“Putin, we will never forgive you for this.”
One powerful thing about the internet is it allows for the easy creation and dissemination of information across platforms. Of course, the same thing can also be a major drawback. Following Russia’s military invasion of Ukraine, social media exploded with articles, videos, photographs, and posts about the conflict. In all the noise, it’s easy to lose track of everyday people living in Ukraine. Beneath the cacophony, however, Ukrainians are using TikTok to deliver messages to Russian President Vladimir Putin directly — and providing a vital reframe for global actions moving forward.
With regards to Russia and Ukraine, misinformation on social media has been a hot topic — for good reason. A number of reports have illustrated how rapidly both disinformation and misinformation have spread online. For example, one video that was passed around purported to show a Ukrainian girl confronting a Russian soldier, but it was actually footage of Palestinian activist Ahed Tamimi. There have been numerous fake livestreams on TikTok too.
In recent weeks, outlets like NPR and MIT Technology Review have put together guides on how to avoid this false content. However, hyper-focusing on false information can have its own consequences — like fostering a dangerous sense of paranoia. Take the hashtag #AfricansInUkraine on Twitter, which showed the horrific treatment Africans and Black Ukranians faced when fleeing the country. That hashtag was falsely accused of being a Russian disinformation campaign.
The reality is that media has biases, and it cannot or will not cover everything. That’s where social media comes in, giving everyday people the chance to share what they’re seeing and how they’re feeling. Right now, Ukrainians are still online, and what they have to say to Putin on apps like TikTok shouldn’t go unnoticed.
When I was scrolling, one particular video from a Ukrainian TikToker with the display name Dana caught my eye. It followed a common trend of showing before and after photo compilations of cities like Kyiv before Russia’s invasion. As of March 6, Russia had launched more than 600 missiles in Ukraine. While the total death toll is unknown, Kyiv and its surrounding suburbs have faced a shocking level of devastation.
In the caption of her before and after video, Dana wrote, “Putin, we will never forgive you [for] this.”
Dana’s TikTok isn’t the only one where Ukrainians are directing messages to Putin explicitly. Another user, Maryanka, has posted a few such videos. One shows a white dog on screen barking whenever someone off camera says Putin. Its caption is, “Putin fuck off.” In a second video, Maryanka dismisses Putin’s claims that Russia and Ukraine are one nation. Similarly to Dana, Maryanka captioned her clip, “We’re never gonna forgive.”
Another user, Valerisssh, posted a video based on TikTok’s popular point-of-view format. It starts with a shot of Valerisssh in front of ruined building with “POV: You are [living] in Ukraine” across the screen. The video goes on to show more destruction throughout Chernihiv, a city in the northern area of Ukraine. Last week, Russia targeted a residential area there, including apartment buildings, with six missiles. At least 47 people died.
“Putin, I [await you] in Chernihiv,” Valerisssh wrote in her caption.
While these “fuck you” messages to Putin are an obvious rallying point — people use online platforms to direct messages at politicians all the time — they can’t be read in isolation. These creators are actually tapping into an existing rallying cry that’s widespread in Ukraine. On her second video, Maryanka used the tag #putinhuilo, a transliteration of a Ukrainian anti-Putin slogan. Sometimes written as “khuylo,” the word is akin to saying fucker or dickhead. Loosely translated, the entire phrase means, “Putin is a dickhead.”
Khuylo is an old swear word, but the Putin-specific phrase grew out of the conflict driving Russia’s invasion today. In 2014, Russia forcibly annexed the Crimean peninsula and began its occupation of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of eastern Ukraine. Separatists in those regions would eventually declare independence.
So, it’s no surprise that Ukrainians then took a foul word and made their own specific “Fuck you” slogan directed at Putin. But the phrase really blew up when Ukraine’s then-interim foreign minister, Andrii Deshchytsia, used it — kind of on accident. While trying to calm protesters outside of the Russian Embassy in Kyiv in June 2014, Deshchytsia echoed some of their chants. He stated, “I am ready to be here with you and say, ‘Russia, get out of Ukraine. Putin is a dickhead, yes.’”
Ukrainians sending messages explicitly to Putin stands in direct contrast to some of the actions being taken on a global scale. In recent weeks, standing against Putin and his supporters became conflated with taking action against all Russians. We are seeing this take place on multiple levels. Recently, Visa and Mastercard suspended operations in Russia and, due to sanctions, a number of Russian citizens were cut off from Apple Pay or Google Pay. And bars in the U.S. are swapping out Moscow Mules for Kyiv Mules. As Discourse Blog put it: “We’re Doing Freedom Fries the Redux.”
As for sanctions, The Conversation noted that they’re “unlikely to force Putin to abort his invasion of Ukraine.” Instead, “Russian citizens will certainly be hurt. The damage to civilians, particularly the poor populations of sanctioned countries, are too often ignored.”
In Russia, over 4,300 people have been arrested in anti-war protests. On Friday, the legislature passed a law imposing prison sentences of up to 15 years for people criticizing Russia’s invasion. Still, Russian people are speaking out wherever they can; in Serbia, one Russian man even burned his passport to show his rage.
Watching this, I think of what a mutual of mine tweeted: “Imagine being one [of] those many Russian citizens protesting while facing 15 years in jail [for their] actions and they can’t use their bank cards, get medications, or even watch Netflix!”
“Putin khuylo” isn’t a phrase only used in Ukraine. It’s popular with anybody who opposes Putin, including Russians. The general anti-Russia hysteria we’re seeing shifts the focus from where it needs to be. And ultimately, it points to the downside of ignoring social media in misplaced efforts to not get swayed by mis/disinformation. Take it from the people on TikTok: There is one man at the top who is responsible for this. Many of the rest of us are trying our best to stop it.