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Hashtags and Fan Pages vs.Trade Barriers

August 29, 2013 - Igor Lyubashenko - Articles and Commentary

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When Russia openly started a trade war against Ukraine in August 2013, the reason for it was quite obvious – to hamper the eventual decision on signing the Association Agreement with the European Union during the upcoming Eastern Partnership summit in Vilnius, and make those who influence the decisions of the Ukrainian authorities think more deeply about closer cooperation with Russia’s Customs Union project. The stake is thus quite high. These events have caused many comments.

What is often stressed is the assumption that Russia’s coercion will appear counterproductive because of the negative reaction of society. At the end of the day, ordinary people will stop buying Russian products, they say. Increased social media activity related to this problem is usually presented as the herald of the forthcoming fall in demand for Russian goods among Ukrainians.

Indeed, in mid-August, several initiatives were organised aimed at encouraging Ukrainians to boycott Russian production. One of the most successful attempts was made by the “Vidsich” (rebuff) NGO, who started a campaign using their social media accounts. Many other activists also started using a “#бойкот” (boycott) hashtag to manage the feed of news related to hardships in trade relations between Ukraine and Russia (interestingly, the same hashtag is used to popularise the idea to boycott the Winter Olympics in Sochi).

However, even a fast and superficial analysis shows that these campaigns haven’t become something that have grabbed minds of Ukrainian internet users, although not speaking about the whole society. After a short peak of popularity, the intensity of social engagement decreased. On the other hand, it is too early to say that the campaign was completely unsuccessful. Unlike many other social media actions of a political nature, where you’re asked to “like” some cause, which in turn doesn’t lead to immediate changes in “offline” reality, the current boycott contains a very definite call to action: “Do not buy Russian products when you go shopping.” It is combined with more traditional actions, such as handing out leaflets in front of shopping malls.

More importantly, the information about the engagement of social media users was echoed in the traditional media, in particular on television. Thus, it is possible to assume that the real reach of the campaign is wider than one can judge by simply looking at the fan pages and tweets. We have to wait for some hard data that shows whether Ukrainians indeed decided to boycott Russian products and to what extent.

There are at least two other conclusions that could be drawn from the described situation. These conclusions may be important from the perspective of potential e-diplomatic efforts towards Ukrainian society. The first is the elitarian nature of political engagement on the web among Ukrainians. Low viral effects could simply be explained as a lack of interest in such topics as the Ukrainian-Russian “trade war” among a wider audience. The second conclusion can be derived from it.

Any strategy in the field of e-diplomacy should take into account the difficulty of finding topics that would capture the hearts and minds of Ukraine’s growing networked community, let alone real actions. Virtual reality extends the physical one, but will never replace it, at least when it comes to politics and diplomacy.

Igor Lyubashenko is an academic teacher, new media enthusiast and international relations analyst. He has a PhD in Political Science from the Maria Curie-Sklodowska University in Lublin. His professional experience includes implementation of international projects in Ukraine and Moldova, academic teaching as well as working in the field of marketing communication. His scholarly interests include external policies of the European Union, political and economic processes taking place in Central and Eastern European states (in particular in Ukraine and Moldova), and more recently influence of information technologies on social and political processes.

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