Opinion: Kõigi Eesti – the ice bucket challenge of our times?

An ice bucket challenge participant, from 2014.
An ice bucket challenge participant, from 2014. Source: Chris Rand/Wikimedia Commons

Some years ago, a social media global viral campaign appeared, known as the ice bucket challenge. This involved people being filmed getting deluged, or deluging themselves, in quantities of icey water, accompanied by groans, shrieks and expletives. With the snowballing of the Kõigi Eesti movement, running at around 27,000 fans at the time of writing, are we seeing Estonia's ice bucket challenge moment?

Not quite. Leaving alone differences of scale - Estonia is only home to just over a million people, not the seven billion spread globally - as we'll see, ice bucket produced a tangible legacy and was clear in its direction, not something we can apply to Kõigi Eesti so much.

The ice bucket challenge got an astonishing amount of exposure, with notables including former US President George W. Bush, as well as then-President Barack Obama, taking part.

Then one day, it just stopped. No similar challenge replaced it and, whilst it was the intention of its originators to make the event an annual one, I haven't seen a single clip of newer ice bucket challenges since.

It was a summer fling, a diversion, which melted into obscurity almost as abruptly as it emerged once autumn came, going the oft-trod way of Pokémon GO and fidget spinners. And it really did die too – a quick search online shows some of the top resulting videos were last commented on four years ago. Given that total views were in the millions, this suggests the ephemeral nature of things like this. And why not? It was just a bit of fun, people will tell you, and it raised money for a worthy cause – the ultimate thought-stopping argument.

Kõigi Eesti, literally ''Everyone's Estonia'', but rendered in the English hashtag as ''My Estonia too'', while bursting on to the scene just over a week ago with some fanfare, doesn't put rigorous demands along ice bucket lines on people. Nor does it ask them to do anything much, save put a heart-shaped logo as a sticker on their social media profile picture, and that's about it, so far.

This isn't a new phenomenon – stickers or badges announcing the user's purported sympathy over a terrorist attack elsewhere in the world, or how they voted in a referendum, or their support of/opposition to any particular -ism, have been a staple of the social media ecosystem for years now. It's not even the first of its kind purely about Estonia: Usume Andrus Veerpalu (''we believe Andrus Veerpalu'' – a skiier accused of doping back in the early teens, now at the centre of another doping controversy), Koos (same-sex marriage), and Eesti Eest (''Estonia first'') all covered quite a broad spectrum of activity and beliefs. In the run up to Eesti Laul, the competition to choose Estonia's Eurovision entry, many used, not a badge, but a profile pic with their first initial rendered into the Eesti Laul logo style, and naturally the recent elections saw plenty of social media activity.

The difference here is that Kõigi Eesti does not clearly and consistently state what it is about, preferring instead to attempt to create a buzz surrounding what it might potentially turn into and rapidly picking up a large number of adherents with just a mouse-click. The growth has been impressive too – breaking the 20,000 mark in Facebook ''likes'' and ''followers'' within days, and pushing towards 30,000 at the time of writing. This makes it impossible to overlook.

While it has some way to go to match Usume Andrus Veerpalu, which claimed over 80,000 such fans at its peak, it is likely to see its numbers increase for a bit longer, so those involved are already having to think about what to do next – you know, so as not to let down tens of thousands of people, for instance.

Of course, there's sometimes a line between plain speak, and nuance, but Kõigi Eesti simply doesn't even do the latter particularly well. Social media lends itself to manipulation far more than other arenas; the easy option of just adding a sticker is up there with the lowest common denominator of ''liking'' a celebrity's status update (or that of a popular acquaintance you want to remain in with) or joining in an online lynch mob rounding on some poor unfortunate for entertainment's sake.

Since it is easy to do, the movement has built up very quickly, but is now at risk of the argument to numbers fallacy, ie. ''X number of people agree with this, so it must be correct''.

All the heart shapes, not the logo so much, but the photos of people forming a heart shape with their hands like a 14 year-old might do, is a bit creepy. The same goes for the cheesy slogans or declarations.

1,000 people concerned about something

But clearly it wants to be saying something, so what is that? A representative of the movement contacted me recently. The person essentially said ''we can't announce or commit to anything but keep checking back here for the thing, and you'll see''. Okay. A look at Kõigi Eesti's page doesn't shed much more light either. It is not a group, which people could interact in, but a page. As well as the logo and hastags and photos, there is a list of the names who make up the brains behind the operation, close to 50 of them, primarily from the realms of culture, entertainment and the media. The Twitter account is similarly stocked.

The page also has a pinned mission statement, in Estonian first, then Russian, with English bringing up the rear. The page was launched by a group of concerned Estonian people, it says, noting that these included people from the Russian speaking community as well as ''foreign specialists living in Estonia'', and some short info on how many people have joined the movement so far (ie. downloaded the heart logo to their social media).

It does not explicitly say what the 1,000 people on the movement's organising group were concerned about, simply that they are concerned. However, given that practically everyone over the age of 12 is concerned about something, it would be good to see more clarity.

Kõigi Eesti logo, social media sticker, and greeting in three languages. Source: Social media

What you can see includes statements written by those, often ordinary punters who are in effect doing a lot of Kõigi Eesti's legwork for them. In addition to one of Kõigi Eesti's own such rallying cries (simply: ''Hello''), we have statements like ''I love and respect the people of Estonia'', ''My Estonia is colourful'', and ''My Estonia isn't an angry and lying place. I want intelligent politics''. How ''my'' equates to ''everyone's'', is not explained.

Obviously, the timing of Kõigi Eesti is no coincidence, its protests notwithstanding. The coalition talks between the Centre Party and the Conservative People's Party of Estonia (EKRE), plus Isamaa, will be entering their third week, this week. Naturally the longer the talks go on, the more likely this coalition, called EKRE-KEI for short, might come to fruition, though not all that much substantive has been agreed upon.

Many Kõigi Eesti spokespersons have been adamant that it has nothing to do with EKRE's electoral success on 3 March; a quick look at related online activity gives the lie to this, and to its political nature, however. Which is fine – why not oppose EKRE? Just have the integrity to declare it consistently.

Why not nail the colours to the masthead?

Last week the president rounded on EKRE MP Martin Helme on his about gynaecologists and other doctors, and their role in abortion in Estonia (an area which EKRE has already been defeated on, with even the conservative Isamaa opposing its abortion funding cuts policy). A few other things regarding safe topics like transport and sport have been hammered out, and that's about all, in close to two weeks of negotiations. The fact is, EKRE won't end up in office. Instead, we are looking at a political dance of a very refined and nuanced degree.

But why does Kõgi Eesti simply not speak up here. The party which is on everyone's lips as the current bogeyman has social media followers too. A page set up in response to Kõigi Eesti, Eestlaste Eesti (''Estonians' Estonia''), has about 7,000 fans at the time of writing.

But neutrals too will exhibit more of a willingness to engage than the very Kõigi Eesti folks who speak of ''concerns'' then don't follow up in actually enumerating these concerns.

The movement says it is apolitical and not affiliated to any party, which is just a get out clause, of which more later. The name for one thing does echo the Centre Party's pre-election slogan: Õiglane riik kõigile! (''a just state for all'').

The page's cover image, which announces a date of 14.04.2019, but with no further info, is similarly vague. This is no doubt creating a buzz, building up anticipation with a teaser campaign. But, as things stand now, that's all it is. It promises something which it may not then deliver. One possibility is that it will involve something along the lines of a large flashmob of volunteers giving it the heart-shaped salute outside the Stenbock House, the Riigikogu, Vabaduse Väljak or some other public space; perhaps multiple locations nationally. Be that as it may, the event of the 14th will need to be way ahead of ice water buckets.

Speaking of which, that particular challenge raised large amounts of money for charities, mostly connected with research into Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). It also left a legacy of amusing ''fail'' videos. Compare that with what we've had from Kõigi Eesti so far, it all seems very, the surface-level, pulling at heart strings, and, well quite frankly vacuous. There is very little outlay required; those downloading the sticker are already likely to be in the relative safe space of their own social media bubble and won't have to experience the discomfort of, well, a freezing cold dunking.

In-built defence mechanisms

Kõigi Eesti, in addition, risks being hoist with its own marketing petard. It is likely to end up drowning in a sea of other hashtags, pages, organisations, slogans, shibboleths, social media stickers etc. which have the name ''Estonia'' in it. We've already had Work in Estonia, Enterprise Estonia, e-Estonia, My Estonia, Welcome to Estonia, ESTonishing, Visit Estonia, Estonia 200 (okay this last one is a political party), and many more besides.

But this camouflage is probably not accidental; it is part of the movement's self-defence mechanism. Since it shies away from taking EKRE head on and is probably painfully sensitive to criticism, it can easily disappear into the ether and, bearing in mind people have short memories, the same core group or offshoots of it can go on to the next big thing, people start removing their Kõigi Eesti social media stickers (or they get removed) and hey presto, couldn't have been anything to criticise.

More than this, however, simply not mentioning EKRE is a hedge against what the upshot of the current coalition talks is. If these come to naught and EKRE finds itself in opposition again, Kõigi Eesti can take the credit for it (and will). If EKRE ends up in office, Kõigi Eesti gets to say: ''See, we warned everyone about this and you didn't listen – well now it's happened, and it's too late'', not to mention all bets being off concerning the ''well we're not a political movement and we don't have affiliations to any political party,'' claims.

Which again, is all very fine, but hardly the stuff of legends. At root, Kõigi Eesti is like so much in the public arena here, froth on the surface with no real substance. Even the modification of the heart logo to include the Estonian flag in it has been done before (the logo itself was previously designed by an Australian unrelated to the movement). The organisation just provides a hobby for those keen to be seen at the centre of things, without the mass of its followers having to invest anything significant. A quick fix, if you will.

It also, aside from the scattering of luminaries named on the page, doesn't seem to have attracted any other big brand celebrities or political figures yet – crucial for it to maintain the momentum it has spoken about. Given Estonia's size, this will fizzle out soon enough unless somebody major (meaning a politician) gets on board soon. Raimond Kaljulaid, the Centre MP who took a public stance against the EKRE talks, is the obvious choice here.

Actually, a former president, Lennart Meri, who died in 2006, has in fact already been co-opted into Kõigi Eesti (with his family's blessing), and it is assumed that he would've gone along with what they say. Never mind about letting people speak for themselves, which obviously we can't do here, which is the beauty of the stratagem. There's also the old standby that don't you get more right-wing as you get older...

The ice bucket challenge did have its knockers too. Some thought that it was a bit too self-congratulatory. But again, at least it had something to congratulate itself about. Kõigi Eesti seems to be congratulating itself for setting up a social media page.

Will Kõigi Eesti change anything? It won't be a direct factor in EKRE not getting into office. Optimisitcally, it might be conducive to an atmosphere which makes Centre take stock of its direction, but it will have done that anyway. Should EKRE end up in office, then foreigners living here are going to be understandably leery. The party's divisiveness on issues such as race is case in point. But people will need to cross that bridge if and when it comes, not rely on a raggle-taggle social media mob with very little in common with each other and quite possibly, in some cases at least, ulterior, self-promotional motives.

Kõigi Eesti, though, whilst claiming to have nothing to do with politics and to decry divisiveness, is likely to spawn the latter, rather than curtail it. There's already a sense that, either you're with us or you're a nazi; another common propaganda trick which, well, hasn't really worked out very well so far on the wider political and international stage in recent years.

In its highly-choreographed, tightly-controlled public processional, it in fact has a lot more in common with EKRE itself, and is much less of a clash of world views than it would like to think. It also in effect torments foreigners here, most of whom have come in good faith, by seeking to speak for them, corralling them into its sheep pen, and using them as the perpetual fall guy almost as much as EKRE is wont to with its photos of Africans arriving on European shores in rubber dinghies.

Either way, Kõigi Eesti is likely to be a flash in the pan – six months to a year from now we won't even have any videos of people getting showered with ice to get by with. But the next coalition is likely to be there for four years – if Kõigi Eesti is concerned about that, why not say so directly? If it is not, just what is the main threat?

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ERR News always welcomes opinion piece submissions from the whole spectrum of opinion, on the contentious topics of the day. Email news@err.ee.

Editor: Dario Cavegn

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