Weaponized flashmobs

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The Rise Of Z

For the first week of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, there has been some general head-scratching from the international community, wondering where Russia’s ferocious info war machine was. The US and the UK have, at this point, an almost mythical view of Russia’s infamous troll army. So the assumption among many was that the Russian disinfo kaleidoscope would be in full effect as the country’s army began shelling Ukraine. Except it’s been the Ukrainian people and their fully-online response that has dominated the early days of the invasion, with their powerful mix of viral videos, inspirational memes, and Zelensky’s incredible use of social media to deliver emotional speeches via roving cell phone video press conferences, all while dodging Kremlin-backed assassins.

So where’s the Russian disinfo? Well, according to Emerson T. Brooking, a senior fellow at the The Atlantic Council’s DFR Lab, it’s been largely focused on Russians themselves. “The Russian propaganda focuses almost entirely on obfuscating Russian activities to the Russian public,” he told me last week. “They are hardly engaging in the sorts of deception that we've grown accustomed to from, say, the 2014 invasion.”

Though, that does feel as if that’s beginning to change. Before the country’s state media was deplatformed from major social platforms, they were promoting two main talking points. First, that it was NATO expansion that pressured Russia to engage in the indiscriminate and horrific violence it is now inflicting on Ukraine and, second, that Ukraine is a country overrun with neo-Nazis that Russia is cleansing. And it’s that second one that is becoming more and more popular on English-speaking Twitter at the moment. Though that’s hardly due to Russia’s own propaganda machine. Instead, it’s because of some pretty serious missteps from western news organizations.

PBS, over the weekend, interviewed the mayor of Konotop, Ukraine, Artem Semenikhin, who is so well-known for espousing neo-Nazi ideology that, in 2019, he was beaten in public. It also looks as if Semenikhin did his interview in front of a blurred out portrait of Ukrainian ultranationalist Stepan Bandera. Not great. And Getty photographers keep photographing Ukrainian soldiers wearing fascist patches on their uniforms. The fact this keeps happening, of course, is because Ukrainian fascists are trying to hijack the crisis to push their own agenda, but it’s a real gift for Russian trolls and the remnants of Russian state media still active on English internet. So far most of the criticism about this is mainly being shared within western leftist circles, but it is conceivable that the pro-Russian right wing in both post-Trump US and post-Brexit UK could find a way to latch on to it soon.

Meanwhile, inside of Russia, the Kremlin’s domestic info war is beginning to take shape. A Reddit user posted an excellent supercut of Russian influencers delivering a script of Kremlin talking points on TikTok before the app blocked Russian users from uploading new content. And, as more major platforms like Facebook have become inaccessible in the country, Russia’s info war has evolved beyond influencers into a full-on nationalist movement that is a fascinating reflection of recent right-wing meme campaigns we’ve seen in the west over the last few years. It’s called the Z movement.

The tweet above was posted by Kamil Galeev, a former Woodrow Wilson Center fellow, who focuses on human rights and conflict. If you click through, Galeev has a whole thread explaining the rise of the Z movement.

The “Z” is believed to stand for “Za pobedy,” or “for victory,” and it was first spotted on Russian military vehicles entering Ukraine last month. Though, there’s some speculation that the Z could also mean Запад, or west, which is pronounced “zapad,” which would explain why it was slapped on Russian convoy vehicles. But as The Guardian pointed out in a report that Russian gymnast Ivan Kuliak wore a “Z” insignia on his chest on the medal podium at a recent competition, the letter “Z” doesn’t exist in Cyrillic. But now it’s all over Russian social media.

According to Galeev’s thread, the Z been spotted on cars and Russian soldiers are sharing memes with it on Telegram. It also features prominently in a video that was shared over the weekend by Financial Times Berlin bureau chief Guy Chazan.

The video was filmed in the eastern city of Yekaterinburg, Russia. According to an article from local media, hundreds of employees working for the Russian wholesaler Sima Land organized a “flashmob” and put on “PutinTeam” hoodies and waved Z banners to show their support for the invasion. According to the article I found about this, Sima Land employees seem to do a lot of nationalist flashmobs like this.

Also, an interesting aside about the hoodies the Sima Land employees were wearing — and one that links the current Russian nationalism movement to the earliest versions of “Make America Great Again” as a way to move Trump merchandise first, political ideology second. “PutinTeam” is, itself, a pro-Putin social movement and an apparel brand that was started in 2017 by Alex Ovechkin, an NHL player who plays with the Washington Capitals. And Ovechekin is still skating for the Captials, but he’s been removed from any marketing materials for the NHL. Which feels like more people should know about that…

Aside from a couple explainers and some stray Twitter threads, the Z movement hasn’t had a ton of attention outside of Russia. So it’s hard to say yet if this could really spread, but, in theory, it could. The most obvious parallel to the Z movement is QAnon. Suddenly, the letter Q began popping up at rallies and protests around the world, carrying with it an entire universe of far-right propaganda. But really the Z movement could be swapped out with any recent “grassroots” viral campaign led by Republicans over the last decade. “Let’s Go Brandon,” “Deplorables,” “MAGA,” Pepe the Frog, the Freedom Convoy — they all essentially function the same. They’re easy memes and political shorthand, meant for remixing and sharing, something you can put on a hat or a T-shirt.

But, for all the American memes that were embraced by conservatives during the Trump years, it was really only Make America Great Again that was created from the topdown like this. And, even then, MAGA, as a concept, was created by the Trump campaign when he was considered an antiestablishment outsider. The Z movement, if it does successfully spread beyond Russia, would be a new development for modern memetic fascism and something important to keep an eye on in the coming weeks.

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An Invasion Through The Eyes Of Travel Vloggers

Alina Volik is a Ukrainian travel vlogger who, up until the invasion, had a small following for her fun videos traveling around Ukraine. Her social accounts are now a bizarre mix of her old aspirational content and new jarring images of the country as it is now. Her Instagram stories, in particular, are a stream of up-to-minute updates of packed trains, bomb shelters, and destroyed buildings. And she also shares content from other young influencers and content creators in Ukraine sharing similar content, like @valerisssh, who is using her TikTok to document Russian missile strikes against civilians.

I think a lot of platforms like TikTok and Instagram are so successful with young people, especially, because their most popular content feels removed from the real world. Filters and stylized photography and videos make lifestyle content feel like it’s somehow safe from the real world and these young content creators are hacking that and flipping it on its head. I definitely recommend checking out their accounts if you haven’t yet.

Crypto Is So Decentralized That One Guy Just Wiped Out 25 Startups

Andre Cronje, a major Web3 developer, announced via one of his collaborators Anton Nell that he is no longer contributing to the decentralized finance/cryptocurrency space. Cronje was the founder of a pretty major DeFi platform called Yearn Finance. According to Nell’s tweet, 25 crypto projects that Cronje was involved with will be terminated by the first week of April.

In case you’re having trouble understanding what’s happened here, let me explain it a bit more. The way most DeFi/crypto/Web3 projects work is via tokens. If people support the project, they buy the tokens, which act like shares. This allows a lot of Web3 startups to bootstrap themselves super fast. Instead of trying to go through the hoops of wooing investors or becoming big enough to be a public company, a small project can make some tokens and start moving really fast. So what Nell has announced here is that 25 projects are rug-pulling their investors, making their tokens pretty much valueless overnight.

Also, this guy set a reminder six months ago to see if Ethereum would be carbon neutral by now. (It hasn’t.)

New Weird TikTok Guy Dropped

There is a German “water sommelier” on TikTok named Martin Riese. (Twitter mirror here.) His videos are wild. I spent a while this weekend watching the ones where he walks into various American convenience stores are roasts the water brands they’re carrying.

First, some things I love: how much he hates Smart Water, how he warns people about which waters are owned by Nestle, how he generally seems to know what he’s talking about when it comes to false advertising and scams in the water industry. What I don’t love: Basically, that we’re at a point with commercialized water where this is even necessary. Riese’s big thing is to warn people against spending a bunch of money on “processed tap water,” which I think is actually rad, but the whole world that he’s in is also kind of bummer. Though, as someone who is completely addicted to sparkling water, myself, I’m glad that he’s pro-Topo Chico.

Anyways, beyond my very conflicted feelings about this dude’s whole deal, I have decided that I desperately want this guy to do a collab with Jeremy Fragrance.

Here’s The Story Behind That Bear Video

This was sent to me by a reader named Paul. It has gone incredibly viral in the last few days. It feels very much in conversation with the iconic 2016 video “British lads hit each other with chair”. I thought maybe I’d be able to get some more context for why this video exists, but really, I just ended up with more questions.

It was posted four days ago by Mikhail Viktorovich Koklyaev, a Russian bodybuilder and strongman from Chelyabinsk, Russia. The video above is just one scene in a longer reel featuring the bear. From what I can tell from Koklyaev’s Instagram, he does not own the bear, but knows the bear’s owner. The bear’s Instagram can be found here. The other guy in the video is another Russian bodybuilder named Denis Vovk. The best I can tell, the whole video shoot was a way to celebrate the first day of spring, which is this month. Alright!

Did Hank Green Finally Address The John Green Tumblr Drama?

Alright, let’s go through this whole story from the beginning. Hank Green and his brother John got their start with a very early YouTube channel called The Vlogbrothers around 2007. They were formative creators for early internet culture and, in 2010, they founded VidCon, the massive video creator convention. John would go on to write several best-selling YA novels, like Fault In Our Stars, and Hank has remained a fixture of American internet culture.

During Tumblr’s peak, John had a blog called fishingboatproceeds. Around 2011, John kept finding himself sucked into various fandom drama happening on Tumblr. A lot of this had to do with the fact that he was a grown man commenting on and engaging with a platform that was, at the time, mostly used by young women. And as his profile as an author grew, so too did the animosity against him from users on the site. The very late-00s idea of an “internet dad” was seriously beginning to sour by 2013, when Your Fave Is Problematic issued a callout post against John. Like all of the posts on YFIP, it was a mix of valid criticisms and tedious bull shit that only teenagers would care about. John wrote out several defenses and explanations, but the YFIP post officially changed John into a punching bag for the site.

By 2015, there was a meme on the site where users would edit his posts to say outrageous and offensive things. Back then, there was a weird quirk where users reblogging other people’s posts could edit what the original post said within their reblog. Imagine if you could edit someone’s tweet you were quoting. Bad idea, right? Well, one of these edits, which is usually referred to as the “cock is one of my favorite tastes” post, went incredibly viral and basically was the last straw for John and he left the site after that. You can read the whole post here.

Hank Green, during the pandemic, popped back up on TikTok. And for the most part has been a great addition to the site. The video app is in desperate need of creators who know what the heck they’re doing when it comes to ethically viral content and proper monetization policies. But, unfortunately, because a lot of young women on TikTok are deeply fascinated with the Tumblr drama they were too young to participate in in the early 2010s, there’s been a questions as to whether or not Green would address the “cock is one of my favorite tastes” post. And, to make matters worse, Green has done videos referencing other examples of famous Tumblr drama, which was basically just blood in the water for users.

Well, over the weekend, a video began circulating on Tumblr, complete with screenshots of Green defending his brother. The video isn’t on his TikTok anymore, but there are other videos with him wearing the same sweater, so I’m inclined to think this is real and was just deleted by him.

Anyways, hopefully this is finally the end of all of this. The “cock is one of my favorite tastes” post is one of those infamous examples of internet trolling, but it has kind of lost its special the more it’s turned into an annoying way to bully Hank Green, who really is only trying to figure out better ways to make a life and living on social media. I like Green’s TikTok and, as I said, the platform needs more serious creators like him that are interested in improving the quality-of-life standards for users.

My internet culture collective, Digital Void, is throwing a live event in Washington, DC, on March 23! We’ve got some great guests like Jordan Uhl, podcaster Bridget Todd, reporter Ellie Hall, and The Intercept’s D.C. Bureau Chief Ryan Grim.

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