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Ukraine’s new parliament: What social media users think about it

Since the new Verkhovna Rada began working, Ukrainian social media users have scrutinised and criticised every decision made by new MPs and the President’s appointees. Their behaviour on Facebook, Instagram and VK largely mirror real moods in society.

November 25, 2019 - Iryna Matviyishyn - Articles and Commentary

Today, Ukrainian feelings, evaluations and reactions fit into the usual Ukrainian dichotomy, two extremes of reaction to political and social processes: ‘zrada’ and ‘peremoha’, or ‘betrayal’ and ‘victory’ in Ukrainian. So what is the new Parliament for Ukrainians? Is there a middle ground?

To see how Ukrainians perceive the work of the new government, Internews Ukraine and UkraineWorld experts analysed data on the three main social media websites in Ukraine: Facebook, Instagram and VK. Our research covered the first two weeks of the new Rada in the period from 29 August to 15 September 2019.

The analytical company Singularex extracted:

  • More than 429,000 posts on Facebook
  • Almost 1,735,000 posts on VK
  • Around 10,600 posts on Instagram.

To dig into posts about Parliament and parties we analysed:

  • 11,252 targeted posts about Ukraine’s parliament and parties from more than 3,000 authors on Facebook; 
  • 5,655 posts from more than 11,000 authors on VK;
  • 9,077 posts from more than 2,500 authors on Instagram.

Here are our 10 key conclusions.

1. Compare and criticise

The first steps taken by the new Ukrainian Parliament have become another bone of contention in the Ukrainian segment of Facebook. The pre-election rivalry between the so-called “porokhobots” (supporters of Ukraine’s former President Petro Poroshenko) and “zelebots” (fans of the current President Volodymyr Zelenskyy) turned into the “new vs. old Rada” contest by pointing at the victories and failures of political opponents.

Zelenskyy’s supporters often justify the initiatives of the parliamentary majority and compare them with Poroshenko’s reluctance to reform the judiciary and to eliminate high-level corruption, referring to the “fake” state position of his party. Take, for example, this post by a Facebook user with 9,464 followers about the reaction of Poroshenko supporters on the bill about parliamentary immunity: “when this draft law was being proposed by [Poroshenko], the ‘elite’ had no objections … if [Servant of the People] did not support the cancellation of the immunity of MPs, ‘salt of the earth’ would scream outrageously most of all.”

Another post in support of Zelenskyy’s course states that “the screechy-kvetchy opposition community does not recall at all how it abused the by-laws, common sense and the country when appointing the previous prosecutor-general.”

At the same time, fans of Poroshenko often recall his presidency and the previous Rada as “the best” in Ukraine’s history. The former president is often praised for “the restoration of the army and liberation [of Ukrainian towns in Eastern Ukraine]”. Meanwhile, they see the actions of Zelenskyy’s majority as endangering Ukraine’s national interests.

2. New Faces: kudos and disapproval

While “zelebots” and neutral Facebook users were bashing Poroshenko for his old appointees (such as Yuriy Lutsenko), the new government is, in the eyes of many top authors, following the destiny of its predecessors. Among Zelenskyy’s new appointments, Arsen Avakov turned out to be too controversial to accept. Some Ukrainians wrote that the new-old Minister of Internal Affairs was “an univocal minus”, which hit Zelenskyy’s rating hard.

At the same time, such appointments as new Prosecutor General Ruslan Ryaboshapka, Minister of Foreign Affairs Vadym Prystaiko, Prime Minister Oleksiy Honcharuk, and Vice Prime Minister for European and Euro-Atlantic Integration Dmytro Kuleba prompted positive feedback, notably, from Poroshenko supporters. Simultaneously, Facebook users in Ukraine reacted promptly to each move they made, so very soon Honcharuk was criticised for his intentions to change labor legislation.

3. What ignites ‘victory’ and ‘betrayal’

Serious on topic messages about the new Rada prevailed. Some issues became hot button for Facebook, Instagram and VK. The prisoner swap and the Steinmeier Formula evoked especially fierce debates. The division line lies between those who thanked and praised the new government and Zelenskyy and those who thanked civil society, which raised criticism over what was at stake.

Most Ukrainian users expressed joy at the return of Ukrainian political prisoners. Many Facebook posts echoed the one stating that President Zelenskyy “is an advocate of ‘the state for people’ as opposed to Poroshenko, who neglected human lives.” Others were critical of the extradition of Volodymyr Tsemakh to Russia. The event was also the reason for emotional praise of the new government on Instagram and the traditionally diminutive rhetoric of pro-Russian users on VK. However, the ‘victory-betrayal’ dichotomy is lost among Instagram posts hailing the achievements of the new government.

Relations with Russia became another spark of concern. On Facebook, Poroshenko’s supporters, as well as neutral users, labelled Zelenskyy’s attempts at stopping the war as “capitulation.” One top author called it “a return to the [Eurasian] Customs Union].” Opinion battles sparked around elections in the Donbas, Ukraine’s risks of losing its sovereignty, and Poroshenko’s failure to introduce an alternative to the Minsk Agreements.

VK users are more original when it comes to behaviour concerning politics. One former Ukrainian pro-Russian politician, Oleg Tsarev, sees Zelenskyy’s peace plan as contradictory to Russian interests. “Kolomoiskiy wants Ukraine to take Donbas, and Russia to pay for it”, he claimed. For VK, any Ukrainian initiative is bad, whether it comes from Servant of the People, or from the pro-Russian opposition platform.

4. Between a rock and a hard place: cold minds on Facebook

Despite waves of severe criticism from two rival Facebook sides, there is, in the middle, a segment of experts and analysts with thousands of followers who try to keep a distance and analyse the work of Parliament with an unbiased eye.

Many noted that the mono-majority has no excuses now, since “the President has everything necessary in his hands … to totally knock down the old system.” A lot of top posts from Servant of the People are full of hopes and expectations. “None of the three past [governments] had this number of people from whom you could expect real reforms. Or at least attempts at implementing them,” one user said. An active Facebook author with 38,712 followers at the time of the research made a long “TOR (terms of reference) for the president,” indicating the key points for transforming the country – from information campaigns to the regeneration of Ukrainian rocket science. One of the paragraphs is devoted to Zelenskyy’s promise to hold “odious figures of former times” accountable. In fact, many users also expect Poroshenko, Lutsenko, Medvedchuk and oligarchs like Akhmetov and Firtash to be brought to justice for their wrongdoings.

Neutral critics also see the new government as a natural reaction to Poroshenko’s inaction. While referring to his flaws, they are also suspicious of Zelenskyy’s plans. Some feel “like Poroshenko never left.”

5. The mono-majority at gunpoint

What unites Ukrainian segments of Facebook and VK is their penchant for negativity. The total percentage of negative posts about the Verkhovna Rada reached 56 per cent on Facebook and almost 74 per cent on VK. Often positive or neutral rhetoric about certain political forces is based on negative rhetoric about others.

The parliamentary majority is in the firing line both on Facebook and VK. More than 58 per cent of Facebook posts and more than 70 per cent of VK posts about Zelenskyy’s party were negative. Since Servant of the People grabbed power with the majority of seats in the Rada, Ukrainian social media users “ring the alarm” if certain actions contradict the law or their promises.

Many experts criticise Zelenskyy and his MPs for “anti-Ukrainian” initiatives. These range from the draft law “On State Support for Cinematography” to the dismissal of the Central Election Commission. The fact that the Rada belongs to the Ze-majority is among the top concerns. A popular Facebook author with 16,529 followers finishes his posts with the same sentence: “Parliament and the government are the shadows of Tsar Zelenskyy.” This idea came across in other posts about the new Rada. Some Facebook users are sure that “the absolute majority of MPs will be extras” with no independent voice, and the President will take advantage of this. Peace deals and Ihor Kolomoiskiy’s authority are among the main triggers for accusations and mockery on VK as well.

6. The non existent opposition is “no better”, either

Many Facebook users are also pondering the prospects of the opposition. Some doubt that the four parties can find common ground. They note that European Solidarity is unable to unite either with the Opposition Platform, due to their clearly opposing views on Ukraine’s future, nor with Vakarchuks’s Holos because of self-interest. Others notice a somehow loyal attitude on the part of Tymoshenko’s Batkivshchyna towards the ruling party. In general terms, Facebook and VK users are mostly neutral or negative about the four other Ukrainian parties that rank after Servant of the People.

Poroshenko’s European Solidarity got 49 per cent of negative posts on Facebook and almost 56 per cent on VK. In the Facebook ranking, Boyko’s Opposition Platform even outran Zelenskyy’s ruling party: more than 76 per cent of posts were negative. The situation was slightly better for Tymoshenko’s and Vakarchuk’s parties, which received more neutral and positive posts in total.

European Solidarity got the biggest amount of attention after the Servant of the People: more than 2,500 posts on Facebook as compared to almost 6,700 posts about SoP. On VK, the proportion is similar: almost 1,500 posts against almost 3,900, respectively. In the attention scale, others fall far behind, with the Opposition Platform followed by Vakarchuk’s Holos and Tymoshenko’s Batkivshchyna on both Facebook and VK. In fact, these parties are much less interesting for all three social media websites, including Instagram.

7. VK’s space for negativity

While the opposition of two virtual camps is still present on VK, it is much less striking due to the more vivid presence of pro-Russian Ukrainians. Compared to the last research, the visibility of pro-Ukrainian users has decreased since the snap parliamentary elections. As a result, space for pro-Ukrainian opinion shrinks. Pro-Russian users, such as the same old analysts for propaganda media like Maksym Ravreba or Volodymyr Kornilov, led the top list. They continue bashing Ukraine’s government, past or present, but hatred and mockery mostly concern President Zelenskyy. One of the top posts stressed Zelenskyy’s incompatibility with the president’s chair: “Why does Zelenskyy want to hold a Normandy meeting precisely in September: through inertia, he wants to have time to finish all the things had to do before New Year company parties.” Nonetheless, they jump all over Ukrainian politicians regardless of their party. 72 per cent of 150 mixed posts are negative.

It is notable that pro-Ukrainian users often contribute to this flow of negativity about the Ukrainian Parliament. Due to tenacious faith in former President Poroshenko, they support anti-government rhetoric that is in line with pro-Russian narratives. “Zelenskyy will, beyond any doubt, go down in Ukraine’s history as traitor number one”, one of Poroshenko’s steadfast supporters posted on VK, adding that “[the] main Judas are the 73 per cent who elected Zelenskyy.”

8. Breathe out it’s Instagram

The Instagram community was the most neutral when appraising the activities of the new government (60.9 per cent of all posts). Nonetheless, the tonality of posts about Servant of the People, Holos, and Batkivshchyna was overwhelmingly positive. 96.18 per cent, 94.4 per cent and 88.4 per cent, respectively, of posts about these political forces were either positive or neutral. European Solidarity and Opposition Platform For Life, however, were mostly criticised, with 65 per cent and 62.5 per cent of negative posts and only 7 per cent and 15 per cent of positive ones, respectively.

The self-generated content might be a reason why Instagram remains the most “positive” of all three social media. In the case of Servant of the People, success lies in Zelenskyy’s control over Ukrainian Instagram. His party gets all the attention and praise, silencing voices about other parties. To compare, there were 7,155 posts about Zelenskyy’s party and just 688 about Poroshenko’s ES.

All top posts in Servant of the People were created either by Kvartal-95, Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s official account or the fan pages of ZeTeam. Similarly, posts about Holos (405) and Batkivshchyna (304) were mostly created by their members or fan pages, but their numbers are poor compared to those about Zelenskyy and Servant of the People. Here, the Opposition Platform is the least visible: only 48 related posts. Such a gap between Ze-accounts and other parties helped to blow a huge bubble of supportive users for the mono-majority and President Zelenskyy.

9. Pro-Kremlin voices stir the mush

Given the top posts from a sample of more than 11,000, Ukrainian Facebook is largely pro-Ukrainian. Many are explicit in their rage towards the Opposition Platform and its deputy leader and Putin’s friend, Viktor Medvedchuk. One Facebook user talked about the social media strategy of the Opposition Platform-For Life, saying that with the help of their TV channels, OP “started to form a pool of experts” for the next elections, which “might become a serious threat in the future.”

Nevertheless, the influence of pro-Kremlin narratives can be noticed through single supporters of the pro-Russian party “Nashi” (“Ours”) or the Opposition Platform. A Facebook user from Odesa wrote a long post on how billionaire George Soros “interferes” in Ukraine’s domestic affairs. This rhetoric occupied a place in the top posts on Instagram and among numerous anti-Ukrainian posts on VK.

A popular narrative on “Ukrainians are Nazis” was detected on Instagram and VK in the context of the war. Pro-Russian VK users now put Zelenskyy’s government in the same line with that of Poroshenko.

Having said that, radical-minded Poroshenko fans or Zelenskyy haters often contribute to the pro-Kremlin debate on both Facebook and VK. For example, a famous Facebook user said the Verkhovna Rada had become the “Verkhovna Duma” because of the parliamentary majority in it.

10. Memes say it all

Ukrainians on Facebook, Instagram and VK are united in their love for political memes. It seems to be one of the most comprehensive ways to express their attitude towards the new government and politicians. The top authors on Facebook and VK did not pass over a chance to react to the President’s meeting with oligarch Kolomoiskiy. For instance, on Facebook, one posted a picture of the meeting with the caption “Volodymyr Zelenskyy met the president of Ukraine.”

Instagram leads the way with political memes. Satirical videos mocking Poroshenko became popular against a background that was praiseworthy of Zelenskyy. Some of those include Zelenskyy kicking Poroshenko out of the Rada; Zelenskyy facepalmed during Poroshenko’s speech prior to the vote on cancellation of MPs immunity; and Poroshenko preparing to stage a “putsch” in December.

The research was carried out by an initiative of the NGO Internews-Ukraine, with Neural Networks and methods of Artificial Intelligence, namely:

  • API Vkontakte for parsing data
  • Python Natural Language Processing Libraries for processing of text information
  • Neural Networks implemented with the Keras library to filter spam
  • clustering texts using NLTK, Scikit-learn libraries
  • graphic visualisation using libraries Pandas, Matplotlib and Jupyter Notebook
  • database system: PostgreSQL

This project is done with support of NGO Internews and USAID

Vitalii Rybak contributed to the analysis

Iryna Matviyishyn is a journalist at UkraineWorld.

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