This interview is part of Undertones, Global Voices’ Civic Media Observatory‘s newsletter. Subscribe to Undertones.
Welcome back to Undertones, where we analyze media narratives from around the world. Today we would like to share a thoughtful conversation we had with Ukrainian scholar, Dr. Tanya Lokot, about Ukrainian narratives online. Against all expectations, the talk ended with a few belly laughs.
Yes, Ukraine’s situation is gloomy, but we have learned that Ukrainians find beautiful (and sometimes, funny) ways to bond with each other and strengthen their identity amidst the Russian state’s attempt at annihilating their country and culture.
Since 2021, the Civic Media Observatory has focused on Russia’s narratives for the simple reason that Russian disinformation tactics are pervasive, strong, and mimicked by other governments. We are very conscious that Ukrainian voices were left out of this analysis. So, despite not having a specific investigation open on Ukraine’s media, we thought it was high time to offer, if only a glimpse of, Ukrainian perspectives.
Dr. Lokot is an expert on digital media in Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus. She is a former Eastern Europe editor at Global Voices and has used the Civic Media Observatory’s narrative analysis methodology on Russian digital authoritarianism in our Unfreedom Monitor project.
For context, Ukrainians use the internet and social media a lot, especially since the country’s Euromaidan revolutionary protests in 2014, which resulted in the removal of President Viktor Yanukovych. Even more Ukrainians have created social media accounts or reactivated them since Russia’s invasion in 2022, now frequently dubbed the world’s “most online war.” This interview, led by newsletter writer Melissa Vida, was edited for length and clarity.
Melissa Vida: Tanya, thank you so much for agreeing to speak with me. To set the scene, can you tell us where Ukrainians hang out online nowadays?
Tanya Lokot: For Ukrainians, Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram are still the top social media outlets. Twitter is incredibly niche for intellectual influencers and TikTok is mostly used by the younger population. [The Russian social media] VKontakte was actually one of the top social media platforms for a while but was banned and blocked in 2017 for national security reasons.
MV: YouTube is really active?
TL: Yes, there are a lot of YouTube-only vloggers who do talk shows about the typical stuff, like video games, but also history, politics, or culture.
It’s also been really interesting to see that when they started their accounts, they would speak in Russian because it wasn’t such a big issue before 2014 and especially before 2022. Speaking Russian helps them reach a bigger audience. But since 2022, a lot of these YouTubers have started producing content only in Ukrainian. It was a tectonic shift.
This change in language is part of the whole debate about the Ukrainian identity as being separate from the Russian one. The Russian narrative asserts that if you speak Russian, you are Russian and, therefore, “theirs to protect.” That is really important to understand.
MV: Can you explain to me a bit more about the context of the languages spoken in Ukraine?
TL: If you recall that Ukraine has been dominated by the Russian empire in its various forms throughout history, you will see that it had an impact on the linguistic map of the population. A significant portion of Ukrainians speaks Russian, especially along the border. Ukrainian and Russian are mutually intelligible, yet distinct.
For a long time, the Soviet policy in particular, and the imperial policy before, aimed at suppressing Ukrainian. They did not want to allow Ukrainians to have a separate identity from Russia.
During the Soviet Union, if you spoke Ukrainian in public, you were seen as uneducated, “from the village”. It happened to my mother, who spoke the “local dialect”. So when you have decades, if not more, of that suppression, then it’s no surprise that you end up with Russian being the dominant language.
I mean, Russia is right there. There is Russian culture, Russian literature, Russian cinema, Russian everything. The Ukrainian identity had to scrape itself from the bottom of the barrel to stand its ground.
Ukrainians have been rediscovering Ukraine’s arts, literature and language. Especially in the last ten years. And it has taken a while to switch from Russian to Ukrainian, but today, the default language in Ukrainian media is Ukrainian.
MV: As we have covered at the Civic Media Observatory, Russian propaganda is strong. How do Ukrainians respond to it?
TL: What many people outside Ukraine don’t see is that Ukraine is Russia’s testing ground for propaganda and disinformation for other countries. So when Russian disinformation is exposed, Ukrainians are not surprised because they have seen these tactics develop in the last 10 to 15 years. The overarching feeling is that most people spot Russian propaganda pretty easily.
But Russian propaganda is also sneaky. The main message in Ukraine aims at undermining trust in Ukrainian media and politicians. They share things along the lines of “You can’t trust anyone because they are trying to steal your money,” “does the president have your best interest at heart?” and “we are fighting NATO, not Ukraine.”
Also, how Ukrainians see propaganda and disinformation has to do with their relationship with Russia because there are a lot of personal relationships with people in Russia, through family, career, or school ties. This influences who they trust and who they believe. Some may still believe some of the Russian narratives that “we are brothers, we are the same family.” But, as much as you want to believe that, when people are dying by the thousands, and it’s clear who is killing them…
MV: It’s now been more than a year since the war began. Have you seen journalists changing their narratives since the start of the war?
TL: [Journalists] have shown Ukrainians’ incredible resilience and how they are fighting back. Also unlike before, they also realized that they needed to talk to external audiences. News outlets now have resources in English and provide subtitles or translations to their stories. And also, there are new media outlets that just report in English, like the Kyiv Independent, founded right before the invasion. Their narratives are about understanding how Ukraine is not Russia.
MV: What about regular people on social media?
TL: Just like during Euromaidan, a lot of Ukrainians joined social media or became more active. They knew they could understand what was happening live, for example, by asking “where are the rockets flying?”
In the past year, there are a lot of people who are not media professionals who have engaged in some form of journalism online. This leads to questions such as “how do we produce knowledge in times of war?” and “what counts as reliable experience?”
Some micro-influencers feel compelled to post educational threads on Twitter or cards on Instagram about certain things. Someone who has served in the army might share tactical emergency medicine tips. You will also see ordinary individuals who share their own lived experiences, like “here is my Ukrainian family history”. Your expertise is your lived experience. For me, it is happening on a small scale, but it represents a shift in what counts as knowledge.
So in more conventional settings, emotions are more validated. People are sharing evidence, facts, numbers of people displaced, images of destroyed houses, but also what it feels like to no longer have a home or spend 60 days in occupation. It has been fascinating for me as a researcher, although obviously, I find it hard to keep a distance from it.
MV: Is this activity the reason why this war is sometimes called “the most online war”?
TL: I think it’s the most online war not because people are making an effort to share things online but because it’s where they live their lives — so it is only natural that they share content there. People are sharing what the war is like, responding to each other, and finding spaces for sympathy and humor in a predominantly dark reality.
On Ukrainian Twitter, there are shorthand jokes that can’t be understood by people outside of this community. It involves Ukrainian, English, and word mistranslations. It’s really niche stuff, it’s a way to build community. We get each other. And it’s also a way of showing the complexity of the reality in Ukraine.
MV: Can you share an example of a Ukrainian joke online?
TL: Yes I do! I’ll try to explain my favorite one. As you know, Russia has imposed severe restrictions on language. People cannot call the war a war. So, in Russia, when an explosion happens, especially in occupied territory, people don’t call it an explosion, they call it a “loud noise” (“хлопок” pronounced “khlopok”) because they cannot admit that it was an explosion.
But “хлопок” also means “cotton” in Russian, pronounced “khlopak”. So in essence, the words for a “loud noise” and “cotton” are written the same way. So when you machine translate it to Ukrainian, “хлопок” is translated to cotton (“бавовна”, pronounced “bavovna”).
At the same time, there are a number of fake telegram channels in Ukrainian that were created to promote Russian content. So, when the fake Ukrainian channels published news about explosions in Russia, the headlines were “Some cotton happened in this airfield.”
Ukrainians then took it up. They joked on Twitter with things like “We’ll just call the explosion ‘cotton’” or “Oh look, there is some cotton happening over there.” Some people even drew illustrations of cotton flowers on pins. It became a meme. All the English speakers are like, what the hell is going on? What happened is that Ukrainians have developed their own vocabulary about the war.
MV: That’s an amazing story.
TL: Yes, it’s my favorite. Let me see if it’s online. Oh yes, look, even Urban Dictionary wrote about it! There are also other, more derogatory words for missiles. Ukrainians post things like “not this bitch again” for missiles. The word is блєдіна (“ble'dina”) and it's also on Urban Dictionary – there must be a lot of Ukrainian users on Urban Dictionary!
Also, alongside developing this internal vocabulary, Ukrainians are also trying to correct people. For example, when Western journalists write the “Ukraine war,” someone will always respond in the comment section, “No, it’s ‘Russia’s war against Ukraine.’”
If you would like to collaborate with the Community Civic Media Observatory, pitch us or join our next open training on April 4.
Editor's correction on April 4, 2023: the word “bledina” is written “блєдіна” in Ukrainian, not шльондра as previously written.