur (still very much the satirical character) writes daily dispatches about his life in the army. He regales his readers with the details of his life in the military—the good, the bad, and the slightly ridiculous—and posts plenty of photos of the day-to-day routine.

Roman Vintoniv, also known as Michael Shchur: once a wisecracking TV journo, now a freshly-minted Ukrainian draftee. Image from Facebook.

День 5-й
Сьогодні були стрільби.
З самого ранку. Поснідали – і в поле. Там на вогневі рубежі і давай стріляти по мішенях. Лежачи, з коліна, стоячи.
Потім – перебіжками назад в табір. Це дуже вимотало. Навіть почуття голоду минуло. Тому гречку – не доїв. Вперше.

Day 5.
Today we went to the shooting range.
Early in the morning: breakfast—and then to the field. There we went to the firing ranges and started shooting at targets. Lying down, from the knee, standing up. Then, in short runs, we returned to the base camp. This was very exhausting. Even the hunger pangs passed. So I didn't even finish the buckwheat. It's a first.

Screen Shot 2015-08-25 at 4.22.33 PM

The shooting range. Just a single photo, but we spent all day training here.

День 27
Вчорашня історія. У нас дефіцит тумбочок. Треба багато. Буває що одна на 5-х. У кого які ідеї? Де взяти штук 70 тумбочок? Або ще краще – тумбочки то насправді абсолютно незручна штука. У кого є які ідеї чим їх можна замінити.

Day 27.
A story from yesterday. We are experiencing a shortage of nightstands. We need lots of them. Sometimes five soldiers have to share one nightstand. Any ideas? Where can one procure 70 nightstands? Moreover: a nightstand is actually a really inconvenient thing. Welcome any ideas on what it can be replaced with.

Improving army meals through Facebook

Conscription announcements from public figures have generated an intense online discussion: Should Ukrainians like Shchur be drafted or are they more valuable to the country just doing their regular job? Yevhenia Zakrevska, a human rights lawyer, wrote about Shchur on her Facebook page, lamenting the loss of his hard-hitting reporting.

Это тот редкий, уникальный случай, когда, не занимаясь информационной войной или пропагандой (а также ее жалкими попытками) журналист генерирует защиту 80-го левела от вражеских (внешних и внутренних) информационных атак, впрыскивает информационное противоядие (инъекции адекватности) в уязвимые мозги нашего населения, повышает общий информационный иммунитет.

This is a rare, unique case when a journalist, not participating in the information war or propaganda (or sad attempts at the latter), manages to generate an 80th-level defence against information attacks (both external and internal) and to provide an information antidote of normalcy for the susceptible brains of our people, increasing their general informational immunity.

The celebrity draftees seem to be a hot topic for Ukrainian social media users. Even the first of Shchur’s posts about his draft card was liked over seven thousand times, shared almost 500 times and was commented on over 500 times. Most users seemed to share Zakrevska's thoughts: you just shoudln't draft guys like him.

Meanwhile, Shchur and other journalists and writers who run their online diaries from military training camps, are seemingly managing to wield their popularity and online influence to improve some things abut how the Ukrainian military is run.

Shchur’s posts about how his unit didn’t get any fresh fruit or vegetables seemed to have an effect on military menu choices. Now tomatoes and cucumbers are served with the soldiers’ meals. In another post, Shchur lamented the lack of any new books or magazines to read in his unit. The next week, a group of volunteers brought magazines donated by some publishing houses that followed the TV host on Facebook.

Challenging the official line

The public figures who are not simply drafted for training, but sent to fight directly to the front line in eastern Ukraine keep a different league of military diaries online. They don’t write about tomatoes and nightstands: their posts center on human lives and issues with gear and ammunition.

Taras Chmut is a former regional coordinator at OPORA (a Ukrainian civic organization and movement), a contributing editor for a military news website, and currently a Marine with over 12 thousand followers on Facebook.

A post he wrote about the members of his division being limited to only 4 magazines (120 cartridges) of ammunition to finish a combat mission got over a thousand shares overnight. Despite criticism from officers for publicly “airing” such things, in two days Chmut and the members of his unit were notified that from then on they would be given ten magazines to complete a mission. It turned out that the Chief of the General Staff himself chanced upon Chmut’s post and decided to act on what he read.

Military bloggers explain that it is often easier to change something by talking to a crowd of your followers on social networks rather than by approaching the captain of your division directly. “You can’t just approach the Chief of the General Staff and tell him what you think is wrong. I believe my Facebook diary tells a popular story of the military service. I also notice that sometimes I just fight against the irresponsibility of the officers. Publicity is my main weapon,” Chmut said in an interview to BBC Ukraine.

The generals aren't happy

Many of the comments in popular military blogs or diaries come from people thankful for getting a glimpse of what is happening in the conflict zone and of the small, but important details of military life. The Ukrainian army generals, on the other hand, are none too happy with this online trend. Many of them are of the opinion that civilians don’t really need to know the private details about life in the military units.

What is more dangerous, the military commanders claim, is that some blog posts can disclose sensitive information about the locations of units, their movements, and their strategic plans. Some open-source intelligence experts suggest that just analyzing the background and visible location on the pictures the military bloggers are posting online can reveal quite a lot.

A different kind of danger might arise if the enemy tries to use military blogs and online communities to spread fake information. For example, in a tense situation with an exchange of fire, false reports on whether Ukrainian units are surrounded and trying to escape, and if they have enough provision, might determine how other military units choose to act. Experts say that the solution here is to provide special online security training for soldiers and officers. If they know what is safe to post online when on the front line, the risk of misunderstandings should be minimal.

In the meantime, the Ukrainian parliament has passed a law that limits the use of mobile and wireless communications by the Ukrainian military in the anti-terrorist operation zone in eastern Ukraine. According to the law, soldiers will need to obtain permission from their superiors to use the phones or wait until they are back at base camp to get on Facebook and VK. This means that journalists and bloggers reporting from the front lines might have to get strategic about their posting and jot down notes of their exploits using pen and paper until the next time they are allowed to connect to their legions of readers.

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