Spent the weekend upvoting Molotov cocktails on Untappd, hbu?
Posting about war on beer's biggest social platform, Russian brewery ban + more
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One of the cringiest genres of modern journalism occurs when beat reporters contort themselves into curlicues trying to find ways to write about a huge story that has nothing to do with their typical area of coverage. This is called “finding an angle,” and more often than not it yields absolute dreck. Part of the beauty of Fingers is that I can buck the training: I never have to find an angle on stories that I don’t believe in. I can just sit back, let other reporters with more germane expertise do their thing, and avoid showing my ass.
But as Russian troops continued their bloody invasion of Ukraine over the weekend, a story about a craft brewer-turned-Molotov cocktail manufacturer in western Ukraine went viral, triggering some, ah, unusual posting behavior on craft beer’s dominant social platform. In other words, thanks (?) to social media’s all-powerful algorithms, the angle found me.
Located in Lviv, Ukraine, Pravda Beer Brewery has earned dozens of high-profile headlines and video hits, plus untold gobs of attention on social media over the past few days thanks to its wartime pivot from making beer into making weapons of urban insurgency. "We do this because someone has to,” the owner of the brewery, Yuriy Zastavny, told Agence France-Presse, a major French newswire service.
According to reports by AFP and Reuters, Pravda employees have been repurposing empty beer bottles and rags into explosives for the Ukrainian Territorial Defence Forces since Saturday. In a surreal twist, or a clever viral flourish, or both, the bottles are labeled for a specific Pravda beer, called “Putin Huylo,” a onetime Ukrainian football chant that translates roughly as “Putin is a dickhead.”
A local brewery throwing itself both figuratively and literally into defending its hometown from an invading force is commendable, and totally novel to Americans (including myself) who have grown up entirely without credible fear of invasion.1 The latter half of that sentence deserves as much scrutiny as the former half does praise. The way the Pravda Molotov cocktail story has been expertly packaged by Western media and social media users for voyeuristic viral consumption is as good an example as any, I think, of what British writer/podcaster Hussein Kesvani (of TRASHFUTURE/ Ten Thousand Posts/Drafts Folder) called “the memeification, the marvel-isation” of war as content:
In the case of the Lviv brewer’s defense efforts, the spectacle is a matter of genuine irony. You’ve heard about Molotov cocktails, now get ready for Molotov cocktails…. from an actual brewery!!! Most outlets (including, somehow, the New York Post) had the restraint not to explicitly admit that’s why they picked up the Pravda story, but TMZ’s actual headline—“UKRAINE BREWERY FROM BEER TO BOMBS: Cocktail Of Choice Is Now Molotov”—spells out the implicit editorial framing I’ve seen.
If that seems crass and transactional and a little gross, well… yes, it’s all those things, but this is the digital media ecosystem we have as a result of the utter stranglehold major social platforms have over individual publications’ traffic. In the #content mines, this is a story that glitters like gold specifically because of how well it’ll break through to/resonate with an empathetic social media audience. All the details aligned to make Pravda’s Molotov cocktails a guaranteed viral hit, and digital media in 2022 is nothing if not a hits business.
I’m not just talking about Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, either. Ryan Broderick of Garbage Day2 argued earlier today that “five days into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine… it is safe to say that the conflict has not left a single corner of the social web untouched,” and as it turns out, that includes Untappd, the world’s premiere craft beer rating platform. Over the weekend, as this story began gaining traction on mainstream social media, users on the platform began brigading Pravda’s profile with five-star ratings for its Putin Huylo beer.
This is a pretty evident violation of Untappd’s Community Guidelines, which state in part:
We remove content that contains credible threats or hate speech. […] It's never OK to encourage violence or attack anyone based on their race, ethnicity, national origin, sex, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, religious affiliation, disabilities, or diseases. […] Serious threats of harm to the public and personal safety aren't allowed. This includes specific threats of physical harm as well as threats of theft, vandalism, and other financial harm.
In an emailed statement to Fingers, Untappd chief marketing officer Tisha Hulburd condemned violence “in all of its forms” and affirmed the company’s “support [for] the people of Ukraine and their democratically elected leaders in preserving their sovereignty.” She declined to answer specific questions about the Molotov cocktail upvoting or where traffic to Pravda’s profile was coming from, but said that “we are currently reviewing these and other similar posts and will apply our policies on content or accounts that are in violation of these guidelines.”
To be clear: the boozeletter isn’t calling for Untappd to censure users for manipulating its ranking system. Or the brewery itself, obviously: they’ve done nothing wrong in this case, and have bigger fish to fry given the literal war at their doorstep. I bring it up only to point out how disorienting and banal and deeply helpless this user behavior is. Why would craft beer aficionados spend their weekend upvoting Ukrainian Molotov cocktails on Untappd? What possible utility could it serve to post craft beer cringe the face of a nuclear-enabled invasion unfolding in real time on their newsfeeds3, compared to like… hugging their loved ones, or calling their senators, or something?
Rest assured that Untappd clout does nothing for the folks at Pravda, who are—presumably, understandably—more focused on bracing for a brutal siege of their city than whether their beers rank well against others in the area. (The brewery did not respond to messages via Facebook or Instagram requesting comment for this piece.)
The “why,” I think, gets at a grim reality about the way we all exist online these days. Not posting is free, and yet we simply can’t stop doing it—particularly in online communities where feel like we have standing. Imagine being a power user on Untappd, hearing about Pravda’s Molotov cocktails, and not upvoting Putin Huylo on the platform. Unthinkable. Are you really doing everything you can to support Ukraine then? Broderick articulated this wretched self-imposed condition well:
There are a lot of internet users who, after a decade of exposure to viral media, have had their minds so thoroughly warped by trending content that they believe that reacting to popular internet culture is not just a replacement for a personality, but some kind of moral duty.
What the duty is, exactly, is hard to suss out. Is giving Putin Huylo five bottlecaps on Untappd enough? Of course not. Should you tweet about it as well? Donate? All of the above? None of the above? These moments4 feel so alienating and unnerving in part because they reveal just how impotent and meaningless most of our online behavior actually is—and how predictably we still do it anyway. When faced with crises beyond the scope of our comprehension, we fall back on frames of reference we understand. For some people, that’s incredibly embarrassing Avengers edits, or torturous Harry Potter analogies. For someone who enjoys tracking which IPAs they hate on Untappd, a brewery making Molotov cocktails is comforting context for a post. It’s a juicy angle, after all, and we’ve all been trained to find them.
📬 Good post alert
🤔 Banning Russian breweries from the WBC for… reasons
Speaking of bizarre reactions to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine:
The WBC is scheduled to take place in May 2022 in Minneapolis, and as of right now, it sounds like Russian breweries may be banned from it. I say “may” because when I followed up about this tweet with the Brewers Association—the United States craft brewing trade group that administers the competition—the organization declined to confirm or deny whether it was true, or share any details on how many Russian breweries had entered in the first place. If true, this seems pretty unfair to any Russian breweries that it affects! Like, unless the breweries in question are explicitly, rabidly pro-invasion, why hold them responsible for something beyond their control? More to come on this front, but for now: hmm.
🎧 “Labor transcends beer”: my conversation with Good Beer Hunting
A little while back I joined Friend of Fingers Bryan Roth on the Good Beer Hunting podcast to chat about my coverage of the beer business. The conversation hit an eclectic mix of topics, including but not limited to my labor-first approach to beverage-alcohol reporting, my early professional days as a listicle jockey in the #content mines, and even some personal stuff, too. The episode is live now, and you can check it out right here.
As a reminder, I interviewed Bryan (who is the news editor for GBH and its trade insights platform, Sightlines, as well as the director of the North American Guild of Beer Writers) for a November 2021 episode of The Fingers Podcast. That episode is available for paying subscribers right here:
If you’d like to listen to that (great) discussion, and/or support Fingers’ independent journalism generally, consider purchasing a subscription! You’ll get access to these sorts of subscriber exclusives, and help me sustain and grow this boozeletter.
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This is a loose reference to this tweet from newsletterer and New Republic contributor Alex Pareene:
Garbage Day is a vital newsletter about internet culture. I subscribe to it, as you should. Also, credit to Ryan for surfacing Hussein Kesvani’s tweet—yet another example of my Garbage Day subscription informing and enriching my coverage here at Fingers!
This is a bloodier but entirely predictable extension of the old “if you didn’t Instagram your lunch does it even exist” joke from the mid-Teens. It also recalls the whole “black tile” thing from the George Floyd protests, and the expectation that influencers weigh in on the Israel-Palestine conflict last summer. Seems to be a pattern here!