This past year’s presidential and Verkhovna Rada elections were distinguished by a relatively new trend in Ukraine. Social networks proved to be a vast field on which it was possible to solidify an electorate and get it to help attract new voters. In party and candidate headquarters, budgets included separate spending on advertising on the internet, so, in addition to using the standard promotional kiosks, billboards and free newspapers, politicians were promoting themselves online for the first time. What’s more, this was not just contextual ads on news sites or video portals, as in the past, but through their own pages in social networks like Facebook and Instagram.
When social nets are seen as tools for political agitation, their advantages are clear: cheaper than traditional media, direct contact with your target audience, and effective at rallying support. This is even more so if the person leading the political party is a well-known media figure. Sluha Narodu was publicly established at the very beginning of the VR election, but it was highly popular as a concept among Ukrainian TV viewers. After all, its face was the new president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, a well-known comedian who had built up his own media empire. His most successful project, Vechirniy Kvartal, meaning Evening Quarter, was launched 14 years ago on the Inter channel and moved to 1+1 in 2012. Along the way, he launched production of a series of comedy and entertainment projects, some of which were clearly political. But probably the most popular one was the TV serial called “Sluha Narodu” or “Servant of the People.” In addition, his company handled advertising campaigns, film dubbing and more. In short, in less than 15 years, Zelenskiy managed to become one of the highest-profile individuals in Ukraine. This public capital was used during his presidential election campaign and, later, during the Sluha Narodu election campaign for MPs to the VR. And, of course, a lot of the campaigning went on in social nets.
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According to data from a joint study by Internews Ukraine CSO and the online platform UkraineWorld called “Social Networks on #elections: What are people voting for in Facebook, Instagram and vKontakte,” nearly all the Instagram posts about politics were, one way or another, about Sluha Narodu. “82% of all unique Instagram posts were about the Sluha Naroduparty, while second-place European Solidarity was mentioned in only 17% of posts about the election,” explained UkraineWorld Editor-in-Chief Volodymyr Yermolenko during a presentation of the study results. “The interesting trend was that the hashtags of Kvartal-95 constituted a significant share of the hashtag empire of Zelenskiy fans. And this was probably one of the big successes of the Ze-campaign: winning over viewers of Kvartal 95 to Zelenskiy’s political project and the mass migration of an entertainment audience into an electorate.”
The study was undertaken between May 1 and June 17, and examined more than 5.6 million posts by users in Ukraine. The results for Facebook were also interesting: according to study data, the most popular social network in Ukraine has polarized Ukrainian society. Moreover, users have scattered into micro-groups, thus creating informational bubbles that prevent them from seeing the whole picture of events. The researchers noted that people tended to join political online communities that matched their preferences. In short, users of social nets voluntarily cut themselves off from alternate views, a phenomenon that has been recognized for several years now.
“This is precisely where the problem of informational security in Facebook lies,” says Yevhen Musienko, director of the Singularex analytical service that also participated in the study. “We can’t know the real correlation between opinions, because every thread delivers ‘yours’ to every user.”
Bot armies vs information forces
Meanwhile, according to VoxUkraine, the pages of high-profile Ukrainian politicians are actively being used by armies of bots. Nor were President Poroshenko and Zelenskiy any exception. The study analyzed the most commented-on posts in Facebook between May 1 and July 8, 2019. Using a special algorithm developed for this study it was possible to identify posts that were most likely left by fake users. It turns out that most bots, nearly 28,000 fake accounts, were writing on Zelenskiy’s page, while Poroshenko’s page was attacked by nearly 20,000 bots. The researchers also reported that the share of negative comments on both presidents’ pages was substantial: 61% of all comments against the former president and 48% against the new one. VoxUkraine also noted that they did not identify who the bots belonged to, as this was a much more difficult issue than to simply identify bot accounts.
Still, Sluha Naroduhas officially stated that they don’t use “bot farms.” In an April interview with Hromadske TV, Mykhailo Fedorov, who his responsible for digital communications at Zelenskiy headquarters, said: “We have never used bots or software that generates something. With 100% recognition and the kind of support we have among the general public, we don’t need anything like that. For every comment by some bot from outside, we have 15 comments from real people. We developed our own system.”
Still, prior to this interview Bihus.info researchers published a communication between Fedorov and Serhiy Shefir, the artistic director of Studio Kvartal 95, in which Fedorov requested UAH 240,000 or almost US $10,000 “for bots to protect us against attacks.” Later, Zelenskiy HQ denied this, explaining that this was the system Fedorov was taking about. This system, in fact, exists to this day and is called Zepeople: those who are linked to the network through Facebook receive notices about manipulative posts or fake news about Sluha Narodu or the president with a request to respond to them. If the counter on the site is to be believed, more than 630,000 people are connected to this network.
Of course, the idea is hardly new. During the presidency of Petro Poroshenko, for instance, this is how volunteer “information armies” were set up to counter Russian propaganda in social networks. The way they worked was almost the same as Zepeople. Indeed, Zelenskiy’s predecessor was accused of organizing his own bot army through such “information forces,” which were later nicknamed porokhobots. Opinion leaders and popular bloggers also countered fakes on the go and promoted a positive image of the president. They would interpret Poroshenko’s statements and actions. Some of them, understandably, stopped doing this after the election.
If we try to compare the content of the official sites of the two politicians, they are nearly identical. Although he is no longer president, Petro Poroshenko’s page continues to post official-sounding statements: meetings with political partners, greetings on holidays, and updates on the current political situation in the country. Little has changed since the time when he was president, except that Poroshenko is now in the opposition. Meanwhile, Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s page has become more official-sounding, with notices about meetings with international partners, greetings on holidays, and reactions to ongoing political events. Under the posts of the two politicians, hundreds of comments are posted, by both supporters and opponents.
What’s more interesting is the unofficial groups of supporters of both presidents. They are also worth a more in-depth look. Sluha Narodu has an entire network of regional communities in Facebook through which it disseminates, among others, all kinds of official information, such as about votes in the Rada or the restoration of infrastructure in the Donbas. With this, however, similarities to the two parties’ press services end. The content of the news stream differs depending on the region: some might be publishing vlogs on eliminating illiteracy, others might be more focused on local politics.
However, in almost all these SN communities, participants post memes about the members of the previous administration. This is where there will be references to former NBU Governor Valeria Hontareva for supposedly destroying the hryvnia, and about Poroshenko, who supposedly “did nothing but rob the army and the country for five years.” In effect, for Zelenskiy fans, the former president has been turned into a real punching bag, on which they so far are taking out some of their anger against those in power.
The styles of the unofficial communities of the former president don’t differ much. Before the elections, for instance, they were mainly memorable for their video clips about Zelenskiy being struck by a truck, playing the piano with his penis (supposedly), and passages about the drug-using candidate. Needless to say, there’s no direct link between Poroshenko himself and such public posts, but the general tone of the posts shows that the administrators of these groups continue to favor the former president. Today, these sites contain criticisms of the new administration for violating voting procedures in the Rada or about the speed with which bills are being passed. At the same time, there are also obviously manipulative posts, such as claims that SN is submitting a bill to protect the right to peaceably gather or zero tax declarations that supposedly will actually restrict the rights of Ukrainians. The only problem is that the authors of these posts are members of Poroshenko’s European Solidarity – not that this stops the administrators of these groups or supporters of the fifth president.
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All told, the situation is fairly disheartening. Members of both political camps, despite all their official declarations about “uniting society,” are using social nets to isolate and marginalize themselves in information bubbles, sometimes even nurturing outright hatred towards their opponents. From time to time, this even leaks into official statements. The only way to ease this strained situation is to engage completely real, not virtual, dialog and in efforts to find common ground. For now, unfortunately, it seems that neither President Zelenskiy, nor his opponent Petro Poroshenko, see any benefit to this – the former because he can use his predecessor as lightning rod for public anger, the latter because it is convenient to be able to criticize those who are in power today.
Translated by Lidia Wolanskyj