Professor Maria Popova on Twitter, Research and the War in Ukraine

Maria Popova is an Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science, specializing in comparative politics, European politics and post-Communist transformation, courts and politics.

It's not everyday that your area of academic expertise becomes a trending topic both on social media and news outlets. Since the lead up to Russia's invasion of Ukraine and the ongoing war, academics who have dedicated their professional lives to the study of Central and Eastern Europe have been tasked with gate keeping the parameters of online discussions surrounding Russia's war in Ukraine. Whether it's about clarifying basic facts surrounding the war, or correcting misinformation about the region's political history, academics are being tasked with fact checking and being called upon as the voice of reason. 

Associate Professor Maria Popova, Department of Political Science, is one of the many academics who has found themselves navigating the treacherous waters of online debates and discussions on the war that permeates social media platforms, particularly Twitter. Named the Jean Monnet Chair for the study of "Europe and the Rule of Law" in 2017, Popova has taken to Twitter in recent months to clarify online misinformation on the war, and re-sharing useful and insightful tweets and articles to further her followers' understanding of the political and economic forces that shape the narrative.

We asked Professor Popova to share with us what her online experience has been like over the last few months and to share her insights and thoughts on the importance of academics in the media. 

Q: Earlier in March, you Tweeted about how it can be disorienting to find your area of expertise become a “hot” topic overnight; what has it been like engaging with your followers and sharing your expertise beyond a formal academic environment?

When my area of expertise became hot overnight, my social media experience switched suddenly from a conversation with other specialists where arguments focused on nuanced empirics and fine theoretical points, but there was a shared understanding of the basic facts to a sudden a flood of diverse takes, many of which involved major gaps in background knowledge. One source of disorientation is that the bad takes are coming from all directions, and it becomes harder to stay focused on what your expertise suggests to you is the “right” take. What is even worse is that some of the bad takes come from accounts with proximate expertise and big platforms. These accounts have some default credibility, which could really shape and shift the narrative towards, ultimately, a misinterpretation of the situation.

For me, this has been the biggest motivator to engage on social media and with traditional media. As someone with deep expertise in Ukraine and Russia, I felt a responsibility to participate in shaping an accurate narrative, especially because Russia floods social media with misinformation. Social media engagement helped me update and finetune my analysis through debate with other experts. It also helped me pinpoint the root of some misunderstanding or gaps in knowledge by journalists and observers, which then motivated me to channel efforts into filling those gaps.

Q: When reflecting on the media appearances you’ve made since February 24; what has most surprised you about these interactions? What trends or recurrences have you noticed both on social media and traditional media when it comes to the coverage and opinions being offered about the war?

What has surprised me the most is that traditional media in different regions of the world operate with very different assumptions about basic facts of the conflict. Journalists from the Global South were often surprised to hear me argue that Ukraine’s ex-President Yanukovych was not, in fact, removed in a US-backed coup, but fled the country after his government crumbled. I have also been impressed with how quickly journalists who I know cover many disparate stories were up to speed about many details of the war and asked probing, informed questions.

Q: Along with Professors Juliet Johnson and Aaron Erlich from the Department of Political Science, you were part of the organizing committee which drafted the “Statement of concerned Canadian scholars on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.” Why was it important to make this statement and sharing it with members of the cabinet, press and others? What does it mean to have McGill professors speaking out on these issues?

In any crisis that quickly takes over the news cycle, the narrative set early becomes sticky. This is the moment, at which it is essential to get the story right and this is the moment, at which scholars with narrow expertise can have the biggest impact. That is why it was important for all of us to take part in crafting this accurate and careful statement.

Q: In what ways will the war and its outcomes shape your research into the backsliding of law in Eastern Europe?

The war is forcing me to re-evaluate some assumptions and revisit some previous analysis of judicial reform in Ukraine. For example, in the winter I was working on a paper on court packing, which cautioned that political interference to alter the composition of courts is always dangerous to the rule of law, even if purportedly pursued to strengthen democracy. The paper had Ukraine as a case and critically examined the government’s attempt to remove some Constitutional Court judges. Now, as evidence comes out that suggests that Russia sought to actively recruit collaborationists within the Ukrainian state to set the stage for a Russia-installed occupation government, suddenly removing judges with known links to Russia appears in a new light.

Q: Why is it important for academics in general, and political scientists more specifically, to use their social media platforms to correct misinformation and contextualize current events?

It’s very important to contextualize because journalists have a shorter time horizon, they may have detailed understanding of current events, but they understand and report better if they get the wider context.

Follow Professor Popova on Twitter here: @PopovaProf 

Maria Popova is Jean Monnet Chair and Associate Professor of Political Science at McGill University. Her work explores democracy, autocracy, rule of law and reform in the post-Communist region. Dr. Popova’s book, Politicized Justice in Emerging Democracies (Cambridge UP, 2012), won the American Association for Ukrainian Studies prize for best book in the fields of Ukrainian history, politics, language, literature and culture. Her recent projects include work on judicial reform in Ukraine, the politics of corruption prosecutions in Eastern Europe, and the effects of conspiracy theories on democratic backsliding. She is currently writing about the root causes of Russia’s attack and Ukraine’s fierce resistance as well as on the effects of the Russo-Ukrainian war on European integration and security. 




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