On the morning of 24 February 2022, Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, attacking the country from several directions. The war, however, had started eight years earlier, in 2014, with Russia’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula on the Black Sea. But what had . . .
On the morning of 24 February 2022, Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, attacking the country from several directions. The war, however, had started eight years earlier, in 2014, with Russia’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula on the Black Sea. But what had previously been a low-scale, regionally delimited war suddenly escalated to unthinkable dimensions. This book is concerned with events preceding the full-scale assault on Ukraine. The manuscript had been completed when Russian bombs started to fall on cities across the country, and the outcome of the war is still unknown as the final version of the book goes to press. Except for minor adjustments, we have not rewritten the study to acknowledge the most recent atrocities. Still, we are very much aware that this book will be framed by the context of the war, whatever direction it takes. And so it should. We believe the eight years preceding the 2022 Russian invasion are crucial for understanding the war, especially its communicative dimensions. Our initial impressions from the first few weeks of the war strengthened this belief, and as we watched the videos, images, and other communicative efforts produced in Ukraine and disseminated to the world, we could see that they were the results of a longer period of development among those who manage meaning in Ukraine. For the Ukrainians, the assaults that shook the world were not unexpected. This book is about Ukrainian preparations for a worst-case scenario, the fruits of which can now be watched on screens all over the world.
The period we are studying evolved in discrete phases. First, we examine communicative activities during 2013, just before there was any fear of war. Second, we refer to the three months of the Euromaidan Revolution in the winter of 2013–2014. Most of the book, however, is concerned with the long period of low-scale war and related information management from the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014 to 2021, the year before the full-scale invasion. With the brutal escalation in 2022, a new phase of history started for Ukraine, in many respects with completely different characteristics. However, nothing grows out of a void.
Theoretically, the book raises questions about communicative action in Ukraine and related to the country’s specific situation since 2013. The wider context also concerns general developments since the collapse of the Soviet Union and how Ukraine has related to the Russian sphere of interest. How is it possible to organize information policy in times of deep national crisis? What roles do governmental, corporate, and civil society actors play in times of revolution when the state is in turmoil? How do these domestic actors respond to external aggression and propaganda? With the dramatic escalation of the situation in Ukraine, these questions have increased in relevance.
When we first decided to study communication practices in Ukraine, there was no war with Russia. It was early 2013, and we were interested in how government authorities in cooperation with public relations (PR) consultancies and the corporate business sector were trying to promote a favorable image of Ukraine to an international audience. Such nation branding campaigns have been widespread since the 1990s, not least in eastern Europe, where the end of the Cold War encouraged many states to rid themselves of their immediate Soviet past and show the rest of the world a new face. We chose Ukraine not because it had been particularly successful in its nation branding efforts. It fact, the opposite was true. Ukraine had launched several branding campaigns, but none of them had been notable, and Ukraine was rarely, if ever, mentioned in the field of nation branding research.
Ukraine is geographically the largest European country, and with about 45 million inhabitants, it is the most populous of the post-Soviet states in eastern Europe.1 Despite its size, Ukraine was fairly anonymous compared with its neighbor Poland or the Baltic states. Like a number of other post-Soviet countries, Ukraine has a very short history of sovereignty. Although it enjoyed a brief period of independence after World War I as the Ukrainian People’s Republic (1917–1921), modern independence came with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 (Wolczuk 2000). Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Ukraine had balanced on the border between the European Union and the Russian sphere of influence. Gradually, however, Ukraine started to build closer ties with the EU, and an association agreement between Ukraine and the EU was supposed to be signed on 28 November 2013. We expected that established forms of nation branding practices could be rather difficult to implement in Ukraine.
Our first field trip to Kyiv took place in May 2013, with the aim of building contacts with public servants at government departments and marketing professionals in the PR industry who had been involved in previous nation branding campaigns. The government had commissioned some of these efforts, and private corporations had initiated others. The latest campaign had been conducted in cooperation with international broadcasters such as BBC World and CNN, just before the 2012 European Soccer Championship cohosted by Ukraine and Poland. In the local PR business in Kyiv, the commercial field of place branding (promoting cities, regions, or the country as a whole) was small, and it was easy to identify the bureaus and individuals involved in previous campaigns.
The marketing business in Kyiv was not large, and it soon became apparent that all the major players knew one another. As in all social fields, the relationship between actors can be described as both collaborative and competitive. Among branding consultants, one could also sense a notion of reflexivity and self-criticism. Several of the earlier campaigns had been met with harsh domestic criticism concerning both their content and the questionable use of public money. In fact, even those who had participated in these campaigns to improve Ukraine’s international image regarded them as failures. Often, however, they blamed the government for a lack of proper coordination. They also expressed a sense of urgency—a sense of being at a crossroads. This concern was present among PR consultants and politicians but also in the media: Ukraine was perceived as almost invisible to the rest of the world and in need of a recognizable “face” (Ståhlberg and Bolin 2016). An article in the English-language magazine Kyiv Weekly stated that “the average European cannot imagine a Ukrainian because they have never seen one.” Or if they could imagine one, the author explained, it would be “a negative image of a ‘nation of bandits, prostitutes and migrant workers’” (Kabachiy 2013, 2).
At the time, we were definitely part of that ignorant foreign audience. Neither of us had visited Ukraine before, and our knowledge of the country was not much better than that of the average European. We were familiar with the names of the larger cities and some major events from recent history, such as the Orange Revolution in 2004 and the singer Ruslana’s victory in the Eurovision Song Contest the same year. And we remembered Yulia Tymoshenko, one of the leaders who became an iconic face of the revolution. But beyond that, we knew very little. Chernobyl was mainly a frightening metonym for human technological disaster, and if we associated it with any particular country, it was the Soviet Union. Most people in Sweden, our home country, would probably be unable to accurately locate this nuclear catastrophe in today’s Ukraine. The same is true of the city of Poltava, which, as every Swedish primary school pupil knows, is where Swedish king Charles XII lost a battle against the Russian tsar in 1709. (It probably evokes the same connotations for Swedes as Waterloo does for French citizens.) Few Swedes would place Poltava in Ukraine, indicating that the worries of the Ukrainian branders were justified.
The people we met on our first visit to Kyiv were arguably not representative of the average Ukrainian citizen. They were professionals working in the PR industry, in government departments, or in the journalistic media. Most were fluent in English, and many had been educated at UK or US universities. They were clearly oriented to the West and were strongly convinced that Ukraine needed to move closer to Europe and the EU. In their minds, the main problem was that Ukraine was too close to Russian culture and values. When they talked about branding Ukraine, the implied audience was in the West, and they had great expectations for the upcoming association agreement with the EU. There were also ponderings about the new nation branding campaign commissioned by the Ministry of Tourism.
We returned to Kyiv to see the presentation of that new campaign, which was to be launched at the Second Kyiv International Tourism Forum on 10–12 October. The first day’s events took place at the Club of the Cabinet of Ministers of Ukraine and was opened by the vice prime minister of Ukraine, Oleksandr Vilkul; the program included a number of domestic dignitaries, foreign diplomats, and representatives of the EU, UNESCO, and the World Tourism Organization. Talks were simultaneously translated into English, Ukrainian, and Russian. At the forum, Vilkul announced a new strategy to brand Ukraine as an international tourist destination. The ambitious goal was for it to become one of the ten leading countries in world tourism.
The opening ceremony was followed by a session where the new tourism campaign was presented. The contract for orchestrating this campaign had been won by WikiCitiNomika, a PR firm with previous experience in city branding in Ukraine. During the development of the campaign, it cooperated closely with the German agency GIZ (German Association of International Cooperation), and WikiCitiNomika presented the campaign strategies and graphic design components together with the German ambassador to Ukraine and the local director of GIZ. The central message was that Ukraine was a country of cultural contrasts coexisting in peace. Ukraine was both East and West, Orthodox Christianity and Catholicism, tradition and modernity, and so on. Graphically, this message was expressed with the letter U (for Ukraine), in which the font heights represented a binary contrast that, when conjoined, made a happy smile.
The second day was organized quite differently from the first day’s opening speeches and presentations. The main Ukrainian tourist attractions were displayed in an exhibition at the Ukrainian House—a huge Soviet-style building near Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square) in the center of the city. Around the exhibition were demonstrations and displays of the cultural heritages of Ukraine: traditional music, folk costumes, and works of art. The artwork included Petrykivka ornamental paintings, a style originating in the village of the same name in Dnipropetrovsk Oblast, for which Ukraine was applying to UNESCO for the status of intangible cultural heritage (later granted).
In addition to the displays of cultural heritage and commercial commodities, there was an exhibition booth for the promotion of EuroBasket 2015, which would take place in Kyiv, and another booth related to Ukraine’s ambitions to host the Winter Olympic Games in 2022. Coming from Scandinavia, and not speaking either Ukrainian or Russian, we soon realized we did not belong to the primary target audience. There was very little information in English, and most of the commercial exhibitors addressed their displays of tourist destinations, facilities, and commodities to a Russian-speaking audience. As we had learned from the vice prime minister’s PowerPoint slides the day before, tourism in Ukraine still meant visitors from Russia and other neighboring countries. The slides themselves were in Russian, and many of the guests came from former Soviet countries. However, as we walked around the displays, talked with exhibitors, and listened in on seminars, it was evident that many people had high hopes for an expanded tourist market.
Only a few weeks later, all these expectations were radically erased. At the last minute, President Viktor Yanukovych backed out of the association agreement with the EU in the hopes of building tighter trade agreements with Russia. A few postings on Facebook led to demonstrations at Maidan Nezalezhnosti, and the square was soon known internationally as Euromaidan. The protests escalated rapidly and were followed by a violent crackdown by the police and special riot forces (Berkut). By February 2014, more than one hundred people had been killed.
Paradoxically, the clashes between protesters and police in Kyiv meant that Ukraine no longer needed a branding campaign to get international attention. Just like many other European citizens and other news consumers around the world, we followed the events closely on international and national broadcast news channels, as well as on Twitter and Facebook. The violence in Kyiv and other cities in Ukraine continued until late February 2014, when the president fled the country. This was followed shortly thereafter by Russian aggression, including the annexation of Crimea in March and a Russia-backed “separatist” war in the regions of Donetsk and Luhansk. Most sensational was the downing of Malaysian passenger flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine in July, killing all 298 passengers and crew.
Managing the domestic information around these events was a challenge for the government, which was quite weak at the time. And if it was difficult to control the flow of information domestically, it was even more difficult to do so internationally. The war has continued since then and escalated in February 2022, providing a continuous flow of news stories in the international media.
The events following the Euromaidan Revolution brought us back to what was once a classic concern of media research: war and propaganda. Ukraine ended up in a situation that was increasingly understood as an information war with Russia, and scholars were soon paying attention to these events, which were increasingly framed in terms of propaganda, iWar, or hybrid warfare.2 By far, the Russian side of this discursive conflict has received the most attention, both in news reporting and in research. The dominant perception was that Russia (often metonymically expressed as “Putin” or “the Kremlin”) was acting in an extremely well-organized and strategic way and making use of new communication technologies such as bots and social media manipulation (see Kuzio 2017). Furthermore, this development seemed to converge with a more general awareness of the communication patterns of populist regimes in various places around the world, their sometimes hostile way of relating to traditional media, and their relaxed distinctions between fact and fiction. Concepts such as fake news and trolling—concepts with high rhetorical but little analytical value—became commonplace in discussions.
At this juncture, we became increasingly interested in other types of information policymaking besides nation branding. The communication situation in Ukraine also stood out as more interesting to us than Russia’s activities. The way Ukraine managed its response to aggression and tried to control information flows was worth understanding: if there was a powerful, well-synchronized propaganda apparatus on the Russian side with the ability to disseminate a particularly biased image of the situation, how could Ukraine respond? What kind of counterimages could be produced, and by whom? In which forms and for which audiences?
Surprisingly, it soon became evident that the branding initiative in Kyiv was still alive. As one PR consultant stated, conflicts tend to blow over, while branding is long term. These professionals were biding their time until political conditions stabilized. However, more interesting from an information management perspective (Detlor 2010), several of our informants became deeply engaged in the Euromaidan protests and their aftermath, contributing their branding and communication skills to a number of initiatives with the explicit aim of responding to Russian propaganda.
This engagement was already apparent during those turbulent days in late November 2013. Notifications about the political situation started to appear on the Facebook and Twitter feeds of the PR consultants we had recently met. One of them was working at a PR bureau located a block from the Maidan, and he apparently went down to the square during his lunch break and photographed the crowd. From our interviews, it was clear that he had had great expectations about the EU agreement, but we were surprised that he joined the protests so soon and so openly. After all, nation branding professionals are highly dependent on their good relationships with state authorities, since they commission and pay for the campaigns. If the protests failed, these professionals would risk being out of business.
In the unstable situation that followed the ousting of President Yanukovych, an urgent need for information management was expressed. This was handled by private initiatives to provide foreign journalists with updated and reliable information about events in Ukraine. This was particularly critical when the situation escalated in 2014 and information started to appear from Russian sources offering their perspective. Much of the information being supplied to national and international news bureaus was from the eastern front, where the Ukraine army was fighting Russia-backed “separatists” in Donetsk and Luhansk. A group of PR professionals we knew set up the Ukraine Crisis Media Center (UCMC) in March 2014, with funding from a number of European and American organizations. The UCMC was launched with the aim of providing global media with “accurate and up-to-date information on the events in Ukraine.”3 From its location in the Hotel Ukraine, situated at the top of the Maidan, the UCMC offered news briefings and information support to foreign correspondents reporting from Ukraine.
The UCMC was not the only initiative undertaken during these turbulent days of the Euromaidan Revolution. Many other activists—both within the country and from the large Ukrainian diaspora—formed groups that engaged in communications activities geared toward both a national and an international audience. Many of these initiatives, such as Euromaidan Press, worked through Facebook and other online social media, disseminating the latest news from traditional trusted media sources as well as user-generated information. Activists supporting the regime change believed the Russian media deliberately interfered by spreading false information. To address this problem, a group of faculty and journalism students at the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy launched StopFake to debunk stories from various sources that were spreading speculative or outright false information. They disseminated this information on a webpage and through social media. Simultaneously, a group of academic historians who had participated in the Euromaidan protests formed an initiative called Likbez to control how Ukraine’s history was depicted in the media. As historians, however, their longer-term goal was to provide future generations of Ukrainians with history textbooks sanitized of a Russian bias (Yurchuk 2021).
A particularly noteworthy development in information management in Ukraine was the rapid launch of several new television channels that streamed continuous images from the Euromaidan Revolution. They provided many of the stock photos used by the international news media. Most successful was Hromadske TV, an initiative by young journalists in Kyiv that began broadcasting on the same day the demonstrations started. In fact, one of its reporters is thought to have instigated the protests by contacting friends on social media and telling them to gather at the square. Hromadske (Ukrainian for “public”) was, however, not alone in streaming the protests live. We, too, switched between two other channels while following the dramatic events: UkrStream and Espreso TV.
As the war in eastern Ukraine became permanent, the Ukrainian government under new president Petro Poroshenko felt the need to implement a policy related to how information about the armed conflict was distributed both domestically and to an international audience. A new Ministry of Information Policy (MIP) was launched. This was not an uncontroversial decision. Critics feared that the Ukrainian government was trying to control and censor information—or perhaps fabricate lies—just like Russia. However, Ukraine did not have the kind of resources necessary to do so. The MIP was quite small, consisting of one minister and two deputy ministers, a few information officers (state secretaries), and administrative staff. In effect, the MIP relied on the cooperation of voluntary organizations engaged in communication projects related to the war (usually financed by donations and funds from foreign development organizations). However, at the MIP’s disposal were the national news agency Ukrinform and the state television streaming channel UATV, both of which produce news information about Ukraine. Some of the state secretaries had backgrounds in PR and branding, and the MIP would eventually launch its own nation branding campaigns.
The Euromaidan events were intriguing and encouraged us to widen our research interest extensively. Our initial project about the branding of Ukraine had been confined to a limited number of actors involved in specific campaigns. The aggression from Russia stimulated several more civil society initiatives, ranging from fundraising and cultural performances to volunteer battalions fighting in the war. Particularly surprising was the amount of space available for private and voluntary initiatives. In this, we noted a similarity to the nation branding business: state and government authorities seemed to have less influence over communication projects than one would have expected, and information was managed by a plurality of civic and corporate actors contributing diverse experiences and skills. The chapters that follow describe and discuss the implications of this method of implementing information management and policy.
The developments in Ukraine after the Euromaidan Revolution actualized some classic themes of mass communication and media research, especially since the information management related to the Russian aggression was most often understood in terms of a propaganda war. Propaganda, however, is somewhat problematic as an analytical concept for pragmatic, ethical, and theoretical reasons. Pragmatically, few Ukrainian informants would consider their communicative activities to be propaganda. That may not be a complication for critical research conducted at some distance from the empirical world (the bulk of propaganda studies are also textual studies), but when interacting regularly with informants, the concept of propaganda is too negatively loaded. It is simply impossible to retain informants’ trust if one calls the actions taken from the Ukrainian side propaganda. In common parlance (as well as in most but not all scholarly work), the concept has an entirely normative connotation. Propaganda is a practice of intentional deception that “others” engage in; it is definitely not something “we” do. Thus, the very use of the concept suggests a certain essentialist understanding of the studied phenomenon.
This brings up an ethical problem: it is dubious to discuss information and communication activities in “neutral” terms and then force the concept of propaganda on these activities in the analysis.
This circumstance is an apt illustration of the problem with propaganda as an analytical and theoretical concept: propaganda is usually understood as a form of communication that is orchestrated by a powerful propagandist (a state authority or political leader) to influence a target audience (of popular masses). Over time, its meaning has become more negative than it was in early research on mass communication. In their influential book Propaganda and Persuasion, Garth Jowett and Victoria O’Donnell define propaganda as “the deliberate, systematic attempt to shape perceptions, manipulate cognitions, and direct behaviour to achieve a response that furthers the desired intent of the propagandist” (1992, 2). It is only to a limited extent that such a definition would be helpful for making sense of communication activities in Ukraine.
Importantly, though, the word propaganda is relevant within the situations observed in Ukraine, and it is frequently used by the actors in this field (for that reason, the word appears on many of the following pages). All the communicative efforts we studied were framed by a strong conviction that Ukraine was threatened by propaganda—in much the same sense suggested by Jowett and O’Donnell’s definition. Our informants insisted that there was a deliberate, systematic attempt to manipulate the whole world through false or biased information orchestrated by Russia or Russian interests. In that sense, propaganda is used in much the same way as the concept of fake news (Farkas and Schou 2020).
The intention of this book is neither to dispute that conviction nor to expose or critically examine Russian propaganda. Our scope is broader: this is a study of communicative practices by actors who are framing their efforts in relation to a threat they perceive as propaganda. Our interest is how that perception is articulated and acted on. Paraphrasing Clifford Geertz (who claimed that anthropologists are not studying villages but in villages), propaganda is “the locus of study [but] not the object of study” (1973, 22). We develop what this means theoretically for the analysis of information policy in Ukraine in the first chapter. In the remainder of this introduction, we present our aims and objectives and give an outline of the chapters to come.
This book describes and discusses the forms, agents, and platforms entangled in the complex political and communicative situation in Ukraine since 2013. The analysis is related to a specific historical context in which the combination of political tensions, commercial dynamics, and new communication technologies gives birth to novel forms of information management. A number of interested parties had a stake in the creation of Ukraine’s information policy—governments and governmental administration (e.g., the MIP) and commercial actors, entrepreneurs, and activists—forming new alliances and cooperations.
This book focuses on Ukraine and the informational, political, social, and cultural conditions that are unique to the country. Importantly, this is not a book about the relations between Ukraine and Russia, nor is it about information wars (which is a problematic concept), although both these conditions are contextual to our analysis. There is plenty of research on Ukraine-Russia relations, as well as on information wars with a focus on these relations, but our fieldwork was exclusively about Ukraine and was carried out in that country. We sometimes reference work on international relations, but our focus is on how agents engage in information management and strive to manage meaning in communication practice, the communicative tools they take advantage of, and the consequences this has for narrative construction.
Ukraine is, at the time of this writing, the only European country involved in a war on its own territory. This is a truly extraordinary situation. This particularity aside, Ukraine is similar to other European countries in many respects, not least with its neighbors in eastern and central Europe. Ukraine has, for example, a strong presence of oligarchs, which means that there is a high degree of overlap between political and corporate power.4 Ukraine has also scored high on corruption, like Bulgaria and other countries around the Black Sea.5 As in these countries, Ukrainians have a very low level of trust in governmental institutions, including trust in politicians and the media.6
The strong oligarchy and its tight bonds to the Yanukovych government up until the Euromaidan events were also present in the realm of broadcast and print mass media. Five large media companies owned and dominated by five oligarchs controlled the media in Ukraine in what has been described as a system of “oligarch pluralism” (Horbyk et al. 2021, 42): Intermedia (Dmytro Firtash and Serhiy Lyovochkin), 1+1 Media (Ihor Kolomoyski), Media Group Ukraine (Rinat Akhmetov), StarLightMedia (Viktor Pinchuk), and Ukrainian Media Holding (Serhiy Kurchenko).7 In addition to their broadcast and print media activities, all five media houses were active on websites, and 1+1 Media owned a news agency (Unian).8 However friendly these five media holders were to the Yanukovych government in the years before Euromaidan, their loyalty quickly waned during the protests, and most of them reported Euromaidan events in a “balanced way, without pro-government or anti-opposition slant” (Szostek 2014, 9). As Joanna Szostek suggests, these oligarchs, many of whom had business interests in Europe, were “buying themselves insurance for the future” by acting neutral in a turbulent situation with an uncertain outcome (2014, 12).
It was significant that these oligarchs had a very strong hold on the broadcast media, since television was the dominant news provider for the Ukrainian population at the time. However, among younger segments of the population, internet news was more popular: 89 percent of fifteen- to twenty-four-year-olds and 73 percent of twenty-five- to thirty-four-year-olds reported that online news was their main source of information (Metzger and Tucker 2017, 175ff.). This meant that another context for the Euromaidan Revolution and the unfolding of events was the structure of the digital media landscape in Ukraine. In 2013 internet penetration was around 42 percent in Ukraine, which seems small compared with the European average of 68 percent (Onuch 2015a, 175). However, most of these users (82 percent) lived in urban areas, so the internet penetration in Kyiv was rather high (Metzger and Tucker 2017, 175ff.). And, taking into account that internet penetration among younger segments of the population was much higher, we can assume that those involved in the Euromaidan protests and their aftermath were highly connected.
The aim of this book is to analyze the management of meaning in Ukraine and to discuss how information policy is formed at the intersection of state politics, corporate business, and civil society activism.9 In chapter 1 we account for our points of departure and our specific perspective on the management of meaning. We argue that information management and policy must be understood as stories or narratives told by a plurality of agents—journalists, PR professionals, political administrators, and many others. Notably, these stories are often constructed and take shape within networks of cooperating actors.
Narratives are also central to the professional practices surrounding nation branding, and through the construction of stories (narratives), branding and information policy converge. In the development of narratives, PR agencies and brand designers are searching for “success stories” they can use to attract tourists and foreign investments. Such language is also used in policy discussions among military advisers to governments.10 But how are we to make sense of these narratives and counternarratives? What frameworks should we use to understand the complex communicative context in which information policy—broadly defined—in Ukraine is formed? In chapter 1 we also present our own model for understanding the management of information by focusing on the management of meaning through stories, narratives, images, and the like, and we relate this to previous literature on branding, propaganda, persuasion, and information management as well as to concepts such as nation branding, soft power, and public diplomacy. Our cultural approach to communication is grounded in the fact that before messages can have effects, they have to become meaningful, as British Jamaican cultural theorist Stuart Hall (1973) argues in one of his most cited works on the communication process. What appears meaningless to us will not affect us, as we largely disregard things that are incomprehensible. This is why stories—that is, messages organized within an intelligible narrative structure—are important. We understand the world around us through such stories. In this study we try to grasp how meaning is made during turbulent times.
We also discuss the consequences of various terminological choices, such as propaganda and information war, since the choice of terminology leads our thoughts in specific directions rather than others. In that sense, terminology is often a stake in these discursive games. Hence, we argue that several of these concepts have poor analytical value and are of little help in understanding the situation in post-Euromaidan Ukraine. We use the discussion on these concepts as a springboard to develop our own analytical model, based on communications and media theory and focusing on actors, media forms, and stories. This gives us a unique position to discuss the management of meaning and information from particular empirical entry points.
In chapter 2 we direct our attention to the actors, those who are “telling all the stories,” to quote the legendary Hungarian American mass communications scholar George Gerbner (2010). According to Gerbner, we are cultivated into society, formed by the mass of stories that are told. Therefore, it is important to know who the storytellers are, what their motivations are, and within what frameworks they formulate their narratives. We discuss some of the agents involved in information management on the Ukrainian side, narrating material in English for international audiences. We propose that Russia’s aggression has engaged an entirely new set of actors in the management of information, coming from the PR business, journalism, corporate finance, and, most notably, the voluntary sector. These new actors bring professional ideas and work routines from their fields of origin, which impact the practice and expressive character of what has been termed information warfare.
In chapter 3 we turn to the forms of information management and discuss how information is created in niche media before it takes form in mass media stories. We look at those communications platforms employed by the agents accounted for in chapter 2—that is, the media technologies and forms that precede the images and stories that are eventually relayed to international audiences. In a highly mediatized world, the mass media are also mediatized, meaning that there is a high degree of what Jay Bolter and Richard Grusin (2000) call “remediation,” where images circulate from niche media to mass media. This remediation of images means that the narratives are formed in contexts and circumstances under which the niche media operate before they meet a larger mass audience. In this chapter we follow some of these processes of remediation and discuss the implications for the narratives that eventually reach the mainstream media of broadcast television and the press (in both print and online forms). This involves social media such as Facebook, Twitter, and VKontakte, as well as streamed television services that deliver footage for international news broadcasters, which reframe the images for the commercial and international framework in which they operate. It also includes presentational media such as PowerPoint, where discourses and images are formed and tested before being distributed more widely in advertising and mass media.
In chapter 4 we look at the actual stories and contents produced by the agents presented in chapter 2, with the help of the media forms discussed in chapter 3. We discuss the contents and information related to several particular events taking place between 2014 and 2017. Quite unexpectedly, many of these communicative efforts led up to and converged around an event that usually occurs outside the context of political controversy: the Eurovision Song Contest, held in Kyiv in May 2017. The international media attention surrounding this event was exploited by activist groups as well as by state authorities in both Russia and Ukraine. Our analysis builds on interviews with mass media representatives, PR consultants, political administrators, and brand designers but also on branding material, including the design of logotypes. In terms of policy, the events and communicative actions described are attempts to control narratives about Ukraine, and we discuss the nature and character of the actions as well as which domestic and foreign audiences the narratives were aimed at.
Chapter 5 summarizes our analysis of actors, media forms, and stories. Here, we widen the scope to discuss the fact that in a highly globalized world, information management and policy take new forms, involve new agents, and are managed on new types of communication platforms. This means that the power and control of information are increasingly diffused. The rise of large-scale media platform companies undermines the monopolies that nation-states once had on the control of information; access to media production technologies by civil society organizations makes it easier for them to bypass gatekeepers such as traditional news media outlets; and the flow of people between corporations and governmental departments introduces new practices and communication strategies. We conclude the chapter and the book with a discussion of how our study contributes to an understanding of the contemporary informational state and its specific characteristics.
This book is based on more than six years of field research on branding, propaganda, and information and meaning management in Ukraine, from 2013 through 2019. Contextually, it also builds on our previous research on branding and soft power in India and Estonia. This may appear to be a rather simple and straightforward background, but describing the methodology, methods, and research material of this study is a delicate matter.
Sociologist Robert Merton once described a fairly common experience in qualitative research. Sometimes during the research process, by chance or coincidence, something unanticipated, surprising, or anomalous happens that changes the original context of the project and sends the researcher in a new direction of inquiry. It piques the researcher’s curiosity, leads him or her along unplanned paths, and provokes new insights. Merton called this unanticipated but important component of research the “serendipity pattern” (1948, 506–509). What Merton had in mind was primarily the effect of such empirical findings on sociological theory. During later decades, the concept has occasionally been recycled among anthropologists, usually as a strategy for taking advantage of unexpected happenings and following coincidental encounters or new paths that might occur during ethnographic fieldwork (Hardtmann 2009; Hazan and Hertzog 2011; Rivoal and Salazar 2013). Some would even claim that serendipity constitutes “the essence of fieldwork research” (Pieke 2000, 138).
The serendipitous moment in the early phase of our research is rather obvious. The dramatic and unexpected Euromaidan events took place less than a year into our research and offered a unique opportunity to study meaning management in turbulent times. It certainly changed the direction of our research radically. Furthermore, almost out of necessity, serendipity had to remain the most characterizing methodological approach for our continuing research in Ukraine. No one could anticipate what would evolve out of these tumultuous events. It was not possible to demarcate a stable research field, and there was no way to plan exactly where and when to observe, who to meet, and what material to study. We had to be open to whatever we encountered. The guiding principle during these years of field research was to follow up on things that aroused our curiosity. We often interviewed people, read documents, studied media contents, and made ethnographic observations in a rather improvised manner. Moreover, several accounts in this book come from experiences that took place on the way to a formal meeting in an office, a stroll around Kyiv on a Sunday afternoon, or even a visit to a restaurant after a long day of interviewing government officials. A list of “research materials” would be highly deceptive and would not be exhaustive. In the chapters that follow, we refer to these interviews and observations, but needless to say, although the material that appears in this book follows our aims and our arguments, it does not reflect the totality of our empirical data.
Over the course of our study of information and meaning management in Ukraine, we made some decisive research choices. Most importantly, we deliberately focused on communication initiatives directed toward an international English-speaking audience. Our interest in these issues derived from the Ukrainian branding efforts around Euro2012 and the broadcast ads on BBC and CNN. Our initial interest was in analyzing nation branding efforts, which are, by nature, directed to an international audience of tourists, investors, and political stakeholders. Focusing on internationally oriented communication was also a choice of necessity, as neither of us speaks Ukrainian or Russian. To overcome our linguistic shortcomings, we worked with postdocs and students who are native Ukrainian and Russian speakers, and they assisted us with translations and cultural explanations. However, the politicians, media executives, journalists, PR consultants, academics, activists, and others we interviewed were well educated and, with few exceptions, spoke very good English. Many of the formal interviews we conducted were thus “elite” interviews with people in the capacity of their occupations or functions (Radway 1989), as distinct from interviews with everyday media users or audiences. Analytically, we treated the interviews as both “source” and “discourse”; that is, our informants contributed factual information and explanation, but equally important was how they phrased or formulated this information and how they characterized, for example, brand design or information strategy and policy (see Bolin 2003).
Although we were often close to the communication activities and actors in Ukraine, we also observed the events from a distance. For the most part, we followed the drama in and about Ukraine from Stockholm. This is, after all, a study of communication initiatives that are public and available through the internet or social media, and we followed the flow of news through regular channels as well as more specialized sources. Our frequent visits to Ukraine were usually instigated by something we learned about from a distance that prompted us to travel to Kyiv—only a two-hour flight from Stockholm—and get a closer look. Thus, during a period of six years, we traveled to Ukraine at least two or three times a year and met people involved in several organizations and particular communication activities. Initially, these meetings took the form of formal interviews, but after meeting repeatedly with the same people, the interactions became more casual.
Of course, our approach is also marked by our training in anthropology (Per Ståhlberg) and film and media studies (Göran Bolin), and most of our previous research has been qualitative and ethnographically inspired. Rather than being driven by theory-informed hypotheses, we were inspired by our own curiosity about branding and information and meaning management and the people involved in such activities. We see these practices as being played out in a complex field of social relations in the context of political tensions, international relations, and economic dynamics. This is also how we account for them in the chapters that follow, starting with the broader theoretical framework and approach in chapter 1.