Ukraine, Trolling, and the Twitter War
The Phenomenon Of Trolling In The Russia-Ukraine Conflict, Explained.
What You Need to Know:
✓ Trolling is not new to the ancient art of diplomacy, especially in Ukraine;
✓Social media, once reserved for challenging regimes, is now used by national governments for great effect;
✓Russia has long used trolling as a strategy to gain an advantage in the information space, allegedly funding a “troll army” of commentators;
✓What started as low-level trolling between the diplomatic twitter feeds of Russia and the West, has greatly escalated;
Trolling in Context
Trolling is nothing new when it comes to the sacred practice of international diplomacy. In fact, the practice far outdates the modern communication technologies that have spawned internet trolls. Political leaders have long sought to intimidate or dismiss their opponents through ridicule and bravado. The current standoff in Ukraine between the West on one side and Russia on the other, however, has resulted in a likely unprecedented level of diplomatic trolling, making full use of modern social media tools such as Facebook and Twitter. A Twitter War rages between Russia on the one side, and Ukraine and its international supporters on the other.
Trolling in Ukrainian Mythology
Even in Ukraine itself, diplomatic trolling is steeped in the history of the Zaporozhian Cossacks, a military community that controlled much of modern-day southern Ukraine from the 16th through the 18th century. According to legend, which is at least partially corroborated by historical accounts, the Cossacks responded rather impolitely to an ultimatum from the Ottomans to surrender in 1676.
Sultan Mehmed IV made an ultimatum to the Cossacks:
As the Sultan; son of Muhammad; brother of the sun and moon; grandson and viceroy of God; ruler of the kingdoms of Macedonia, Babylon, Jerusalem, Upper and Lower Egypt; emperor of emperors; sovereign of sovereigns; extraordinary knight, never defeated; steadfast guardian of the tomb of Jesus Christ; trustee chosen by God Himself; the hope and comfort of Muslims; confounder and great defender of Christians — I command you, the Zaporogian Cossacks, to submit to me voluntarily and without any resistance, and to desist from troubling me with your attacks.
—Turkish Sultan Mehmed IV
And now, for the reply…
Zaporozhian Cossacks to the Turkish Sultan!
O sultan, Turkish devil and damned devil’s kith and kin, secretary to Lucifer himself. What the devil kind of knight are you, that can’t slay a hedgehog with your naked arse? The devil excretes, and your army eats. You will not, you son of a bitch, make subjects of Christian sons; we’ve no fear of your army, by land and by sea we will battle with thee, f*** your mother.
You Babylonian scullion, Macedonian wheelwright, brewer of Jerusalem, goat-fu**er of Alexandria, swineherd of Greater and Lesser Egypt, pig of Armenia,Podolian thief, catamite of Tartary, hangman of Kamyanets, and fool of all the world and underworld, an idiot before God, grandson of the Serpent, and the crick in our d***. Pig’s snout, mare’s arse, slaughterhouse cur, unchristened brow, screw your own mother!
So the Zaporozhians declare, you lowlife. You won’t even be herding pigs for the Christians. Now we’ll conclude, for we don’t know the date and don’t own a calendar; the moon’s in the sky, the year with the Lord, the day’s the same over here as it is over there; for this kiss our arse!
Where It All Began
The trolling over the modern Russian-Ukrainian crisis may have begun back in December, when U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt, and Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, Victoria Nuland, handed out cookies to Ukrainian protesters. While some pointed to the event as evidence of American meddling in Ukrainian affairs, perhaps not realizing that a handful of cookies isn’t exactly a game changer, the move was more likely a clear show of defiance to the Kremlin.
Thus began the troll battle between East and West.
During the Russian annexation of Crimea, the U.S. Department of State took the unusual step of issuing a response to ten “false claims” by President Putin.
Rosie Gray of BuzzFeed Politics even chipped in.
The Twitter feed of Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs joined in with some light-hearted trolling.
But… things soon got out of hand.
Putin’s “Troll Army”
During international furor over the Russian annexation of Crimea, the sheer number of pro-Russian commentators on each and every new article on Ukraine drew the attention of laymen and Russia observers alike. Rumors spread that the Russian government was funding a “troll army.” In other words, paid article commentators who could drown out negative press and debate about Russia.
Subsequent investigations seem to support the allegations that Russia uses internet trolls to control the information space surrounding the Ukrainian crisis. BuzzFeed’s Max Seddon reported on the Russian “troll army”:
The documents show instructions provided to the commenters that detail the workload expected of them. On an average working day, the Russians are to post on news articles 50 times. Each blogger is to maintain six Facebook accounts publishing at least three posts a day and discussing the news in groups at least twice a day. By the end of the first month, they are expected to have won 500 subscribers and get at least five posts on each item a day. On Twitter, the bloggers are expected to manage 10 accounts with up to 2,000 followers and tweet 50 times a day.
Diplomatic Trolling Escalates
What started as relatively minor diplomatic trolling between the United States and Russia escalated into something much more as the crisis deepened in eastern Ukraine.
Not willing to let Russia and America hog all the fun, Canada jumped in with a zinger of its own. The Canadian mission to NATO provided a helpful guide for their Russian partners.
Russia, not one to back down, didn’t allow Canada to have the last word.
Ukraine Strikes Back
Ukraine joined in too, first with grassroots efforts to spread the ubiquitous “Putin khuilo” (rough translation: ‘Putin is a dickhead’) to trolling at the state and diplomatic level. What started as an obscene chant invented by football ultras from the eastern city of Kharkiv is now a national phenomenon. The phrase can now be found on t-shirts, toilet paper, and even license plates.
The phrase “Путін хуйло” (transliterated alternatively “Putin Khuilo!” or “Putin Huylo!” — roughly, “Putin is a dickhead!”) has been around since at least March. It goes something like this:
'Khuilo': The offensive term that has attached itself to Putin
On Saturday night, the strong words over the Ukrainian crisis took an unusually vulgar turn: Ukraine's interim foreign…
In June, the Ukrainian Foreign Minister even used the insult while trying to dissuade rioters from attacking the Russian embassy in Kyiv. Rioters targeted the embassy after Russian-backed insurgents shot down a Ukrainian transport plane in Luhansk, killing all 49 military personnel onboard.
In late August, Ukrainian roofer, Hryhoriy Kyrylenko (aka Mustang Wanted), painted over a Soviet star with the Ukrainian national colors on the top of a Stalinist-era skyscraper in central Moscow. Ukrainians milked the PR victory for all it was worth.
Anyone who has visited Moscow will recognise the Seven Sister high-rises commissioned by Joseph Stalin between 1947 and 1953 that jut out across the city’s skyline.
But commuters stuck in rush-hour traffic this morning may have noticed that the one on Kotelnicheskaya Embankment in downtown Moscow had been given a little bit of a touch-up.
Activists paint Moscow's 'Stalin Tower' with Ukraine colours
Anyone who has visited Moscow will recognise the Seven Sister high-rises commissioned by Joseph Stalin between 1947 and…
Even Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko mentioned the feat on his official Facebook:
Dear Ukrainians, friends and followers!
On the eve of Independence Day we start the initiative “Our Colors”, which is dedicated to the Ukrainian flag. Symbolically, on this day, perhaps the highest building in Moscow was painted in our colors.
I urge Ukrainians worldwide, wherever they are, on the eve of Independence Day, to decorate their homes, offices, cars in our national colors.
Glory to Ukraine!
When Moscow demanded the extradition of Kyrylenko, Ukrainian Minister of the Interior, Arsen Avakov, conveyed the official government position on the matter:
It goes on, and on, and on, and on…
When the Russian Federation escalated the crisis in late August by sending troops into eastern Ukraine, Moscow once again took to Twitter to again refute Russia’s role in the conflict.
For now, the British Embassy in Kyiv has the last laugh. The embassy tweeted instructions to Russia for identifying its own tanks in Ukraine.
More likely than not, the trolling will only continue.