Are Russians turning against Putin? Evidence from Telegram emojis

If you’ve clicked through to this post you surely know about the wildly impressive Ukrainian counter-attack in the east in the last couple of days, which many are saying is one, if not the, most momentous events in the war. It’s provoked, seemingly, a noted change in rhetoric from people like Margarita Simonyan, who out-of-characterly said

And surprisingly (illiberally) liberal sentiments from Ramzan Kadyrov, who said on Telegram:

If we have been saying for years and years that we must not threaten and harass NATO near Russia’s borders, it only meant that we would not sit and watch them place the sword of Damocles over us.

If we have long, patiently, discreetly, but intelligibly said that we should not torture and exterminate the Russian-speaking population of Donbass, it simply meant that they should be treated equally, respectfully, without prejudice.

Further, if we said that Crimea was ours, that it was the choice of the Crimean people themselves, then we should not have repeatedly and monotonously that you would invade this territory at the first opportunity.

After all, if we kept repeating that you can cherish and lust after your faceless LGBT masses as much as you want, but don’t impose it on us, that only meant that we would not allow it in our country. We don’t understand it and we don’t accept it. But even here, sanctions were imposed against Russia. Simply for not accepting LGBT values.

So: it’s not (solely) a fight against Nazis). It’s not about Ukraine ceasing to be. It’s about respecting the rights of eastern Ukrainians and of those in Crimea; all Russia wants is to be left alone to pursue its traditional lifestyle. That’s a change in tone.

What about the Russian people themselves? Have their sentiments changed? For the past while I’ve been trying to gauge the sentiment of Russophone Telegram users by looking at how they react to posts: which they heart, or thumbs up, or thumbs down, or smiley, or whatever (see previous posts; also this daily Twitter account which is sometimes interesting but bug-ridden). Browsing some of the Telegram channels, I noticed something I’d never seen before: stories about Putin that were massively negatively reacted to. Now, it could be I’m just missing these others, and properly to make the case would require more data, but I think there’s an interesting prima facie case to be made that, at least among the — no doubt extremely unrepresentative — population of Russian Telegram readers, there seems to have been a change in sentiment.

The way I’m going to make the case is just by showing you the posts. But a small bit of relevant background first, and perhaps some predictions we can make on the assumption that there has been a change in sentiment. If the predictions were borne out, that would be a reason to buy my argument here.

First, brief background. Saturday 10 September has a good claim to being one of the most important days in recent Russian history. In addition to the Ukrainian counterattack, it was also ‘Moscow day’ which celebrates the city’s founding, and polls were open for municipal elections across the country.

It must be said, this is a completely terrible configuration of events for Putin. The posts we’ll see will show his day full of the sort of puffy PR events one would expect of a celebration day. That the prevailing narrative of the last couple of days was that the Russian army was getting trounced (‘they said it was the best army in the world; it’s not even the best in Russia) meant that there was going to be a tension between PR and the reality of war.

And so there was. But it’s worth pointing out, if audiences got annoyed at Putin for doing photo ops while his army was retreating, it’s not like he hasn’t encountered this situation before. Read any telling of Putin’s political history and you’ll see again and again he makes these unforced PR mistakes. Perhaps the most famous was the sinking of the submarine Kursk in 2000. Putin initially didn’t leave his holiday home in Sochi; then, when eventually he did, he was distant and unapologetic with the families of the 118 people who died. More generally, Putin has a reputation for aloofness and doing the wrong thing, and it looks like this weekend was a paradigm example.

On what we should expect. Assume that Russian Telegram viewers turned against Putin this weekend. What will happen? There are a few options. It could be that it’s just the viewers find it offensive that he’s doing PR when his army is failing, and so, once it blows over, the reactions will become more as expected. But it could not be. What’ll happen if there continues to be anti-Putin sentiment on these channels? Well, I think the answer is simple: the channels will disable emoji reacts. That’s how we’ll be able to tell if the reactions noted here are more long-lasting than this weekend.

Okay. First two from TASS, a news agency:

This is from yesterday. The text just says that Putin went to a new boxing and sambo centre, talked about the history of boxing, and met with a famous Russian boxer. Perfectly normal president stuff, especially for a martial artist like Putin. But 567 thumbs down! That’s unusual.

And two, where Putin gives a speech talking about Moscow day, to 675 thumbs down.

Three is, from Solovyov, a notorious pro-Putin presenter:

It reports Putin saying that those servicemen killed during the ‘special military operation’ gave their lives for Russia. Here we need to get into the interpretation of emojis. A premise of this post is that thumbs down means something different from cry-face: the former is confrontational, expressing an antagonistic response to the content, while the latter is empathetic or sympathetic: I agree, and I’m sad too.

If, but only if, that interpretation is right, then while the majority is still on Putin’s side here, a very substantial minority is not, and is annoyed with Putin’s speech.

Four is roughly the same as above (first paragraph) with some material, of which more below, about how the Russians are trying to prepare Donetsk and Luhansk for winter, except from TASS and not Solovyov. But note: many thumbs down.

Five is the boxing centre again with more details, and many more negative reactions (partly explained by Solovyov’s following). It’s worth noting the presence of positive reactions, too. Rather than weaken by argument, I think it strengthens it: we can propose that people are ambivalent about Putin at the moment. For a Solovyov reader to be ambivalent, well, Putin must really have messed up.

Six is more about the efforts to rejuvenate Donetsk and Luhansk. It’s again interesting that the positive predominates but there’s still a substantial negative voice. It could be that they’re expressing dissatisfaction with the need to fix those places. Is that a plausible reading? I don’t know.

Seven:

This reports the seemingly very unpopular opening of a big new road (or pipe, or something, not sure)! Again, another bit of Moscow day feel-goodery that backfired.

Eight is about Putin’s having sent a congrats Telegram to King Charles. Not sure if it’s Putin or Charles they’re expressing dissatisfaction with.

Nine is same as above from Solovyov:

Ten is the boxing centre again. Man they hate it! (Well, some do)

Eleven is from Friday, and reports Putin’s goal to rebuild a memorial in eastern Ukraine. Clearly the reaction is mostly positive, but again there’s a sizable negative minority. Dissatisfaction with Putin or with the very need to rebuild? (It got damaged in 2014).

Twelve is the same story, with basically the same response, and I just include it for completeness:

Thirteen is more bizarrely unpopular monarchy stuff:

Fourteen, as above, monarchy stuff, and I include it because positive reactions outweigh negative ones (which might suggest this whole project is incoherent — I don’t think it does, but you can consider it.)

ttps://t.me/tass_agency/154584. For some reason I couldn’t attach this link to ‘Fourteen’

Fifteen is the same story again about the memorial, the reaction to which you can assess:

Sixteen is the same again:

https://t.me/tass_agency/154577
https://t.me/tass_agency/154578

Is this significant? Maybe. Others have reported (e.g. here, and there are a few others I can’t immediately find) are also expressing anti-Putin sentiment. How things will turn out in the next couple of days remains to be seen, but there’s definitely some case to be made for a change in sentiment. Whether that will be reflected in the elections, themselves an object of much controversy (readers of Russian might look at this or this for background), also remains to be seen.

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