How Social Networks Affect Politics in Ukraine: Research Findings
Both the presidential and parliamentary elections proved that there is no way for political players to disregard social networks in the race for political victory. The election campaign pushed Ukrainian politicians into the game. Whether they wanted it or not, top contenders for seats in the Verkhovna Rada were the subjects of lively discussions on Facebook, Instagram and VKontakte. Who set the tone for the election on these social networks? Was it politicians trying to become closer to the people at least online? Or was it Ukrainian citizens who were criticizing or endorsing these politicians? What role, if any, was played by Russian propaganda?
In the search for answers, the non-governmental organization Internews Ukraine analyzed data from the three most popular social networks in Ukraine. Our analysts studied thousands of political posts to come up with some theories about the correlations and connections between Facebook, Instagram and VKontakte users' behaviour with the election results, based on the sample below.
SOCIAL MEDIA WEAPONIZED
Instagram had the biggest percentage of positive and neutral posts (compared to Facebook and VKontakte), largely generated by Ze-accounts and numerous fan pages. By the time other parties tried to jump in at the start of campaigning for the snap parliamentary election in July, the Servant of the People party was already an expert at making politics likeable in the space that is supposed to be “just for fun”. Ze-hashtags were also used in posts about Servant of the People’s biggest rivals - European Solidarity, Batkivshchyna and Holos.
The fact that Holos got into parliament, despite a late start to its campaign, shows that a major investment in social media might just be a crucial part of an electoral strategy and not just a simple communication tool. And other parties underestimated this at their peril.
To gain success in the snap parliamentary elections, Zelensky’s team merged entertainment and information to reach out to millions of Instagram users. Servant of the People showed that, unlike serious and “boring” Facebook posts, political messages in easy formats have more potential to turn “likes” and “follows” into real seats in parliament. Sardonic videos, vlogs, selﬁes - all this ﬁts into what people want to see on Instagram.
LOVE OR HATE. NO MIDDLE GROUND?
While Instagram is quite monochrome in its political preferences, Facebook proved to be the most divided. The rivalry between Zelensky’s and Poroshenko’s fans has survived past the elections and turned Facebook into a black and white canvas of mutual accusations and praise of a favoured side. Aggravated emotional posts outweighed balanced views among Ukrainian Facebook users.
Nonetheless, after the elections, Facebook’s top posts became more neutral about parliament. Some of the most liked posts here were based on reasonable criticism with no clear political preference.
VKONTAKTE: HAVEN FOR RUSSIAN PROPAGANDA
The Ukrainian section of VKontakte is fertile ground for anti-Ukrainian hate speech.
Mocking and disparaging remarks on Zelensky’s rule and most of Ukraine’s politicians indicated that no Ukrainian government is good for the pro-Kremlin side if it is still pro-Ukrainian in its intentions. The “failed state” label still ﬁts into a range of the top leitmotifs about Ukraine on VKontakte. However, pro-Russian rhetoric varies from author to author and has no one clear line. The common ground for most of the messages is the same old rhetoric that Ukraine is dependent on the US, that its economy is in decline and Ukrainian people are “dull”.
Facebook and Instagram are not free from Russian propaganda and disinformation either. But their Ukraine sections are far less dominated by anti-Ukrainian agitators. On Instagram and Facebook, pro-Kremlin messages rarely made it to the top posts about Ukrainian elections or parliament.
PRO-KREMLIN PROPAGANDA GOES BEYOND WHAT UKRAINIANS THINK
Pro-Russian VKontakte is not fond of pro-Russian parties in Ukraine either.
While the Opposition Platform For Life is perceived as pro-Russian in Ukraine, on VKontakte this party is criticized for being weak in terms of its political orientation. VKontakte users also see its members as “traitors” or as too disorganized to push the Russian agenda in Ukraine. While pro-Russian VKontakte often mentions Viktor Medvedchuk, Putin’s crony, as though he follows his own personal interests, the pro-Ukrainian camp bashes him for toxic pro-Kremlin activity.
In fact, Russian narratives are multi-vector, and the pro-Kremlin vision reaches further than Ukrainians even imagine.
USERS EMBRACE ALGORITHMS, AND POLITICIANS TOO
On Facebook, Instagram and VKontakte people select the information bubbles they live in. Our analysis conﬁrms that users jump into these traps regardless of the speciﬁcs of the social media platform. This makes the supporters of both Zelensky and Poroshenko especially ﬁerce on Facebook. While VKontakte users are isolated in their pro-Ukrainian and pro-Russian dimensions, which never intertwine.
On Facebook and Instagram, algorithms play their part.
All these echo-chambers of like-minded people breed messages of extremes, which makes it difficult to ﬁnd a balanced view. Ukraine’s parliamentary election demonstrated that virtual political cages are one of the factors that may shape election results.
INFORMATION ABOUT RESEARCH
How do Ukrainian social media users inﬂuence political life in their country? What did they write about the candidates prior before the snap parliamentary elections (July 21, 2019)? And how did their behavior affect the results? We conducted a comprehensive three-stage data research on the Ukrainian Facebook, Instagram and VKontakte. To track the dynamics and change of moods, experts of Internews Ukraine ﬁrst analyzed two periods before the voting day (1.05–17.06 and 17.06–15.07); then, around 400 Facebook and VKontakte posts after the elections (22.07–28.07); and ﬁnally, one period when the new convocation of the Verkhovna Rada started its work (29.08–15.09).
- What Facebook, Instagram, VK users are saying about the parliamentary race
- Memocracy: How Facebook, Instagram and VK users influenced the New Ukrainian Parliament
- Ukraine’s New Parliament: What Social Media Users Think About It
This survey is made possible by the support of the American people through the Media Program in Ukraine, a project funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and implemented by Internews. The contents are the sole responsibility of Internews-Ukraine and do not necessarily reflect the views of USAID, the United States Government or Internews.
Related Events and News
On November 28, NGO Internews Ukraine will hold an offline discussion and present the study "Memocracy: How Social Networks Affect Politics in Ukraine".