Post-Euromaidan gains for Ukrainian language challenged by creeping Russification and state indiffirence

"Switch to Ukrainian" is the title of this popular internet meme, which went viral amid a post-Euromaidan of national revival. Image: open sources 

Hybrid War

Edited by: Sonia Maryn

Editor’s Note

After the Euromaidan revolution in 2014, the Ukrainian language flowered amid what has been called a national awakening. These gains appear to now be reversing.

Since 2014, Ukraine has had a state policy for the protection and promotion of the Ukrainian language, to address the problem of Russian-language domination in the country’s eastern regions and in virtual space. Russia has always considered Russian-speakers as “native Russian people” who seek unification with “Great Russia” and uses the language argument to justify the occupation of eastern and southern Ukraine. As a result, language is not only a matter of identity but a key security issue for Ukraine.

After the adoption of specific laws and policies, 2017 and 2018 were years of the rapidly growing popularity and presence of the Ukrainian language in all spheres of life. More importantly, in 2019 a new law, entitled Ensuring the Functioning of Ukrainian Language as the State Language, established that all services should be provided in Ukrainian by default unless another language was requested by the customer or client — usually Russian.

However, 2020 became the first year since the Revolution of Dignity (2014) that usage of the Ukrainian language on TV and the internet deteriorated. Progress in encouraging the Ukrainian language in other spheres also stagnated.

This development was revealed in recent research by Prostir Svobody (Space of Freedom). Having analyzed the actual instance of the Ukrainian language in all regions of the country by spheres, sociologists raised the alarm over the reversal and apparent sabotage of the language policy. Researchers from Detector media also expressed deep concern, having analyzed the top 250 YouTube channels in Ukraine. Less than 10 among these were predominantly in Ukrainian, while the others were in Russian. The third research study, conducted by the volunteer initiative How to Not Become a Vegetable, also analyzed YouTube — the main social network in Ukraine after Facebook — and concluded:

“[In Ukraine,] the total number of views of video channels with direct or veiled pro-Russian propaganda is almost 2.5 times higher than the channels with a pro-Ukrainian position.”

Data prove that purposeful state efforts, like those from 2016-2019, can rapidly increase the presence and prestige of the Ukrainian language. Conversely, the absence of clear state policy leads to the domination of the “Russian world” in Ukraine which is promoted synchronously by all available media means.

73% of Ukrainian citizens consider Ukrainian as their mother tongue, while 22% consider Russian as their mother tongue. At the same time, only 50% speak Ukrainian at home, while 28% speak Russian and 20% use both languages. Regarding the presence of the Ukrainian language in the public space — especially virtual — the numbers are yet lower.

TV is the main source of Russification again

Two-thirds of Ukrainians believe that the programming share of the Ukrainian language on television should be at least 75%. This was the quota established by law in 2017, but in practice, for the second year, there has been an increase in the Russian language in the sphere of Ukrainian-language TV.

Notably, a discrepancy in the details of the TV law is that it only takes into account the language spoken by program moderators, not the total use of language throughout all programming. Careful monitoring by the NGO Prostir Svobody shows that only in 2018 — during the strict observance of the law — the share of Ukrainian language in TV outmatched the share of Russian language, sharply increasing to a record 64%. But in 2019, the share dropped. Then in 2020, it decreased even further and Russian actually became more frequent. Moreover, the primetime share of the Ukrainian language in six leading TV channels — which also began to decline last year — fell to 41% in October 2020, while purely Russian-language programming accounted for 46%.

Social networks: a modern tool for the propaganda of the Russian language and narratives

If earlier, popular thinking among Ukrainians was that oligarchic-controlled TV channels would soon give way to internet freedom where Ukrainian culture could evolve, the algorithms have made unfavorable adjustments. Quite the opposite has happened.

Overall, the Ukrainian internet has become the most Russianized space in the country — this is especially true for social networks. While in actuality Ukrainian language use dominates in the majority of regions, only in four regions do internet users write their posts predominantly in Ukrainian. Meanwhile, in 20 regions Russian is the most frequently used language for writing posts.

The share of the population by region that uses Ukrainian on social networks; at home; at university or work; and those who consider Ukrainian as their mother tongue. *In total, the share of Ukrainian-language use on social networks is lower than average when analyzed by region, due to the high number of Russian-language users who did not indicate their region. Source: prostirsvobody.org

In Ukraine, in total, 84% of posts are in Russian and only 16% of posts in Ukrainian.

This disproportion may partially be explained by bot accounts — often registered in Ukraine but without specification of region. Nonetheless, social networks clearly impel users to switch to Russian.

It should also be noted that algorithms, too, favor Russian-language content that receives more views, partially due to international views from the post-Soviet space. People also often choose to write in Russian for other reasons: to receive more coverage; to receive views not only from Ukraine; sometimes they share the post-colonial view of the Russian language as more popular and prestigious; and for other reasons. On average, Ukrainian language posts receive 50% less coverage than Russian-language posts.

A significant problem with social networks — YouTube in particular — is that they provide no filter by language. A typical scenario is that a Ukrainian child, browsing a social network or YouTube, sees predominantly Russian content and by clicking on it is then transferred to near-exclusive Russian content, as accorded by algorithms. Having no option to filter by language, users must make the extra effort to deliberately search specific pages for content in Ukrainian — predictably a frustrating disincentive.

YouTube unexpectedly becomes the worst threat for Ukrainian language and narrative

Among social networks, YouTube is the most Russified.

Only 3.2% of videos that Ukrainians watched on YouTube are in Ukrainian while the rest are mainly in Russian.

The share of Ukrainian language in the Ukrainian segment of social networks — from 26.9% on Facebook to 3.2% on YouTube. Source: prostirsvobody.org

As analysts from Detector media and texty.org have determined, among the 250 most popular YouTube channels in Ukraine, less than 10 had predominantly Ukrainian-language content. As a result, Ukrainian content rarely appears for the average user, as accorded by Youtube algorithms.

Referring to the latest Internews polls, one-third of Ukrainians get their news from YouTube. Although YouTube videos partially replace TV-channel news and can have more credibility due to reduced control, many are questionable in content. In addition to true experts, thousands of self-proclaimed experts and downright ordinary people post indiscriminately, rendering the content at times emotional in character and often simplistic, lacking accreditation.

In other words, internet “news” is not always reliable.

Pro-Russian blogger Shariy

The most popular blogger in Ukrainian YouTube Anatoliy Shariy, openly supported by the pro-Russian Opposition Platform. Source: ZIK

In circumstances where the majority of users are passive consumers and use both Ukrainian and Russian search enquiries, YouTube in Ukraine becomes a predominantly Russian-language space and a hotbed for Russian propagandists.

Not surprisingly, the most popular blogger in Ukrainian YouTube is Anatoliy Shariy, openly supported by the pro-Russian party Opposition Platform for Life and criticizing pro-Ukrainian policies. His videos receive close to 10,000,000 views in Ukraine per month and almost 30,000,000 views — three times as many — in Russia per month.

Shariy’s influence on YouTube cannot be compared to that of Ukrainian politicians or bloggers — the most popular of whom have at least five times fewer views.

What should be an anomaly is precisely the case when skilfully directed Russian propaganda from a single individual on YouTube can outdo the influence of the entire Ukrainian Public Broadcasting TV channel UA: Suspilne, which lacks state financial support to attract more viewers and is currently not popular.

The other important trend is the major augmentation of Russian propagandists on YouTube by networks of bots who create artificial popularity that invariably evolves into “real user” popularity. When observing a video that shows millions of views as well as thousands of positive comments and many “likes,” a viewer might think that “so many people could not be wrong.” This serves only to strengthen the belief in the promoted content. The situation is exacerbated when the content that was “liked” and commented on by bots translates into superior promotion by YouTube algorithms that reach real users — this process grows into a vicious circle.

Medvedchuk’s bot farms

A prominent example of the activity of Russian bot farms on YouTube is the channel of Viktor Medvedchuk — Putin’s crony and head of the Political Council of the pro-Russian party Opposition Platform.

Bohdan Prystupa, Head of Digital Risk Analysis Department at SemanticForce. Source: Ukrayinska pravda

Bohdan Prystupa, Head of Digital Risk Analysis Department at SemanticForce, analyzed Medvedchuk’s YouTube channel and identified that many comments posting to the account were created by bots. He noted that almost the same number of comments appeared under each video, regardless of the number of new videos:

“If you impose the dynamics of the appearance of comments on the days of the week, there is a clear correlation. On Sunday, the number of comments decreases sharply. And so every week,” says Prystupa.

Using the platform SemanticForce, Prystupa analyzed 250 most active users on the page and found that 249 out of 250 are likely to be bots. The comments had similar wording and similar profiles:

“About 20% of these profiles were created on 15 April 2020. The average interval between their creation is a few minutes. And in the vast majority of profiles created on 9 January 2020, the last name and first name are capitalized … Discussions make up only 0.25% of the total number of comments [on Medvedchuk’s channel]. In comparison, the corresponding figure on Petro Poroshenko’s official channel is 15%,” adds Prystupa.

Obviously, such augmentation arising from artificial accounts and bot farms could not be possible without the purposeful financial support from interested Russian donors.

Ukrainian TV show moderator and activist Serhiy Prytula. Source: Big Kyiv

The only positive trend that gives some hope regarding YouTube is the rapid growth of new Ukrainian bloggers that have recently cropped up. In particular, Ukrainian TV show moderator and activist Serhiy Prytula has received 257,000 subscribers to his new channel in less than a year. While Geo Leros, the MP who is openly critical of President Zelenskyy, gleaned 70,000 subscribers to his new channel in only two months. Prytula is now receiving 2,000,000 views monthly, becoming Shariy’s main Ukrainian rival.

Children’s clubs and activity centers in the biggest cities are predominantly in Russian, violating state law

The state pays little attention to language use during extra-curricular activities, although the Ukrainian-first law was adopted a year ago. As of 16 January 2020, the relevant article of the law on Ukrainian language functioning as the state language came into force.

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Among others, it obliges service providers to use the Ukrainian language by default, including children’s clubs, like scouts and sports teams, or other youth activities, like dance lessons or drama groups, and a myriad of other examples. Exceptions are possible only for those who request to receive services in another language.

Yet, classes in sports, dance, music, art, and other interests children partake in remain mostly in Russian, hampering the perception of the Ukrainian language as commonplace for Ukraine among the youngest generation. In effect, socializing them to be Russian-inclined.

Volunteers of the Space of Freedom and the initiative Teach Ukrainian studied more than 200 activity providers and clubs for children in five large cities of Ukraine — Kyiv, Kharkiv, Dnipro, Odesa, and Zaporizhia. It should be noted that other than Kyiv, these major cities are located in eastern Ukraine, thus the results are not a nationwide representation. Regardless, only 15% of extra-curricular lessons and activities were conducted in Ukrainian, 29% were in a mix of both languages, and the majority of 56% were in Russian.

Children’s clubs and activities are one of the factors that create a Russian-speaking environment for children, laying the stereotypes of language behavior for the future. Even in the capital of Ukraine, it is often a problem to find children’s activities with instruction in Ukrainian.

For the first time since 2014, the share of Ukrainian-language books and films dropped

Although the overall number of publications dropped due to the economic crisis caused by the coronavirus lockdown, it is important to note that the share of Ukrainian-language books fell from 84.4% in 2019 to 80% in 2020. This is the first such decrease since 2014 when Ukrainian-language publications began to increase steadily.

Analysts from Prostir Svobody made similar observations about films. In 2020, the number of Ukrainian-language films produced in Ukraine dropped by 80%, from 159 in 2019 to 34 (from January to November) and is unlikely to change significantly by the end of the year. Although partially due to the economic crisis, the decrease has also been caused by the unprofessionalism and change of management in the Ukrainian State Film group. Nadiya Parfan, Ukrainian film director, explains in a recent interview.

On any given day in Kyiv, more than one-third of service providers, like drivers, waiters and the like, will answer you in Russian, but regional variations are high

The law on obligatory use of the state language in passenger transport has been in force, and was the norm, for more than a year. Yet, according to this latest data, only 67% of bus station workers, 64% of intercity bus drivers, and 54% of city bus drivers respond to Ukrainian-speaking passengers in Ukrainian.

At the same time, in eastern Ukraine violation of the law is often total, meaning that service providers use only Russian-language with customers or clients. However, in the western regions, the proportion of Russian-language use in restaurants or transport is close to zero.

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Edited by: Sonia Maryn

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