Volodymyr Zelensky at a film release in December 2018.

Volodymyr Zelensky at a film release in December 2018.

Election Media Maketh Ze President

Rather than moving towards arguments or ideological standpoints, the politics in Ukraine has moved farther towards selling emotions, stories and images. This time it was the politics of mediatised emotion on steroids. Is this simply a new politics that can be used in a populist and non-populist ways, or for progressive as much as reactionary causes? It may look like it is a neutral tool but I would still argue that this kind of politics substitutes political mobilisation with political immersion by submerging the audience into a story, an emotional environment, an experience.

Published on balticworlds.com on May 2, 2019

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This April, Ukraine made headlines around the world again. However, this time it was not war or another bottom-up social movement. Neither it was some light-weight matter, like sport news or weird life story, that occasionally make it to the Western tabloids. It was the historical and macabre Ukrainian presidential election which combined weird comedy and grave concerns, ending fittingly in a landslide victory by a comedian Volodymyr Zelensky (73.2%) over the incumbent president Petro Poroshenko (24.4%).

It has been variously pitched by many observers as a chance for change and reform or an irresponsible and infantile gambling at a moment of crisis and military conflict. Which one (or none) holds more water remains to be seen. Right now it is enough to establish that Zelensky who styled himself “Ze” and “Ze PreZEdent” during the campaign (“ze campaign”, indeed) is really a non-systemic politician newbie – the 41-year-old even admitted to voting for the first time in his life in 2014 when he allegedly had supported Poroshenko. Zelensky’s lack of experience is likely to weaken the institution of president in Ukraine, which indeed may be an opening for the civil society (as well as for external forces who wish to see a weakened Ukrainian leadership). Even for Zelensky supporters, it is obvious that his political inexperience does not make him an independent figure; in fact, he is quite the contrary because of his long-time business ties to one of the more powerful Ukrainian oligarchs, Igor Kolomoysky, who will certainly expect a payoff on his investment. The temptation to deliver it will be strong for the president elect. The question is whether the fear of civil society and public anger will prove stronger. In any case, the oligarch ties and the public expectations represent the opposite tidal forces already threatening his presidency.

Ukrainians who voted for Zelensky did so for a number of reasons. Perhaps the only common platform that united about half of the voters (73.2% of only 64% who cared to vote) was that Petro Poroshenko turned out less palatable to them. Some accused him of favouritism and continuing corrupt political practices, others were unhappy with the perceived income drop, some believed him secretly dealing with the Kremlin while others hated him exactly for waging a war with the Kremlin and wished for a return of the pre-Euromaidan politics. This is a really diverse crowd Zelensky could only rally behind him thanks to withholding any concrete promises.

Without making a long excursion into political analysis, I will now focus on the role of the media in this campaign, which is probably the most interesting part for the external observer, and the one where the rest of the world can learn some lessons (in line with what we have been learning since the US 2016 election, the UK’s Brexit referendum, last year’s election in Brazil, and other similar developments around the world). Before I delve into this, I would like to emphasise a few positive milestones Ukraine has achieved with this election.

First of all, it is no longer valid to refer to any kind of regional “electoral split” in Ukraine. The divide into “orange”/”blue” regions, so markedly pronounced in the 2000s, is but residual. In 2019, it has continued to fade (Poroshenko in 2014 was already supported more equally across all regions). This election, the votes were spread even more evenly. Poroshenko secured more support in the West while the Eastern and Southern regions were more strongly pro-Zelensky. But Zelensky gained a significant support everywhere and won in all but one region (he also lost among the voters living abroad).

Another label to be assigned to the dustbin of history is the Ukrainian anti-Semitism. After Zelensky’s inauguration, for the first time the country will be governed by two leaders who are both Jewish: the prime minister Volodymyr Groysman and Zelensky himself as the president, the latter on a mandate from over 70% voters. For the campaign’s all dirty tricks, all the competitors should be honoured for their refusal to play the Jewish card. The voters emphatically also showed they do not think in terms of narrow ethnicity. Of course, anti-Semitism remains a banner for fringe groups, pretty much as in the rest of Europe, but these are not influential or even visible/vocal in the same way as in some EU countries. The nationalist candidate got only 1.5% of the votes in the first round (and while some of his supporters are indeed anti-Semitic, it does not mean that all of them are).

The final note is that Ukraine is set to witness yet another change of the authority after another democratic vote. It is going to be the fifth change of the president since 1991, and among these only 2014 was marred by violence and 2004 by some unrest following electoral fraud. Is it fair then to continue categorising Ukraine in the same basket with the regimes that see literally no change of the ruling face in decades, such as Russia and Belarus? It is high time to rethink the place of Ukraine within the confines of the post-Soviet countries, which, while not the same as that of the Baltic states, is equally far from your typical post-Soviet hybrid regime.

Everything is mediatised

I have written before about the period during Euromaidan as the media interregnum. Based on empirical research, I argued that activist journalists had increased their influence in society thanks to their muckraking work, at the same time eroding public trust in the authorities. While television remained under the control of the oligarchs, there was still much space for individual agency of those who sympathised with Euromaidan. Taken together, these two trends facilitated the victory of Euromaidan, which further increased the power of journalists who effectively took over some power functions during the power vacuum in 2014; many of them would then become politicians. This helped renew the political elites but also put the journalist status under question. The media field and the political field became ever more closely bound, and politics ever more dependent on the media.

The current political situation clearly represents the next stage of the same process, the continuing mediatisation of politics. Only this time, instead of a journalist, a media persona, a television entertainer, became the intruder crossing the line between the screen (of a TV set, a PC, a tablet or a smartphone) and the public office. Zelensky’s campaign is often said to be a short and unexpected one (he announced his bid around Christmas) but in truth it was very long and well-prepared. It began with the airing of the series “The Servant of the People” – logline “The story of the next president” – where Zelensky played the title role of “a guy next door” who becomes president by chance and tries to purify Ukraine’s corrupt politics. The TV show – not really “House of Cards” or “Designated Survivor” in terms of how fine storytelling, psychology or style is – was aimed at discrediting Ukraine’s establishment in spite of the slow progress it made after Euromaidan, and helped spread cynicism about the government at the same level as during the Yanukovych years. Zelensky’s character – whose name was in a macabre way ripped off an actual Ukrainian modernist poet, Vasyl’ Holoborod’ko, who once had written a poem about “a stolen name” – stood up to this establishment as if in defence of an ordinary Ukrainian. Even before that, since the 2000s, Zelensky was well known in Ukraine thanks to his numerous comedy shows dominating the small screen with rude jokes that were often sexist, racist, homophobic, at the expense of the speakers or Ukrainian, Western Ukrainians, Euromaidan protesters, and all who was not the majority or the powerful group.

It is also impossible to understand Zelensky’s victory and Poroshenko’s defeat without the context of a permanent media criticism against the now outgoing president. While many muckrakers working against Yanukovych now turned to politics, the new generation of investigative journalists made sensationalistic (web) TV shows – such as Hroshi, Nashi Hroshi, Skhemy, Bihus.info – exposing corruption a highly marketable product. Even when not linking the corruption to Poroshenko personally, it effected in persuading the public that Ukraine after Euromaidan was becoming more corrupt rather than less, something that is broadly speaking not true. According to all Western estimates, corruption diminished under Poroshenko. But the public opinion was hammered with a message from both independent and oligarch-controlled media that it was otherwise. Equally painful was the currency fluctuation rate and the higher gas prices for households following the IMF demands – if there was one thing that secured Poroshenko’s defeat, it was this one. An ordinary Ukrainian did not forgive a higher utility bill seen as money taken out of their pocket. The achievements – no-visa travel to the EU, the rebuilt army, the very existence of Ukraine as a state in spite of a conflict with a nuclear power – were estimated against the background of the rising utility costs and the perceived spread of corruption.

To counter this, Poroshenko ran a traditional campaign based on outdoor advertising and meetings with voters, and appealing to security concerns. While controlling a couple of smaller TV channels, Poroshenko was rather cut off from the really big ones controlled by much more powerful oligarchs. At the same time, Zelensky managed to couple his television presence, the power of a really simple, uncomplicated storytelling, the large oligarch-controlled media conglomerate, and the potential of social media. Whereas it was Facebook in the US and the UK, WhatsApp in Brazil, in this Ukrainian election Instagram was the largest platform for the anti-establishment challenger (even though Facebook, Google, and YouTube stood high on his priority list). Using his Instagram account with almost 4 million followers (Poroshenko, in comparison, has only 200,000; and even his much bigger Facebook page has about 2 million followers), Zelensky published short, under 1 minute, videos addressing his audiences directly in a friendly, casual way.

Otherwise, he avoided making any promises and concrete policy statements apart from his campaign’s hashtag slogans such as Zrobymo yikh razom (“Let’s screw them together!”) or Idit’ u sraku (“Fuck you” or “Go to hell”), as much as he avoided interviews with journalists. Simultaneously, his team used the techniques of microtargeting in social media (much like the Trump and Brexit campaigns before) barraging relatively small, niche groups of voters with the messages they would react to. As Zelensky’s SMM manager admitted in an interview, they divided the voters into 32 different segments that each received a different message; they ran over 1000 advertising campaigns on Facebook alone.[1]

Following the first round of the election, Zelensky issued a series of short video challenges giving his opponent 24 hours to comply with his demands distracting from the political component of the campaign (such as a challenge to undergo addiction tests hinting the Russian smear campaign alleging that Poroshenko – who is known to have diabetes – is also an alcoholic). Zelensky also used a tactic inspired by screenwriting technique of the character arch development when he would reject his opponent’s challenge (to hold a public debate, for example) just to challenge him to the same thing after a while, thus changing the power dynamic in his own favour and seizing the initiative. Poroshenko tried to keep up and rushed to another national TV channel literally every night in an attempt to persuade the voters that proved futile. This led to a memorable standoff between himself in the studio of the “enemy” channel 1+1 and Zelensky speaking over the telephone, when the challenger traded a few barbs with the president and hanged up abruptly. This was an introduction to the televised debate on the National Olympic stadium in Kyiv (the location was one of Zelensky’s demands), where the comedian used his standup skills to bomb the opponent with about 20 questions per minute – something that could not be responded to physically. Interestingly, many of those present at the stadium were under the impression that Poroshenko performed better while the television audience was in favour of Zelensky’s victory (according to a poll shortly thereafter).

Both sides used fake news quite actively, even though it was rather manipulation in the spirit of “post-truth” rather than outright fiction that became the strongest feature of this election. In a classical example, a photo of Poroshenko walking fast towards a crowd of protesters who opposed him was cropped and spread as the photo of Poroshenko running away from the people.[2] The Poroshenko supporters circulated a passage closely resembling the election situation in Ukraine and said to be a quotation from Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War” but in fact a totally made-up fragment. According to the fact-checking website VoxCheck, Zelensky lied in 27% of his statements, twisted the truth in another 27%, and exaggerated in another 9%; 36% were true. However, they only found 11 statements that could be checked as facts. Out of Poroshenko’s 242 statements, 56% were true, 12% exaggerated, 15% manipulated and 17% untrue.[3]

Whither next?

All this heralded the further decline of traditional politics. Rather than moving towards arguments or ideological standpoints, the politics in Ukraine has moved farther towards selling emotions, stories and images. This time it was the politics of mediatised emotion on steroids. Is this simply a new politics that can be used in a populist and non-populist ways, or for progressive as much as reactionary causes? It may look like it is a neutral tool but I would still argue that this kind of politics substitutes political mobilisation with political immersion by submerging the audience into a story, an emotional environment, an experience. The politics and politicians are very close, at the tap of our fingers, talking to us through an unfiltered Instagram video, but too many seem to perceive this one-way emotional bond for the authentic participation and influence.

Instead of “a neutral tool”, it makes more sense to talk about “pharmakon” in Platonic and Derrida’s interpretation used to refer indiscriminately to both medicine and poison. Not only social media have had two very different roles in Ukraine’s 2014 Euromaidan and 2019 presidential election. The media landscape of oligarch pluralism, the freedom of speech enjoyed by the critical investigative journalists, have led Ukraine both out of crisis and into a crisis, just as much as the fight against corruption seen as essential for the Ukrainian state’s survival simultaneously worked to weaken the political institutions and thus threatened the very Ukrainian state it sought to purify and strengthen. There is no simple answer to this conundrum, as the “medicine” and “poison” effects are at work at the same time and are impossible to disentangle. Little surprise that this “pharmakon” – related to “pharmakos”, a ritual offer at times of crisis in archaic Greece – is enacted in a political system where election is a competition of distrust ratings. Rather than voting in the more popular politician, it resembles more often the voting down of the more disliked individual as if in ostracism, with political leaders regularly being sacrificed to redeem the community in crisis, to literally buy its salvation through blaming all its sins on them and then believing that getting rid of the one person will purify everyone without having to change or literally do anything.

Is the new crisis then imminent, and Zelensky will fall an early victim of his own shortcomings in the situation he helped create? Or is this the beginning of a new “social media dictatorship” where the leader procures permanent popular support and love by tapping into and tampering with the people’s emotions directly via the camera of a mobile phone with the little help from a bit of mediocre storytelling? This is truly the key question at this moment.


[1] https://tech.liga.net/technology/interview/pochemu-poroshenko-proigral-intervyu-s-onlayn-strategom-zelenskogo?fbclid=IwAR3rmi2Lx7xJ043qJ1HCKPjSjuEsodJZKrlIX-_2AHR6G0hqcYA2zLmUyNU

[2] https://nv.ua/ukraine/events/v-shtabe-poroshenko-rasskazali-ob-avtorah-feyka-s-fotografiey-iz-zhitomira-50010858.html

[3] https://nepravda.org/?fbclid=IwAR0lwUd_nSBgQehe_egKroqkFEHlxf11dP2phwtHxkay32ZsoBJ_s51ptV0#/

  • by Roman Horbyk

    PhD in media and communication. Previously connected to universities in Kyiv, Aarhus, Amsterdam, and Hamburg. Senior lecturer at Södertörn University, and a postdoctoral researcher at Umeå University in Media and Communication Studies. Roman Horbyk was born in Kyiv, Ukraine. He has worked as a journalist.

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