Interview: Kyiv-based Swede Anders Ostlund
one of many expats supporting Ukraine on social media
Ukraine is currently enduring the most turbulent period in the country’s brief independent history. Ukraine’s expat community has found itself caught up in these historic events, with many playing an active role in the information war being waged across the social media landscape over the rights and wrongs of Ukraine’s Euromaidan revolution and the Kremlin’s subsequent military invasion of the country.
Expat opinions on the Ukraine crisis have been varied, with broad support for Ukraine’s EU choice tempered by considerable pockets of criticism and indifference. A significant number of expats have simply chosen to regard the upheavals in Ukraine, regarding it as none of their business. Others have been more openly critical, with dissenting voices often pointing to the violence which accompanied the Euromaidan protests and the prominent role played by nationalist paramilitaries. However, a clear majority of Ukraine’s expatriates have backed the Euromaidan protest movement and have continued to publicly support the country in the wake of Russia’s Crimean invasion and East Ukraine insurgency.
This support has been most visible on social media platforms, with Ukraine-based expats voicing their backing via their own personal pages and, increasingly, posting Ukraine updates in newly-established social media groups. With Ukraine’s expat community enthusiastically entering the international online debate, the number of English-language Ukraine-related Facebook pages and Facebook groups has grown significantly. As a result, a mood of expat volunteerism has emerged – fostered in part by an awareness of Ukraine’s English-language limitations, and also by a desire to counter the campaign of disinformation being fed to international audiences by the Kremlin.
Ukraine-based Swedish expat Anders Ostlund has been among the most prominent participants in this wave of pro-Ukraine expat social media activism. Ostlund, who runs an outsourcing office in Kyiv and also heads up the ‘Fryday Kyiv’ professional networking brand, has been resident in the Ukrainian capital since 2009. He explains to Business Ukraine magazine that he felt obliged by his personal principles to support the Euromaidan anti-government protests and defend the country against the Kremlin’s disinformation campaign, and says he rejects suggestions that foreigners should keep out of Ukrainian domestic politics.
How important is the social media front in the information war currently being fought for Ukraine’s future?
The social media front remains important but it is no longer as crucial as it was during the Euromaidan protests. Since the fall of the Yanukovych government, international coverage of the Ukraine crisis has improved in terms of both scale and content. Meanwhile, Ukraine’s mainstream media landscape has become increasingly free since Yanukovych’s departure, allowing it to take on some of the key informational roles performed by social media during the height of the Euromaidan protests, when state censorship was a much bigger problem. Social media played a key role in the protests, allowing journalists and citizen activists to bypass the censors and contradict state disinformation in real time.
When the protests first started I found it very hard to get hold of the latest Euromaidan news in English, and remember thinking to myself, ‘if it is hard for someone like me who lives in Kyiv to get up-to-date information on the protests, just imagine how difficult it must be for international audiences.’ This was one of things which first motivated me to go to Independence Square every day and report on what I saw. I have used an array of social media platforms including Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and LinkedIn to help me get my message across. Since the beginning of the Euromaidan movement, I have acquired over 2,000 new followers on both Facebook and Twitter, while at the peak of the protests some of my posts were being shared by thousands of people in countries all over the world.
I see myself as a minor cog in a much larger process, and would like to express my sincere admiration for all the independent Ukrainian media outlets and individual activists who have done such a fantastic job throughout the crisis and who continue to work wonders. This list includes everyone who has set up Euromaidan Facebook pages or tweeted about events in Ukraine. It also includes the likes of Hromadska TV, Spilno TV, Espresso TV and the Kyiv Post. They have all done a fantastic job of reporting from the scene of events despite the very real dangers they have all faced.
How have your Ukrainian friends and colleagues reacted to your Ukraine-related online activities?
Ninety-nine percent of the reactions I get are positive, but some of my Ukrainian acquaintances have expressed surprise that I am ready to invest my time and energies in support of a country other than my own. Many of the reactions I have encountered have actually been very emotional, and in some cases, heartbreaking. A lot of my Ukrainian friends seem to have been under the impression that the outside world has no interest in them and does not care about Ukraine – they have been pleasantly surprised by my online enthusiasm as well as the efforts of other foreigners. Sometimes the response has been overwhelming – one man I met on Maidan insisted on kissing my hand repeatedly, and when we held an international flag march through Maidan to show expat solidarity with Ukraine, I saw many of the onlookers in the crowd in tears.
What kind of responses have you encountered from Russian social media users?
Most of the Russians I know are decent people. I have numerous friends and acquaintances in Russia who help to keep me up-to-date with developments via social media. However, I have found that social media dialogue with Russians on the subject of Ukraine is not always diplomatic. Some Russians I have come across have been very aggressive and have threatened me with all manner of violence.
Do you feel that your prominent role in pro-Ukraine online activism has exposed you to any personal security threats?
I am not personally concerned despite the numerous threats which I have received. In the early days of the Euromaidan protests, lots of friends warned me about the potential risk of becoming a target. However, after giving the security issue some serious thought, I decided the best approach was not to let it bother me. Doing the right thing in terms of my own personal beliefs has actually given me considerable peace of mind throughout the past eight months of unrest. I think I would have suffered from a terribly bad conscience for the rest of my life if I had let fear of physical danger or my personal commercial interests get in the way of doing what I believe in.
Russia stands accused of orchestrating a vast information war against Ukraine. Have you had problems debunking Russian disinformation?
I have found it relatively easy to debunk much of the disinformation coming out of the Kremlin as it tends to be so transparent that even a 3-year-old child would be able to see through it. However, this does not mean that Russian audiences are necessarily easily convinced. For years they have been presented with a heavily politicized perspective on world events which is closely controlled by the Kremlin. As a result, most Russians have grown used to this one-sided narrative and are understandably reluctant to admit that their entire worldview is based on lies. Anti-American attitudes have also boosted the Kremlin position in the information war. Many of Vladimir Putin’s apologists and supporters – both in Russia itself and internationally – are ready to support anyone who they regard as standing up to America. This anti-Western sentiment is particularly difficult to overcome. On numerous occasions I have had to concede that it is practically impossible to get beyond the bitterness which feeds this anti-American hate.
What would you say to those who claim that foreigners should not get involved in domestic Ukrainian political issues?
They have their views and I have mine. I believe politics is all about morals, and morals can be shared by people across borders, regardless of nationality. I regard it as an obligation to take a principled stand in defence of one’s personal beliefs. If we do not engage in the society we live and work in, then we must also accept our share of responsibility for the situation we find ourselves in. That goes for expats and locals alike.