Online misinformation, cyber-attacks, and the overall threat of external interference in the election were not last minute concerns in Ukraine.
These issues were raised several months before the election, Global Voices reports.
Ultimately, the election passed without major disruptions, so while some of these concerns turned out to be unjustified, the role of the internet in Sunday's vote was more important than ever. According to 2019 data from the country’s State Statistical Service, 26 million Ukrainians are online, including half of them actively using social networks.
Politics has always been on top agenda in the Ukrainian social media: the 2014 Euromaidan protests were famously sparked by a single Facebook post. This year, which also saw a presidential election in March, was no exception. According to an study by Internews Ukraine and Singularex data analytics, Sunday’s elections provoked a tsunami of activity on social networks, with election-related posts surging immediately after the announcement of the parliament's dissolution.
The most widespread hashtags were #вибори2019 (“2019 elections”); supporters of Servant of the People used the hashtags #зробимоїхразом ("let's beat them together!") and #зедепутат ("Ze[lensky]Deputy"), while supporters of the Holos party led by rock singer Svyatoslav Vakarchuk used #КомандаЗмін ("team of change").
Interestingly, social media users were not too optimistic about the upcoming elections, with negative rhetoric towards all parties dominating 42% of Facebook posts identified as "political", while positive rhetoric was found in only 15% of the posts.
Nevertheless, with Facebook becoming the country's leading social network after the 2017 ban of Russian social media sites, negative attitudes hardly deterred politicians from targeting the country's 13 million active Facebook users. This tactic comes as no surprise given that the success of Zelensky's presidential campaign on a few months before was partially attributed to engaging with younger voters online. At the same time, parties and candidates also actively used Instagram, YouTube, Twitter, and messaging platforms such as Viber and Telegram.
Alongside the increasingly sophisticated targeted advertising services provided by Facebook and other platforms, current Ukrainian election legislation does not distinguish between online and offline campaigning. It establishes no clear mechanisms for candidates to report and for regulators – to monitor expenses for online ads.
In fact, according to election observers, this year Ukrainian politicians used social media and particularly Facebook for campaigning more actively than ever before, with 40,427 political ads published on the social network during the active campaign period. In total, this cost all election contestants more than $1,800,000.
Alongside advertisements on social media, the five parties expected to take seats in parliament used a variety of other online methods to engage voters. For instance, some urged voters to provide their phone numbers, subscribe to mailing lists, join Viber or Telegram messenger channels, engage with their messenger bots to receive information about the party or observe elections, or install mobile applications. Most of these mechanisms would provide subscribers with information about the party and its candidates, their election platform, and the latest news, as well as basic information about voting. In addition, some parties also used their websites to actively recruit members, volunteers, and candidates.
For example, although Ukrainian internet users sometimes debate the risks of their data being collected by Russian online platforms and tools, it seems that very few think about how their data is being collected and used by domestic actors.