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Is fake news threatening Ukraine's election?

Nikita Batalov
March 23, 2019

Ukrainians are set to elect a new president on March 31. Russian-language fake news has consumed the country's media landscape. Some fear that this flood of false reports could influence the outcome of the vote.

Fake news graphic
Image: picture alliance/dpa/F. Gabbert

For months, fake news reports targeting candidates in Ukraine's March 31 presidential election have been spreading on social networks and in the media. Earlier this year DW started using the CrowdTangle tool, which traces how content spreads across the internet, to monitor fake news on social networks relating to the election. DW paid special attention to Russian-language fake news, which garnered large numbers of likes, reposts and comments. The most popular fake news articles appeared on Facebook, shared by accounts with up to 2 million followers.

Read more: Ukraine's presidential hopefuls — what you need to know

On January 5, shortly after comedian Volodymyr Zelensky announced his presidential bid, a Facebook page run by bbccn.co published a story claiming that the public prosecutor of Ukraine, Yuriy Lutsenko, has launched criminal proceedings against Zelensky for planning to overthrow the constitutional order. The post garnered some 20,000 reactions, ranging from likes, to reposts and comments. bbccn.co, which describes itself as a mix between the BBC and CNN, claims to have sourced this news from Zelensky's own Facebook page. But it is clear that no legal action has been taken against the comedian, and that this story is fabricated.

Another popular Facebook post was published on January 2 by a website called from-ua.com. The post, which received some 20,000 reactions, claimed that Ukrainians were angry the country's 1plus1 TV station had broadcast a New Year's speech by Zelensky instead of one by President Petro Poroshenko, as is customary. The post cited politeka.net as its source, which in turn quoted negative comments left on the broadcaster's website.

Volodymyr Zelensky (AFP/Getty Images/s. Supinsky)
One fake news story claimed a New Year's speech by Zelensky was broadcast over the president's traditional addressImage: Getty Images/AFP/S. Supinsky

The article about Zelensky's New Year's address is no longer available online, but a YouTube video of his speech has both positive and negative reviews. So posting a message on Facebook claiming that Ukrainians utterly rejected Zelensky's speech is simply tendentious.

Facebook is awash with fake news about the comedian. Most of it, however, never got widespread coverage. There is even a fake Zelensky website, with a made up statement by him, allegedly vowing to "engage in talks with Putin should I win the election," to make Russian an official language in Ukraine, and to make Odessa the country's capital. More than 4,500 users have already subscribed to this page.

Read more: Vladimir Putin's 'Crimea effect' ebbs away 5 years on

Fake news about other candidates

There are fabricated stories about other presidential candidates as well, though they have received far less attention than those on Zelensky. One fake news article claimed that Yulia Tymoshenko hired pensioners for a campaign event, yet afterwards refused to pay them. No sources were cited. The post garnered more than 5,000 reactions. And a different fake news story claimed that President Poroshenko promised to "give the Jewish elite four regions" should he win. This article, though failing to name any sources, garnered more than 4,500 reactions. A message which claimed US President Donald Trump had supposedly ordered Poroshenko to resign got some 4,000 responses. 

Will fake news have an impact on the vote?

Yelena Churanova, an expert with Kyiv's Institute of Mass Information (IMI) who also coordinates the "StopFake" project, underscores that none of the websites disseminating fake news meet journalistic standards — but unfortunately not all users realize this, which is why they may be influenced by their dubious content.

Julia Tymoshenko
Other presidential candidates, including Yulia Tymoshenko, have been the subject of fake news storiesImage: Reuters/V. Ogirenko

Even so, Churanova does not believe an orchestrated fake news campaign is being waged against Zelensky. "There are negative stories about all candidates, in many different groups and on various channels," she says, explaining that there are so many different users involved it can be hard to verify whether they are all real people.

Her IMI colleague Olena Golub concurs, saying that "all this could have an impact." She says many Ukrainians use social networks but she is not sure how many of them can actually spot fake stories. Even so, it is hard to quantify which effect fake news will have on the election, she stresses. And even though DW has collected extensive data on fake news ahead of the vote, it is difficult to say whether a coordinated campaign is being waged, and if so by whom. One thing is for certain, however, as Golub notes: "The aides of the different candidates aren't exactly on good terms with each other."

Read more: After 5 years of Ukraine sanctions, where are Viktor Yanukovych's millions?

Ben Nimmo, an expert on IT security with the US Atlantic Council think tank, admits that pages spreading fake news about Zelensky seem to have vast numbers of followers. Yet he also says that such pages will "not have much influence on the election unless they can rely on a much bigger infrastructure" to spread their content. 

Ukraine has a population of about 42 million people, of which over 35 million are eligible to vote in the presidential race. A study by the country's PlusOne communications agency shows that today some 13 million Ukrainians use Facebook. Since early 2017, Russian social networks like Vkontakte and Odnoklassniki have been banned in the country. Since then, the number of Ukrainian Facebook users has risen tremendously, making it the country's most popular platform.