This is part two 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. They targeted one figure, in particular: former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko.
As the world increasingly moves online, this instance provides an example of where political candidates— or those seeking to attack or undermine them — can expect to see stories emerge. In particular, news aggregators — websites that collect or republish stories and rarely, if ever, feature original content — and YouTube are increasingly popular sources for political content.
Poroshenko, the incumbent, was the top candidate heading into the April 2019 Ukrainian presidential election, even though 60 percent of the country’s population had a negative opinion of him prior to the election. (Poroshenko would ultimately lose in a resounding defeat to Volodymyr Zelensky.) Fringe media and news aggregators exploited this sentiment by publishing mostly anti-Poroshenko messages during the campaign for either political or monetary purposes. According to The Institute of Mass Information research, 77.7 percent of analyzed articles of 20 online media were negative toward the ex-president.
Similar dynamics continued into the July 2019 parliamentary election campaign. Of all the winning party leaders, Poroshenko, leader of the European Solidarity party in the new parliament, bore the brunt of the negative coverage. Much of the coverage was hosted on nontraditional platforms, such as YouTube channels and news aggregators, which tend to have lower standards for objective reporting compared to established mainstream outlets.
The DFRLab analyzed posts on social media promoting content from YouTube and the news aggregators that criticized Poroshenko and that received the most engagement according to BuzzSumo, a social media listening tool, in the period from June 20 to July 21, 2019.
Coverage was categorized as negative if it resorted to ad hominem attacks, policy critique, or ridicule. Coverage was categorized as positive if it echoed a politician’s message or promoted his or her policy proposals as the best course of action.
In general, people engaged the most with YouTube content in the month prior to the elections. The most engaged-with YouTube content on Poroshenko, when reposted on social media platforms, was predominantly negative. Of the top five most engaged-with YouTube reposts, only one was positive. The four negative videos mostly criticized Poroshenko and his associates or highlighted his use of profanity during speeches.
After YouTube, online news aggregators amassed the most engagement on social media. These aggregators regularly republish blog posts, Facebook posts, and opinion articles as news under emotional and manipulative headlines. Three of the five most engaged-with sources mentioning Poroshenko were aggregators such as elise.com.ua, bbcccnn.org, and replyua.net.
The second most engaged-with source, behind YouTube, was elise.com.ua, which describes itself as a community that aggregates online publications and engages in “agenda-setting using open sources.” It claims to be an independent outlet run by a group of former Uzhgorod State University students.
The top six pieces mentioning the former president on elise.com.ua received anywhere from 13,700 to 30,800 engagements on social media.
All of the content was hostile toward Poroshenko, and most of it featured conspiracy theories or misleading headlines. An author named “Vladimir Kovalenko” published all of the top 20 articles on elise.com.ua on Poroshenko. Kovalenko’s author page identified him as an “author/editor.”
Another Elise.com.ua article said Poroshenko suffered from a mental illness that could drive him to commit murder. The same article concluded with a statement that the speaker of the parliament was also mentally ill. Several other aggregators and ostensible news outlets republished the elise.com.ua article with its original headline.
Another article, posted to bbcccnn.org, that received substantial attention from Ukrainian social media audience was published on July 5 and featured an original lede — but the body of the article was copied verbatim from an elise.com.ua piece alleging Poroshenko was mentally ill. The bbcccnn.org article also included a video of the anti-Poroshenko blogger Anatoliy Shariy and was later republished by polygraf.net, another of the aggregators.
The second most engaged-with article from bbcccnn.org was based on a Facebook post that implicated Poroshenko in a tobacco company’s tax evasion scheme. The story itself was a republication of an anonymous member of parliament’s request for information about excise the taxes paid by the tobacco factory. On July 11, 2019, espresso.tv — a center-right Ukrainian news outlet — published an article that claimed Lviv Tobacco Factory had not paid any excise taxes over the past three years.
The article was then summarized in Russian in a Facebook post by a user named Yuri Sapronov, who further speculated that then-President Poroshenko and then-Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman likely had some knowledge of the scheme and nevertheless let it go unpunished. The post was also translated into Ukrainian by a Facebook user named Roman Shevchenko. bbcccnn.org then picked up Shevchenko’s Facebook post and used it as the basis for its story.
The post of the bbcccnn.org article amassed significant reach, thanks to amplification from politicians with large followings. Other news aggregators, such as GolosPravdy.eu, also amplified the story. Assets linked to GolosPravdy.eu were part of a Facebook takedown targeting Ukraine, which the DFRLab analyzed in July 2019.
Poroshenko received the most negative coverage of all the candidates ahead of the Ukrainian parliamentary elections. The most engaged-with social media content featuring this negative coverage was from nontraditional platforms, such as YouTube and news aggregators. Those same platforms were rife with negative coverage, which in turn amassed more engagement because it was often engineered for virality, aiming to provoke strong emotions that drive the audience to interact more with the content they consume.
The disproportionate negative focus on Poroshenko as opposed to the other politicians, as well as the sharing of identical content, may also indicate a targeted campaign took place against the former president on the part of these news aggregators. While political campaigns around the world are often based on attacking opposing candidates, the diversity and broad independence of the online space provides ample opportunity for new sources and forms of attack, not the least of which are news aggregators or streaming video platforms like YouTube.