This is part one of a two-part series looking at the growing influence of news aggregators and YouTube in political news consumption using the 2019 Ukrainian elections as a case study.
In the month leading up to the July 2019 Ukrainian parliamentary elections, news aggregators and YouTube videos generated a substantial portion of online engagement with content about Ukrainian electoral candidates. This finding indicated that users are more likely to interact, react, or share the more emotional content of non-traditional media websites, rather than content from the mainstream news sources.
Nowadays, while television remains the primary medium for information, more and more Ukrainians are getting their news from social media. More people receive information from social media than print media in the United States, United Kingdom, and Ukraine. The same is true for any internet usage cumulatively, which is approaching TV consumption levels in the United Kingdom and Ukraine. As a result of this shift, news aggregators, which often target users with scandalous headlines instead of traditional journalism, have gained an increasing audience. YouTube, with its independent upload structure, similarly acts as an aggregator, as contributors post videos that prioritize emotional appeals and virality over fact-based analysis.
In 2018, 74 percent of Ukrainians indicated that they receive information from television, 27 percent from online media, and 23.5 percent from social networks. A year later, the numbers for internet media and social networks remained stable, but the proportion indicating TV as a source of news declined by 12 percent. This shift might demonstrate the growing role of social media and the internet as a method of news consumption or, conversely, the relative decline of TV.
Using BuzzSumo, the DFRLab looked at those websites with the highest engagement on social media to identify trends and bias in the content between June 20 and July 21, the day of the election. The DFRLab searched for mentions on social media of those people who lead political parties that were elected to parliament as well as of Volodymyr Zelensky, who was elected President of Ukraine during the earlier presidential elections and who was also widely considered to be the head of the Servant of the People Party, overshadowing the actual head, Dmytro Razumkov.
In general, people engaged the most with YouTube content in the month before the elections.
In a number of reactions, coverage of two politicians significantly outperformed coverage of others: now President Zelensky and former president and leader of the European Solidarity party Petro Poroshenko. YouTube videos mentioning both politicians received thousands of engagements. Videos focusing on other party leaders received substantially lower levels of engagement, but YouTube links nevertheless received the most engagement for content relating to four of the five politicians studied.
Yulia Tymoshenko, a former prime minister and current leader of the All-Ukrainian Union Fatherland Party, was the only party head whose most engaged-with content did not link to YouTube. Her party’s official website was instead the primary source of engagement on social media, according to BuzzSumo, with posts linking to stories about Tymoshenko on YouTube received the second highest engagement.
Web aggregators and fringe media
After YouTube, online news aggregators amassed the most engagement on social media. These aggregators regularly publish blog posts, Facebook posts, and opinion articles as news under emotional and manipulative headlines. Each of the politicians had at least one aggregator among their top five sources. Some of these websites pose as media and publish news under clickbait headlines, sometimes with authors’ bylines.
The most engaged-with articles for the candidates appeared on the following domains: elise.com.ua, bbcccnn.org, prefiksblog.co.ua, replyua.net, economics-prorok.com, dialog.ua, and znaj.ua. Notably, znaj.ua’s Facebook pages were recently analyzed by the DFRLab after Facebook took them down for engaging in coordinated inauthentic behavior.
The only politician in the analysis to receive substantial engagement with social media posts linking to their own party’s website was Yulia Tymoshenko. Two of the top three most engaged-with websites on social media mentioning Tymoshenko were party websites: ba.org.ua and batkivshchyna.kharkiv.ua. The former is the main website of All-Ukrainian Union Fatherland, and the latter is a local party website. Both websites accounted for roughly 25 percent of all engagement regarding Tymoshenko during the period of analysis. The top social media posts linked to interviews with Tymoshenko in which she conveyed Fatherland’s stance on topics ranging from healthcare to utility tariffs. All of the content described Tymoshenko as capable of bringing positive change to Ukraine.
The least engaged-with posts featured content from traditional national media outlets, such as tsn.ua, prm.ua, hromadske.ua, and liga.net. While individual articles received limited engagement, the sheer number of traditional media sources allowed these outlets to attain substantial engagement overall.
For instance, among the top websites mentioning leader of the Holos party, Svyatoslav Vakarchuk, only liga.net was in the top three, whereas Hromadske and RBC appeared seventh and eighth, respectively.
This analysis assessed patterns of user engagement with content linking to websites related to politics during the active parliamentary election period in Ukraine in late June and July 2019. With regard to traditional media, only coverage of the president received substantial engagement on social media. Content related to other political figures, in contrast, amassed significantly more engagement with content from news aggregators and YouTube.
Furthermore, news aggregators and fringe media received substantial interaction rates from Ukrainian users, outperforming traditional media. This might suggest that neutral coverage is less likely to elicit engagement from readers. YouTube videos discussing politics or short clips of politicians’ speeches were similarly more effective at drawing reactions or comments from users than traditional media.