Jekyll and Hyde Campaigning – How Ukraine’s Leading Presidential Candidates run respectable and dodgy Facebook pages in parallel
Analysing official and unofficial political advertising for former President Poroshenko and for the new President Zelenskyy during the presidential election campaign we found the following:
- Official campaign pages did not use manipulative strategies to discredit electoral competitors and maintained a moderate tone when criticising their opponent;
- Zelenskyy’s campaign used more micro-targeting techniques and generated more engagement, while Poroshenko’s content was less engaging despite the use of bigger budgets to promote each post;
- However, unofficial campaign pages by both sides used defamation against their competitor. The Anti-Zelenskyy pages spent 20 times more budget than Anti-Poroshenko pages;
- Direct and indirect connections were found between unofficial pages and the official headquarters of the two candidates;
- In some cases, Facebook delayed the removal of advertisements marked as ‘Doesn’t meet Facebook advertising rules’. By then, more than $1000 had been spent and many users had seen the ads, which is a significant amount considering that most posts are removed before $100 has been spent.
Given the upcoming Ukrainian Parliamentary elections on 21 July, these recommendations follow from the analysis:
- Facebook should remove flagged inappropriate advertisements faster – before many users see problematic ads;
- In its Ukraine Ad Library Facebook should provide further details regarding advertising funding sources, as seen in the US Ad Library, to maintain transparency and maintain standards across country operations;
- From the side of candidates and parties, there should be a list of pages that they are officially operating under their campaign – whether they are doing the official campaigning or spreading problematic content aimed at attacking or spread false information about the opponent.
- They should not engage in such underhand campaigning and authorities should enforce electoral rules better on social media, such as electoral silence.
The online political campaigning landscape has changed since the last Ukrainian elections. Now tech companies have more rules to ensure a degree of transparency and avoid manipulation attempts from extreme groups and external actors in national elections. The most relevant change has been the establishment of archives of online political advertising (called ‘Ad Library’ by Facebook). For such type of ads (that are different from ads selling commercial goods), Facebook requires more information from those intending to run them. The library allows for tracking of who paid for the ads, how much, and what the targeted audience is.
In Ukraine, Facebook launched the Ad Library on 18 March 2019, two weeks before the first round of presidential elections. The Central Election Commission registered 39 candidates for the elections, which is the largest number of presidential candidates in the history of Ukraine. The incumbent Petro Poroshenko and the newcomer Volodymyr Zelenskyy came in on top in the first round of the elections. In the run-off on 21 April Zelenskyy won, gathering 73% of the votes to become the 6th President of Ukraine. The elections led to a significant increase of polarisation amongst the Ukrainian public, which was reflected in social media content before and after the presidential elections.
The elections were held based on the Ukrainian Constitution and the Law on Elections of the President of Ukraine, adopted in 1999 and last amended on February 2019. Even though the Law regulates media activities and media involvement in electoral campaigns and elections, there are no specific regulations that take into account the specifics of social media activities.
The study analyses the use of political ads by official and unofficial campaign pages during the presidential elections, shedding light on how political advertising online was used in this electoral cycle. This analysis recommends how to analyse social media campaigning for the upcoming early parliamentary elections – scheduled only two months after the presidential elections on 21 July – and provides a more comprehensive look into this phenomenon.
This report looks into the data from the Facebook Ad Library in Ukraine during the active campaign period of 18 March to 21 April 2019. The report includes digital campaigns of presidential candidates Petro Poroshenko and Volodymyr Zelenskyy. The monitored sample includes 14 Facebook pages, divided into two categories: official pages (run by the candidate’s campaigns) and unofficial/false pages (pages created or specially used with the objective of discrediting the opponent). The second group is not an exhaustive list, but altogether the analysis provides an overview about the tools and tactics used by official and unofficial pages in the context of the 2019 presidential elections.
All the posts assessed were manually collected from the Ad Libraries for further qualitative analysis. To identify the main narratives we conducted visual, semantic and linguistic analysis of posts. We also examined advertising promotion budgets and post’s targets in order to be able to assess the techniques used by each candidate’s team and distinguish differences between them.
Official Pages. Poroshenko vs Zelenskyy
The team of Petro Poroshenko used two pages as platforms for election campaign.
The first one is the official page of Poroshenko, which was registered in July 2014. A second page ‘Poroshenko2019’ was created in February 2019, specifically for the purpose of mobilising Poroshenko’s electorate for presidential elections. This page aimed to deliver tailored campaign messages to different audiences, which will be described below.
Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s team used only one Facebook page called ‘Zelenskyy’s team’ which was launched for election campaigning and addressed audiences with diverse content.
The official campaign pages did not use manipulative strategies or emotionally coloured posts to discredit electoral competitors. While Poroshenko’s use of political ads on the official page was more formal, Zelenskyy used more entertaining campaign strategy (building on his reputation as a comedy actor). The second Poroshenko page, “Poroshenko2019”, aimed at a younger audience (according to a poll in January 2019, only 7% of voters in an age under 29 supported Poroshenko) and the content was adopted accordingly.
Poroshenko focused on positive campaigning and reminding voters about his Presidential achievements: the development of the army, granting of Tomos to establish an independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church and success in the promotion of the Ukrainian language. Poroshenko’s pages promoted his strategy to overcome poverty in the country, which was part of his electoral programme.
His messages also focused on geopolitics and the promotion of Ukraine’s pro-European position. One of the ads (dated 9 April) used an antithesis: ‘21 April’s choice: Europe or Russia’. In the context of the election, ‘Europe’ represented Poroshenko, while ‘Russia’ represented Zelenksyy. Being positioned behind Zelenskyy in all opinion polls, Poroshenko’s team tried to appeal to voters through the fear of Ukraine drifting into Russia’s control.
Zelenskyy’s team promoted the message that ‘the current Government will do everything it can to win in an unfair way’ (without mentioning Poroshenko directly). Subscribers were instructed to take several actions: to take their pens to avoid falsifications with disappearing ink, to become observers or members of election commissions, and to document cases of violations at the polling station and send them to the head office.
A large part of Zelenskyy’s supporters in the age from 18 to 24 never voted before, hence among other content, his page provided information on how to vote: listing required documents for the polling stations, or the voting procedure for those not voting at their place of registration.
For the younger audience group ‘Poroshenko2019’ posted videos where opinion leaders expressed support to Poroshenko. The following leaders were involved in the campaign: Yuriy Shukhevych, a Ukrainian politician, member of the Ukrainian Helsinki Group and political prisoner: ‘now it is the time to leave all emotions behind and unite’ – within the framework of the campaign ‘Think’; the publisher Ivan Malkovych; theatre actress Ada Rohovtseva; showman Dmytro Chekalkin and others. Thus, the influence of famous Ukrainians was linked to Poroshenko’s name.
Overall, official campaign pages had a moderate tone when it comes to advertising their platforms and criticising their opponent, focusing mainly on positive campaigning. Being under the scrutiny of electoral laws and voters, such official pages tended to not share false information or any sort of inflammatory speech.
The main differences among the candidates’ advertising messages were found in the targeting strategies.
Zelenskyy’s team used more micro-targeting in their campaign. 16 of 135 unique posts (a comment, picture or other media that is posted on the Facebook page) each targeted a set of different regions and age categories. For example, a post dated 8 April had eleven different advertising audiences. The content of the post did not change depending on the targeted region, age and gender.
The largest number of promoted ads posted only for a short time (not longer than one hour) occurred on 20 and 21 April. We counted more than a thousand of such posts. The posts targeted a very narrow age and regional audience. They were unique and contained different text, video and images for each of the groups.
The overwhelming majority of posts were countdown-videos for elections encouraging residents of different regions and cities to go out and vote with the message that they can change their future.
For example, a specific target set for the residents of Odesa addressed them in the text. For the age categories ’25-34′ and ’35-44′, who might be parents already, a focus was made on the ‘future of children’, which depends on their choice. If the post targeted an elder audience, the text also mentioned grandchildren.
Zelenskyy’s page targeted mainly woman. They saw ads, on the average, two to three times more often than men. The exceptions were the posts on stereotypically male topics (related to football, cars). In total, the page spent $84,278 on ads. For more than half of the posts (134 out of 225 ads, but some of them were promoted several times with different targeting) the budget was less than $100 per post. Only in 20 cases did the budget ranged from $500 to $999. Spending did not exceed $1000 for promotion per post. It is noteworthy that for the 1,500 short-term promotional posts, the amount did not exceed $100 per post.
Comparably, Poroshenko’s team posted less content and it was less engaging (meaning that it generated a lower number of likes, shares, comments). They spent more money promoting each post to reach a wider audience.
The two pages promoted significantly less posts: 56 from the two groups with a total expenditure of $64817 ($24529 first official page, and $40288 ‘Poroshenko2019’ page). Unlike Zelenskyy, Poroshenko’s team promoted posts with the budget of $1,000 – $5,000 for fifteen times and $5,000 to $10,000 for three times. Such budget was spent for the electorate mobilisation post (the video of the campaign ‘The most important is not to lose the country’ with a caption reading ‘We choose our future on 31 March’).
The three main regions where promotional posts were shown were Lviv, Kyiv and Dnipro regions. Lviv region was ranked first in terms of promotional posts coverage, and this region was the only one that gave preference to Poroshenko in the second-round of 2019 presidential elections – he was supported by 63% of voters against 34% who voted for Volodymyr Zelenskyy. However, Poroshenko did have support in this region prior to the elections which would have helped maintain his percentage of votes in the second round.
On both Poroshenko pages micro-targeted ads were rarely used. As an exception, in the video of the advertising campaign ‘Think’ (the ad dated 26 March) with a commentary done by Yuriy Shukhevych, only Central and Western parts of Ukraine were targeted, namely six regions – Lviv, Ternopil, Rivne, Kyiv, Volyn and Chernivtsi regions.
In a similar fashion to Zelenskyy’s pages, the main targets were women. Men were targeted in rare cases, for example in posts related to military equipment (the ad dated 23 March about Turkish combat drones).
Official pages: Conclusion
Candidates did not focus on discrediting their opponents. The main difference was in how the messages were targeted. Poroshenko’s team used bigger budgets to promote each post, but their content was less engaging.
Comparing to Poroshenko’s more official messages, Zelenskyy’s page made use of a more modern and targeted campaign strategy. Efforts were focused on creating video content and using short, catchy messages. The content was engaging and had the potential to go viral, supported by hashtags (e.g. #let’sshowhimtogether) or calls for comments and shares.
Zelenskyy’s campaign used voters in micro-targeting. Two days before each round of the elections, it targeted specific cities or even universities. Zelenskyy’s strategy seemed to focus on mobilising his electorate to vote again in the second round, as the same turnout would be enough for him to ensure his victory. Therefore, the largest portion of his social media budget was spent in the period of 19-21 April.
Meanwhile, Poroshenko’s pages spent quite a significant budget of more than $40000 in February, focusing on two age groups of 18-24 and 25-34 to mobilize younger voters. Ultimately, the focus of both candidates’ pages in the election campaign was on the female audience.
Zelenskyy’s team seems to have violated the electoral law by publishing ads on the Day of Silence and on the day of the elections – 30-31 March and 20-21 April. In accordance with Article 212-10 “Violation of restrictions on conducting election agitation, agitation on the day of referendum” of the Code of Ukraine on Administrative Offences – conducting election campaigns outside the terms established by Law for the Election of the President of Ukraine – may result in a fine. However, it seems that no steps were made to enforce the law. Pages of Poroshenko did not run electoral ads on the Day of Silence.
Unofficial campaign pages
Aside from campaigning on official pages, a significant part of campaigning on social media during last elections were implemented through other pages. Such pages are not officially run by candidate’s headquarters, but their narratives and communication resonated with the main messages of the candidates. These pages spread misleading and compromising information about other candidates. The goal of such pages was to discredit the opponent’s reputation and electoral chances. The pages we chose to analyse had either clear Anti-Zelenskyy or Anti-Poroshenko agenda.
In this analysis we looked at five pages. ‘Zhovta Strichka’ , Boycott the Party of Regions , Ministerstvo Baryh [Ministry of Hustlers], ‘Batya, ya starayus’ [Dad, I try] , Zrada_Peremoha [Betrayal_Victory], Tsynichnyi Bandera [Cynic Bandera].
One of the Anti-Zelenskyy themes was defamation and denigration through false information, without confirmed facts or with loose interpretation of facts. One popular theme of the ads identified Zelenskyy as a drug user: “Many thanks for screen inhabitants for the candidate-drug user” (6 April); “Polling Ukrainians whether the President can use cocaine” (7 April); “It is sure that Ukraine does not need the President – drug user” (8 April). A video posted on 8 April stated that “Zelenskyy’s secret has been disclosed”, implying that Zelenskyy did not take tests and the conclusion was that he is a drug user with something to hide.
Another defamation message was that Zelenskyy has criminal relations with the Ukrainian oligarch Ihor Kolomoyskyi. The page of ‘Zhovta Strichka’ posted about this many times: ‘The choice is really simple: Putin’s personal enemy Poroshenko or Yulia’s puppet Kolomoyskyi who can’t wait to ‘dupe’ Ukrainians out of money’ (18 March) and ‘Does anybody still believe him?’ (8 April). A video was also posted in which it is declared that Kolomoyskyi’s money from nationalisation of PrivatBank was transferred to offshore accounts of ‘Kvartal 95’ (8 April).
On the page Ministerstvo Baryh [Ministry of Hustlers] an ad dated 29 March was shared with a video, which uses a compilation of Zelenskyy’s and Kolomoisky’s statements and the Poroshenko campaign slogan ‘There are many candidates but only one President’ and the end. Another example: a promotional video dated 1 April, in which they associate Zelenskyy with the money of the oligarch Kolomoisky, which was allegedly took out to offshore accounts of ‘Kvartal 95’.
The second theme was the “incompetence” of the candidate Zelenskyy.
A post on the page ‘Zhovta Strichka’ from 8 April said: ‘We imagine the meeting of the National Security and Defence Council and it makes us already scared’: the message of the post is that Zelenskyy will not cope with the role of the Commander-in-Chief at a crucial moment when the whole country will be waiting for him to make an autocratic decision.
Similar messages were tracked on the page “Boycott the Party of Regions”. Several videos with a message about candidate Zelenskyy’s incompetence was spread within the framework of a conventional advertising campaign ‘Not ready to be the President’. For example, in a video involving actors, which simulates the situation when a full-scale war with Russia has allegedly begun, all the soldiers are waiting for a decision from the Commander-in-Chief of the army Volodymyr Zelenskyy and at the crucial moment he is nervous and does not know what to do. Another example is a video, which compares the candidate Volodymyr Zelenskyy with the ‘chef who is afraid of food’: ‘The Commander-in-Chief who is Afraid of War’.
A particularly egregious example included an ad video in which Zelenskyy is hit by a truck. It included the message ‘Everybody must walk his/her own path’ and had an image of a path with cocaine (a hint to the message ‘Zelenskyy is a drug user’). Later this video was removed by the page administrator but remained in the library of advertising. Facebook did not consider this video as violating Facebook’s rules. This video was posted on the page Zrada Peremoha [Betrayal_Victory].
On the page ‘Petro Incognito’ a post, dated 8 April accused Petro Poroshenko of copying elements of the election campaign of ex-President Leonid Kuchma.
‘Poroshenko is fawning over the youth, monkeying twenty-five-year-old techniques! Petro’s ratings go down catastrophically and he is catching at a straw hoping to attract the youth. Before the first round he didn’t think about it at all, and Poroshenko’s bots ‘soaked’ those young people who wanted to vote for Petro Poroshenko’s opponents.’
9 ads of the group involve micro-targeting to specific regions. For example, a post from 18 March, which criticised the head of the Transcarpathian regional state administration Hennadiy Moskal (who is considered to be the person of the President Petro Poroshenko), targeted exclusively the Carpathian region.
Criticism of Poroshenko’s environment. On the same page there were posts arguing about Poroshenko’s connections to Russia. A post dated 27 March said: ’15 facts about how Petro Poroshenko and his allies are closely related to Russia! Fact No. 1. Poroshenko’s daughter-in-law Yulia Poroshenko (Alikhanova) is Russian, her parents live in St.-Petersburg, the husband of the sister is a top official in the government of Leningrad oblast and relatives in Crimea declare in public that they voted at the pseudo-referendum for separation of the peninsula from Ukraine…’.
Videos with supposed investigations on Petro Poroshenko were published on ‘AntiPor’ group. As an example – post, dated 11 March with an Investigation by ‘Ukrainian Sensations’ of 1+1 TV channel (owned by oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky associated with Volodymyr Zelenskyy) named ‘Poroshenko’s Black Cash’.
There was another video claiming that economy of Ukraine declined during Poroshenko time according to world recognised ratings without backing this information with the respective ratings data. The video features also a part of Deutsche Welle report about state of economy in Ukraine. The video text caption encourages Poroshenko’s supporters to watch it.
In this case the communication is based on references to various media that criticise Petro Poroshenko. A reference to popular media in Ukraine is one of the communication strategies, when the presidential candidate is criticized not only by the page itself, but also by reputable media.
Another theme in the Anti-Poroshenko-campaign is the allegation that he pays for votes. For the first time this topic started to be ‘spread’ in media on the site strana.ua in January 2019. On Facebook it was communicated through the page ‘Karusel2019’ (the accusation of ‘carousel voting’). The creation of this page coincides with active release of publications on the website.
Unlike the topics listed above, the communication of the ‘Karusel2019’ page appealed to the most specific features of Petro Poroshenko’s election campaign.
Praising Zelenskyy and refuting accusations against him. On the page ‘Vybory 2019’ [Elections 2019] The first promotional post was published on 27 March. In a promoted video called ‘Is Zelenskyy the President?’ television presenters do their best to defend Zelenskyy. For example, they say that the accusations of ties with Russia will help mobilise the pro-Russian electorate. They believe that the label ‘Kolomoisky’s puppet’ is not negative, explaining that this oligarch is the most positive among all other Ukrainian oligarchs. They stated that not participating in a direct debate would not have a negative impact on Zelenskyy’s rating.
The second promotional post was published on 29 March. In the promoted video, television presenters discuss visual advertising of some presidential candidates. Yulia Tymoshenko was accused of plagiarism of 2004 Viktor Yushchenko’s message and Poroshenko of plagiarising a Russian party’s ‘United Russia’ message. At the same time, they call Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s advertising ‘cool’ and show scenes from the TV show ‘Servant of People’ where Zelenskyy plays a president, namely the scene with execution of deputies of the Verkhovna Rada by president’s shooting.
Unofficial pages conclusions and findings
Promotional posts in the unofficial pages category mostly used videos and sometimes text and graphics pages supporting Poroshenko existed long before the election campaign and were used to spread messages against political opponents. Pages against Poroshenko/for Zelenskyy were mostly created during the electoral period (except of group ‘Stop Poroshenko’, created in 2014).
We noticed similar content on different Anti-Zelenskyy pages – the same actor appears in various advertising game videos (videos in which actors portray politicians) on different pages and the same videos are shared by different pages.
Same content has been promoted on 5 of 6 researched pages (except ‘Batya, ya starayus’ [Dad, I try]), which indicated an existing coordinated communication strategy behind such pages. We found out that they are connected between each other. These pages have the same phone number and address in the block ‘Funding source’. Moreover, this phone number and address was listed in the official pages of Petro Poroshenko.
This could mean that same communication team was responsible for creating content not only for official pages, but for unofficial pages. This indicates an often common strategy when it comes to the use of social media during elections: official candidate’s pages tend to keep a lower profile, moderate language and official positions when it comes to the candidate’s agenda, while more questionable techniques are spread using pages that are not directly associated with any of the campaigns.
On the anti-Poroshenko page, ‘Petro Incognito’, most of the posts were accompanied with short edited videos.
The ads targeted the West of Ukraine, where Petro Poroshenko had the highest level of support (Vinnytsia, Lviv, Rivne, Ivano-Frankivsk). Thus, the purpose of the group was to influence Poroshenko’s electorate and to cause negative emotions in relation to the incumbent President.
Unlike Anti-Zelenskyy/pro-Poroshenko pages, we did not see same information in the block ‘Funding source’ on official Zelenskyy Group and unofficial pages.
Pages working against Zelenskyy spent way more money, than their electoral rivals (hyperlinks below lead to Ad libraries with the sums).
|Anti-Zelenskyy page||Budget||Anti-Poroshenko page||Budget|
|Zhovta Strichka||$41418||‘Petro Incognito’||$241|
|‘Batya, ya starayus’ [Dad, I try]||$1000 to $5000
|Boycott the Party of Regions||$17134||‘Vybory 2019’ [Elections 2019]||less than $100
|Ministerstvo Baryh [Ministry of Hustlers]||$58573||‘Stop Poroshenko’||less than $100
|Tsynichnyi Bandera [Cynic Bandera]||$45559|
|Total spent||Apx. $190334||Total spent||Apx. $8583|
The promotion budget for Anti-Zelenskyy pages is more than 20 times more than for Anti-Poroshenko pages. Moreover, it is larger than on promotion of official pages.
Effectiveness of Facebook political ads policy
As we saw above, neither team used questionable communication on their official pages but did on unofficial pages. Direct connection was found between official pages of Petro Poroshenko and unofficial pages working against Zelenskyy.
In this case the newly launched Facebook policy provides instruments to expose the source of political advertising. Additionally, a high number of ads were removed by Facebook with the mark ‘Doesn’t meet Facebook advertising rules’ (31,7% from Anti-Zelenskyy pages and 14,2% from Anti-Poroshenko pages). As an example, on the page Zrada_Peremoha [Betrayal_Victory] half of the promoted ads were removed.
But before such inappropriate ads were deleted, they had been already shown to many people and promotion budgets spent on some of them were above $1000.
Some of the questionable ads have not been deleted entirely. As an example, shown in this report is the advertised video with a fragment edited where Volodymyr Zelenskyy is hit by a truck. This video was removed by administrators of the page, but not by Facebook.
Looking ahead at the Parliamentary elections
Currently it appears easy to sneak around campaign finance rules by paying for ads with false company information. Facebook gives details about the sources in the US ad library, but not in Ukraine, which shows different standards when it comes to transparency in different countries.
A new election campaign already started in Ukraine. On 21 July the country will go to the polls again to choose the new Parliament, and campaign strategies will likely follow the same patterns identified by this study. Thus, Facebook needs to implement necessary changes and upgrade their standards to avoid political advertising to be used as a tool to spread lies and false information to voters. Inappropriate content should not be part of paid political advertising.
Despite of the fact that political campaigns have historically rely on lies and defamation, they have a choice to allow this to be featured on their platforms or not. Facebook has been struggling with the decision to take down problematic content, such as the recent case of a manipulated video of the US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi shows. However, in the case of political ads, differently from content from users that go viral, they have the choice to not run them in the first place.
We have now much more transparency than in 2016, when political advertising was a channel used by foreign manipulative actors to influence the 2016 elections. Such tool allowed for a greater transparency and reduced the problems associated with political advertising, if we take the recent European parliamentary elections as an example. The Code of Conduct enforced by the European Commission in cooperation with tech companies increased transparency and reduced the scope for manipulation via political advertising.
It does not mean that there is no work to be done. With the Parliamentary elections approaching, having the same transparency standards applied to other elections would be a good starting point. During the 2018 US Midterm elections, the ad library contained a list of how much money was being spend online in the campaign and who were the actors spending that money. This list does not exist for Ukraine as of now, which makes analysis on the use of political ads more difficult to be done.
Methodology Application Table
|Number of ads collected||Ads from 14 pages|
|Criteria for inclusion in the search (query applied at the Twitter public API)||The 14 pages were divided into two categories: official pages (run by the candidate’s campaigns) and unofficial/false pages (pages created or specially used with the objective of discrediting the opponent). The second group is not an exhaustive list.|
|Type of analysis||All the posts assessed were manually collected from the Ad Libraries for further qualitative analysis. To identify the main narratives we conducted visual, semantic and linguistic analysis of posts. We also examined advertising promotion budgets and post’s targets in order to be able to assess the techniques used by each candidate’s team and distinguish differences between them.
|Source of data||Facebook Ad Library|
|Timeframe of study||Ads captured between March, 18th and April, 21st|
|More questions on methodology?||Contact: [email protected]|
Cover image: Animated Heaven/Flickr
 Carousel voting is a method of vote rigging in elections. Usually it involves “busloads of voters [being] driven around to cast ballots multiple times”