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8 June, 2017  ▪  Andriy Holub

Poroshenko vs the memes

How Ukrainian social media users react to the President

“Did you know that there’s an entire army of bots set up on the internet to protect the president and your circle, and it actively attacks anyone who publishes critical information or even just opinions about the government?” was the question put to President Poroshenko during a recent press conference by journalist Mykhailo Tkach. There’s no point to repeating the president’s response word for word, because it lasted more than 4.5 minutes and consisted of nearly 400 words. Its content, however, is easy to evaluate: Poroshenko never once used the words “internet,” “bot” or “social network.” He talked about standards, the exceptionally high level of freedom, civil society, and even television. Nothing about the internet.

Getting on the internet bandwagon

Still, the current leader of Ukraine belongs to the category of more “advanced” national leaders who pay considerable attention to their internet audience. In this, Poroshenko is different from his predecessors, Viktor Yushchenko and especially Viktor Yanukovych, who were both there when the internet was booming and social networks were becoming popular in Ukraine. The New York-based PR company Burson-Marsteller publishes a “Twiplomacy” report every year now, that assesses the use of social networks by world leaders. In 2016, it reported that Poroshenko was in the top 50 most popular world leaders in Twitter, ranking 48th with his 955,000 followers. In Facebook, however, he could do more to promote his page as he has less than 600,000 followers and did not make it into the top 50: he’ll need at least 1 million of them to do that.

RELATED ARTICLE: Reason for compromise in Petro Poroshenko's politics

In Ukraine itself, however, Poroshenko is out-matched in Facebook only by media pages and by the absolute leader—Okean Elzy, Ukraine’s most popular rock band. One recent development now offers the president a brilliant opportunity to increase his popularity in FB. Since the Russian-owned services Vkontakte and Odnoklassniki are now under sanctions, work in the presidential “forcing pits” has gone down and they can concentrate entirely on FB, Twitter and Instagram. According to TNS monitoring in Ukraine, daily traffic in the Russian nets has fallen by 2-2.5 times, while Facebook traffic has risen nearly 33%.

So far, however, there isn’t much precise data about the influence of social media on the changing political situation in a country. Some say that they played a key role during the Arab Spring and the Euromaidan Revolution, while others say that their influence is exaggerated. One way or the other, it was after these turbulent events that politicians began to really understand the need to work consistently with internet users. Depending on the country and the political system, that meant changing their working style as well.

The march of the porokhobots?

Plenty of efforts have been made to try to catch Poroshenko out on having “botfarms,” similar to Russia’s troll factories, on the internet. So far, however, no one has been able to irrefutably confirm their existence. Meanwhile, the term “porokhobot” has been circulating in Ukrainian for some time now.

The Myslovo online dictionary of new Ukrainian words gives a terse definition of “porokhobot” as “those who write or say positive things about Poroshenko.” But the precision of these definitions seems questionable, as in that case, millions of Ukrainians who gave him their vote in the last election can be counted into the president’s “personal online army.” It’s hard to think that people did so without ever once criticizing their elected leader.

It’s also hard to determine who originated the term “porokhobot.” Open access analytics at Google Trends show that this term first began to be used in search engines in June 2015 and peaked in August of that year. The same happened in August 2016. If searches for this term across the world are considered, then the “birth” of “porokhobots” was in early 2015. Unfortunately, GT does not specify in which countries the term was first mentioned: the database is too small. It’s possible to assume that the reason for the discrepancy lies in the paradigms used by different search engines.

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In fact, it’s not that easy to figure out what “porokhobots” really are. In Russia, bot networks operated under management from a single center and did not distinguish themselves in any way. That was how journalists were able to confirm their existence: by following one and the same tweet across thousands of accounts.

Nothing like that is going on in Ukraine, which suggests that there isn’t some centralized management. There are a number of reasons for that, but they mainly come down to the fact that the model used by Ukrainian politicians in social nets is different from the model used by Russian ones. In Ukraine, they don’t depend on networks of bots—accounts whose posts are written by a special piece of software known as a robot, not a human—so much as on buying opinion leaders: bloggers, experts, political scientists and so on. What they count on instead is on originality and the author’s own style. Once in a while, this leads to an embarrassing situation, when different loyal bloggers post identical texts, as though from a freshly-approved temnyk.

Treason vs president

There is the widespread belief that “porokhobots” either excessively emphasize Petro Poroshenko’s successes as president or try to relieve him of responsibility for failures and setbacks. For instance, they will say that the visa-free regime with the EU is the result of wise international policies on the part of Poroshenko for whom diplomacy is a natural element, whereas the endless unfulfilled promises that there would be visa-free travel in the past few years were the result of Russia’s deliberate troublemaking and not a reflection of internal problems in Ukraine. “Porokhobots” comment in a similar vein on other topics although this particular example is the most primitive variant. Theoretically, this provides the right accents in the information environment that the government needs. Some people also assume that “porokhobots” are being used to harass opponents, although there’s no hard and fast evidence of this, either.

That “porokhobots” are somewhat used only in the most important situations for the government to form the right interpretation of events can be seen in the statistics provided by Google Trends. The bubble of interest in the term itself in August two years in a row could be explained by the anniversary of the massacre at Ilovaisk, a terrible tragedy and Ukraine’s biggest defeat in war since Poroshenko came to office. So it’s unsurprising that during August, internet users see mythical or real “porokhobots” suddenly become more active.

On the other hand, there is a category of people in Ukraine for whom no real evidence of “porokhobots” is necessary. Everything is obvious to them without any evidence, and sometimes even in the face of all evidence. They, too, have a nickname: “zradofily,” meaning those who love to believe that there’s treason at every step. It’s a word you won’t find the word in any dictionary yet. In fact, Google Trends doesn’t actually allow you to look at the frequency of use of a particular word in a search and so far it seems that Ukrainians aren’t especially interested in this term. However, it is possible to draw some conclusions when you look at the use of the terms “victory” and “betrayal” in searches. Here, victory clearly wins over betrayal.

Contradictory positions

“Zradofily” aren’t united by a political idea or values, but by the certainty that (a) everything is changing only for the worse in Ukraine today and (b) changing this situation is impossible because it would violate (a). It is possible to try to group the main complaints of the “zradofily” against Poroshenko into several sets.

At the top of the list is the fact that Ukraine did not declared a state of war after the occupation of Crimea, although Poroshenko wasn’t even president at the time. Over time, this argument morphed into complaints over the fact that “the war is not called the war”. From the early days of his election victory, Poroshenko was sharply criticized in social media for official Kyiv’s position towards Russia’s aggression, announcing an “anti-terrorist operation” or ATO rather than war against the Russian Federation. Critics of this decision say that it led to a situation where a good part of the population hasn’t felt the war at all and their lives have not seen any fundamental changes. This first accusation led to a series of others, from Poroshenko’s unfulfilled promise to end the ATO “in a matter of hours,” the continuing presence of Russian business in Ukraine and “trading with the enemy,” and the nearly daily losses of Ukrainian soldiers’ lives in Donbas—but especially the bitter routs at the disastrous operations near Ilovaisk and Debaltseve.

Interestingly, the same individuals who initially were angry about the fact that a state of war hadn’t been announced were later equally upset about the fact that Russian social media were being blocked. This was the case with the administrators of a well-known Vkontakte group called “We Patriots of Ukraine,” which at one time published a video appeal to politicians on the subject of declaring a state of war, but later provided tips for how to get around the blocking of their social net and accused the government of censorship. Meanwhile, a state of war provides for curfews, mandatory labor, censorship and internet cutoffs, among other things.

RELATED ARTICLE: The ban on Russian social media: reasons and impact

The next widespread point is the Minsk Accords. The agreement signed in February 2015 in the capital of Belarus has been a point of contention with the president for many internet commentators. “Zradofily” tend to fall into one of two groups here: those who say this is a deliberate betrayal of Ukraine’s interests to those who are convinced there has been a secret agreement made with Vladimir Putin.

Poroshenko’s businesses are possibly the biggest complaint in social nets. So far, he has failed to make good on his promise to sell off his businesses and, based on the president’s most recent statements and actions on this topic, it’s going to stay that way. The best-known of his companies that remain in the hands of the Head of State to this day are Channel 5 and the Roshen brand. The “blind trust” to which Poroshenko handed over his lucrative candy business has become the subject of many a meme. True, the infamous Roshen factory in Lipetsk, Russia, which Poroshenko no longer owns, has been removed from that list, but not that long ago. When this news came out, the internet community responded with a slew of jokes about “a black day for all zradofily.”

Prejudices and strange bedfellows

But the most controversial topic, one that also illustrates both the level of education and the prejudice of many Ukrainians, is the president’s ethnicity. At this point, it’s no longer possible to figure out where the roots of the theory that the president’s real surname is Valtsman, a Jewish one, came from, but the most widely-disseminated version is that Poroshenko’s father Oleksiy was a Valtsman at birth and took on the Ukrainian surname when he married. According to the theory, he even did time in prison during soviet times under that name.

Yet there is absolutely no evidence to support the thesis about “Poroshenko-Valtsman”. Worse, those who believe this cannot even explain what is so bad about this, even if it were true. Even some politicians have been guilty of spreading the myth, including MPs Nadia Savchenko and Semen Semenchenko, who mentioned this on live television in March. The unseemly “tradition” of looking for Jewish roots among Ukrainian politicians was around long before Poroshenko became Ukraine’s fifth president. Such speculation has circulated about former PMs Arseniy Yatseniuk and Yulia Tymoshenko as well. The more interesting question is why some Ukrainians are so keen to look for Jewish roots among those in power. At a minimum, it suggests a certain level of xenophobia.

Last, but not least, among the themes circulating in social nets is about all those friends of President Poroshenko’s who are still walking free. This theme presumes that Poroshenko is establishing his personal clan. In contrast to the previous theory, this one seems to have at least a little confirmation. The specific roles of Ihor Kononenko and Oleksandr Hranovskiy, businessmen and top members of the Petro Poroshenko Bloc, in relations with the president have been the subject of more than one journalistic investigation. However, the president himself has contributed considerably to this story from the very start and provided journalists with clues as to where to look. Poroshenko was not served well, either, by his admiration for the policies of the late Singaporean strongman Lee Kwan Yew, who ruled for three decades—an admiration may have been genuine but could also have been a whimsical note injected by his speechwriters. In June 2014, just after being elected president, Poroshenko introduced Prosecutor General Vitaliy Yarema in the Verkhovna Rada with the now-famous statement: “As a parting, symbolic wish, here’s my favorite quote from the man who created the Singaporean miracle, Lee Kwan Yew: ‘How do you start to fight corruption? First of all, you have to send three of your friends to jail. You know exactly what for, they know what for, and the people will believe in you.’”

In the three years since this event, “send three of your friends to jail” remains one of the main memes of the Poroshenko era, one that has turned out to be even harder to kill than the meme about the Lipetsk factory.

Translated by Lidia Wolanskyj 

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