This paper explores the self-presentation and identity performance of grassroots hacker collectives on both sides of the Ukraine-Russia conflict within a larger geopolitical climate of a contested globalisation agenda and a growing fear of terrorism. While the military action in Crimea and later, parts of eastern Ukraine occupied by Russia-supported separatist forces, has been bloody and ongoing, a battle for users’ hearts and minds is also being waged online. Both pro-Russian and pro-Ukrainian hacker groups use social media to enter the broader populist discourse around the conflict on Europe’s edge, reimagining the notions of patriotism, sovereignty and statehood.
The paper analyses Twitter posts of hacker collectives on both sides from 2015-2016 to reveal key modes of use (such as promoting political views or linking to leaks) and key themes in the context of the conflict, such as political extremism, information warfare, patriotism, and state sovereignty. The paper elucidates how these groups use their social media presence to construct a populist “patriotic hacker” identity and to establish themselves as a greater “moral authority”, while at the same time attempting to “other” their foes as less legitimate. The analysis of public hacker discourse on the Russian side reveals it to be part of a larger populist push to pitch the Ukraine-Russia conflict as a clash of pro-Western, immoral and globalist Ukrainian forces and the “properly patriotic” Russian forces defending “their people” and reasserting Russia’s dominant geopolitical stance. On the Ukrainian side of the hacker discourse, the constructed patriotism also emerges as populist as it touts self-reliance as a key value, but embraces Ukraine’s Western European connections insofar as they help portray Ukraine as a sovereign state opposing a Russia with “imperial” ambitions.