Guest post by Elizabeth Losh
When Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy urged the citizens of the world to “come to your squares” and “make yourselves visible and heard” to support his besieged country, he invoked powerful memories of the 2013-2014 “Maidan Revolution,” a mass protest against Russian influence, which brought tens of thousands of people out into the streets of Ukrainian cities. Zelenskyy’s words also resonate with those of philosopher Jacques Rancière, who claims that politics serves as the “distribution of the sensible” that “revolves around what is seen and what can be said about it, around who has the ability to see and the talent to speak, around the properties of spaces and the possibilities of time.”
For the book Hashtag I interviewed witnesses who had joined the crowd at Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square) in the capital and asked about the role of hashtags – and digital communication more generally – in the movement. At the time of the revolution many Ukrainians still owned flip phones rather than smart devices with data plans. One woman I spoke to ducked into a local McDonald’s with free wi-fi periodically to update her social media accounts with her first-hand testimony. Yet even platforms not known for political content, like Instagram, documented the dramatic events in the square and recorded the presence of those who marked their solidarity online.
On the news Kyiv looks very different than the way it appears in the chapter on #Place in Hashtag. In 2018, I saw a city of “bars, parks, coffee houses, malls, and traditional public squares” that also produced an equally diverse landscape of digital signals for platforms that included Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and the Russian site VKontakte. It’s horrifying to see the Kyiv of today in flames and rubble.
Svitlana Matviyenko, who helped me find interview subjects for Hashtag, has been telling her harrowing story in her online war diary, “Dispatches from the Place of Immanence.” Filmmaker Oleksiy Radynski, who pointed out to me how news cameras served as “war machines,” as did the mobile phones that posted YouTube videos, has been praised by The Guardian for providing more context for understanding the prehistory of the invasion.
Given the subject matter of Hashtag, I’ve been following many of the hashtags associated with the invasion closely. Some critics of the Biden administration have mocked “hashtag diplomacy,” in which world leaders only express tepid support for banal affirmations like #StandWithUkraine. Certainly, as a statement, #StandWithUkraine is much weaker than the more forceful, poetic, and original #CloseTheSky, which calls for a no-fly zone over the country. The performative nature of adopting the colors of Ukraine’s blue-and-gold flag on social media avatars might be questionable as well.
But Russia is also weighing in on the information war with its own hashtags, such as #IStandWithPutin and #IStandWithRussia, just as it did when it countered #CrimeaIsUkraine with #CrimeaIsRussia, as I describe in the book. Cyberspace is often seen as detached from the lived reality of actual places, but geography matters in social media as well. As I explain in Hashtag, using the hashtag with the Russian spelling #Kiev rather than the Ukrainian #Kyiv can be seen as a political gesture.
Even before the invasion, the hashtag #UkrainiansWillResist was being promoted on social media. Recently trending hashtags follow the familiar grammatical formula of a command as a call to action. #StopRussia, #StopPutin, #StopRussianAggression, and #StopWar are all popular, along with #SaveMariupol and #ArmUkraineNow. There are also narrower appeals to the ultra-rich with #BuyMeAFighterJet and to foodies with #Bake4Ukraine.
In the book, I claim that informative labels that help people find relevant online political conversations matter. For now, “the metadata is the message.” But an absence of metadata or any kind of readable message can prove to be a kind of signal as well. Russian protesters have been resorting to hieroglyphic image memes that can’t be easily tracked or searched. It is nonetheless possible to be dragged away by the authorities for nothing more explicit than holding up a sign that says “two words” (rather than openly declaring “no war”) or even an entirely blank sign.
It’s hard to write a good hashtag. It needs to be short, unique, unambiguous in meaning, and easy to spell. Even with beautifully written hashtags, many dissidents are abandoning them altogether, particularly as hashtags become tools for propaganda and militaristic authoritarianism. As I argue in the conclusion of Hashtag, with machine learning, computer vision, natural language processing, and sentiment analysis, intelligent systems are already classifying our unhashtagged conversations in our increasingly inhumane near future. Nonetheless, there are lyrical hashtags like #CloseTheSky that give us hope.
Elizabeth Losh is Associate Professor of English and American Studies at William and Mary, USA, and the author of The War on Learning: Gaining Ground in the Digital University (2014). Her other publications include Virtualpolitik: An Electronic History of Government Media-Making in a Time of War, Scandal, Disaster, Miscommunication, and Mistakes (2009) a textbook in the form of a graphic novel, and Understanding Rhetoric, co-authored with Jonathan Alexander (2017).