Transmedia storytelling ushers in new populism in Ukraine

Roman Horbyk,
Postdoctoral Fellow,
Umeå University,

Senior Lecturer,
Södertörn University,

On 22 April 2019, Ukraine elected Volodymyr Zelensky, a comedian without any prior political or civic experience, as its sixth president. A few months later, as the new country leader basked in the light of cameras and attention of international celebrities from Yuval Noah Harrari to Mila Kunis at the summit of Yalta European Strategy, he returned to his acting career and performed a sketch with former colleagues from the comedy show where he had travestied presidents of Ukraine. Now, a new actor acted as president Zelensky while the actual president played a role of the president’s interpreter. Nothing seemed unique about the trite jokes they cracked. Unique was the very situation where an incumbent president who had risen to prominence by performing president was now performing somebody else and was himself parodied by an actor standing next to him. The entire 2019 election campaign in Ukraine got caught up in this double mirror: the president was elected on the back of mind-boggling storytelling.

Unlike other post-Soviet Slavonic countries, Belarus and Russia, Ukraine has set an example of perhaps chaotic but genuine democracy, changing six presidents in 28 years of independence. A typical presidency does not last over one term. Likewise, the 2019 presidential election has been lauded as a peaceful and democratic change of government. I argue, however, that the election became a step away from democracy for Ukraine, rather than a step forward, due to the peculiarities of its media system.

The key flaw of the political system is the charismatic leader-centred politics controlled by oligarch clans, loose business groupings bound by personal ties and seeking to influence politics for private gain. In the media sphere, the same system translates into the ownership structure of mainstream outlets, especially large national TV channels. They are used by their oligarch owners to project influence on vast masses of voters. At the same time, the smaller investigative media outlets, often organized by activists on do-it-yourself basis, have shown the limits of their independence after having played such important role in the 2014 Euromaidan. In the 2019 campaign, many of them either willingly sold their muckraking services in smear campaigns or let themselves be used unwittingly for the same thing. On top of that, the rise of social media has further subverted established models of political communication, opening up the public sphere for microtargeting and other digital marketing technologies.

As a result, the campaign ran contrary to the principles of rational deliberation, inherent to modern concepts of democracy as theorized by Jürgen Habermas or Seyla Benhabib. The winner appealed to the voters with transmedia storytelling that enwrapped and entrapped the audience in an emotional story told in multiple narratives across multiple media. As a familiar comedian occupying the oligarch-controlled small screen for some 15 years, Zelensky parodied and lambasted three different heads of the Ukrainian state and eventually starred in a popular series “Servant of the People” as a different (well-meaning and honest) reformer who unexpectedly gets elected president. This narrative was extended by his social media campaign bombarding Instagram with short videos and “stories”. Split up between different media (this is exactly what Henry Jenkins called a transmedia storytelling), not unlike a Marvel comic, this campaign blurred the boundaries between a fictional character and an actual candidate, leading many people to vote for Zelensky who essentially continued performing during his campaign. At the same time, he neglected traditional news media and avoided interviews or other appearances where he could be questioned. The voters were immersed in a story world that looked deceptively similar to their own. Zelensky and his staff essentially substituted political participation with political immersion. This runs contrary to rational deliberation, which is why the election represents a step backward in terms of media freedom and democracy.

Because of this most recent turn in “esthetization of politics” that Walter Benjamin found stimulating for the establishment of populist dictatorship in the 1930s, Ukraine should be closely watched. Of course, in his first month in the office Zelensky already acted problematically as he stronghanded the parliament into rubber-stamping dubious laws, in particular launching the process of introducing governmental leverage over the media. But not the least is this attention due because the recent successes of populist campaigns will likely be watched by populist politicians elsewhere in Eastern and Western Europe and globally, in hope of repeating it. The mediascape we live in – driven by storytelling and economies of attention and emotion, as well as multiple media platforms caught up in their inbuilt logic of virality – is extremely supportive for this new type of populism, which is far more powerful than what we have seen from the West so far.


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