The Coalition of Public Organisations, which includes the Commission on Journalistic Ethics, the Human Rights Platform, the Ukrainian Institute of Media and Communication, StopFake, and the Women in Media Association, conducted systematic monitoring of online media and Facebook coverage of local elections in Ukraine from 5 to 25 September 2020. The monitoring focused on 33 local online media and the FB pages of local election subjects.
Interestingly, the monitoring team fixed several trends. Hit piece (“ordered” materials) continues to be the central media problem of election campaigns. Online media in all regions that were monitored posted content with signs of orders by different political forces and mayoral candidates.
In addition, there was no mention of Russian aggression in some online media in Donbas in the coverage of hostilities. Instead of this, the information platform is provided to the pseudo-republics’ “DPR” and “LPR” representatives to express their version, which echoes the Kremlin’s narrative about the absence of Russian troops in Donbas.
Notably, each of the 12 regions selected for monitoring has its own unique media landscape and differs in economics, social characteristics, and political situation, which significantly affects the work of local newsrooms. Therefore, the level of media freedom in each region directly depends on the economic and political circumstances. However, most local media outlets face general problems with the difficult financial state, which has been further complicated by the general economic downturn due to quarantine measures for businesses during COVID-19. Being on the brink of survival local newsrooms have to resort, in particular, to dubious methods of earning during election campaigns, such as placing unmarked commissioned materials about candidates or political forces (hot piece).
Conclusions: online media
- Local media were inactive and did not cover the 2020 local elections. The amount of news about the election at the start of the election campaign was minimal and began to grow as the election campaign unfolded. The topic of elections took just 7th place in the list of the others (4.54% of all news), which drew the attention of local online media.
- The TOP 3 topics include only topics with a negative connotation. Thus, the first was the COVID-19 issue (14.37% of all news), the second was disasters, incidents, and accidents (12.71%), and the third was crimes (11.93%). Tellingly, the top five topics included transport and infrastructure (7.44%): within this topic, local media paid a lot of attention to the project “Big Construction” (a program of the President of Ukraine).
- There was almost no topic of Crimea in the online media (0.04%, literally seven materials out of 18,631 news items in total). Not much more local mass media write about the events in the environmental zone (0.77% or 143 news) and the Russian aggression against Ukraine (1.19% or 222 news). There was almost no topic of corruption (0.99% or 184 items).
- Although 194 parties officially took part in the election race, the diversity of political forces represented on local websites is very limited. Most sites promote one or two mayoral candidates or parties. All the others remain out of the media field.
- Online media focuses on news coverage of the election topic. Analytics are almost absent. There are little educational materials that would explain to the voters their rights and the voting procedure under the new election legislation, and other important and complex aspects related to the election.
- Online media incorrectly or incompletely cover the results of opinion polls, repeating the mistakes of previous election campaigns. Also, no one names the clients of such studies, although the election law requires this.
- Some of the monitored sites have a non-transparent editorial structure. In particular, they do not have the information about their editorial staff, the editor, as well as their contacts. Some sites provide online forms for sending a letter, but this is not enough.
Conclusions: social networks
- Not only local teams and mayoral candidates, but also party brands and messages competed at the national level. At the same time, often even within a party, local organisations in different oblasts worked differently in terms of activity, content, and formats. Administrative resources were often in use: e.g. the actual heads of regional state administrations wrote about infrastructure facilities openings as their achievements, calling to elect them as mayors.
- Leaders of parties on the social network were mostly inactive. The main activity took place on party pages at the national or local level. That indicates a lack of systematic work with voters via the social network in the inter-election period.
- The messages of all-Ukrainian parties were mostly populist: to decrease tariffs, to raise wages, to negotiate peace. Almost all of them based their rhetoric on criticism of the actual government. Local parties built their rhetoric around solving the city’s problems.
- Most parties and their leaders tried to discredit their opponents and used abusive language against them. It was actively disseminated by the “Opposition Platform – For Life” and the “Shariy’s Party.” Their theses resonate with Russian propaganda and misinformation. In particular, the fact that Ukraine is a “Nazi state” or a “failed state,” the “external management” of the state, the need to “negotiate” with the pseudo-republics in the Donbas, and to lift sanctions on Russia.
- Parties and their leaders at both the national and local levels have actively used advertising posts to promote their campaign theses. Some of these broadcasts resonated with Russian disinformation against Ukraine.
- Candidates have been more active in using Facebook’s tools and benefits to advance than in presidential and parliamentary elections.
Signs of possible Russian influence
The online media monitoring team noted the expression of disinformation narratives by providing a platform in the media to some speakers, in particular, representatives of the party “Opposition Platform – For Life.” They advanced theses on the need to lift the economic blockade of the DNR and LNR, to negotiate with them, discredit the Ukrainian army, legitimise the occupation of Crimea, and so on.
Some media spread the news from Russia and the occupied territories, which, in particular, promoted cultural products with propaganda messages: a book, a song, and so on.
Despite the local elections, the disinformation narratives that spread had a national scale, even when it came to specific regions, such as Donbas or Transcarpathia. Among them: “Ukraine is a Nazi state,” “Ukraine is a failed state,” “Ukraine has external governance,” “Ukrainian church is non-canonical,” “Ukrainian reforms have failed,” etc.
Gender equality in regional online media
The monitoring data showed that the “Gender Equality in Politics” topic is among the three least represented topics in the regional online media, along with the “National Minorities” and “Crimea” issues, despite the introduction of gender quotas in the election legislation. Only nine materials, or 0.05% of the total, were devoted to discussing women’s political participation increase.
Monitoring shows that women are still a minority in the media. They received only 550 mentions, or 9%, in regional online media, while men received 3,308 mentions or 56%.
This means that the media continues to favour men despite the crying changes in society and the growing contribution of women to politics.
According to the results of the latest poll ordered by the Ilko Kucheriv Democratic Initiatives Foundation, together with the Razumkov Centre’s sociological service, from 14 to 19 August 2020 in all regions of Ukraine except Crimea and the occupied territories of Donetsk and Luhansk regions, only 6% of citizens received information about events in Ukraine and the world from regional online media. Instead, the premier source of information for Ukrainians remains the central Ukrainian TV channels (75%), social networks (44%), relatives, and friends (23%).