In this episode of the DemWorks podcast, Michelle Brown, senior advisor for elections at NDI talks to NDI analyst Calvin Garner about Ukraine’s recent parliamentary elections. They discuss how advances in digital communications impact pivotal elections.
I’m Michelle Brown, the senior advisor for elections at the National Democratic Institute. In this episode of DemWorks, we will discuss how advances in digital communications impact pivotal elections. We'll be focusing on the country of Ukraine, which just held extraordinary parliamentary elections—only a few months after a surprising presidential election saw comedian-turned-politician Volodymyr Zelensky defeat incumbent president Petro Poroshenko.
I'm in Kyiv discussing the recent elections with NDI analyst Calvin Garner. Calvin is a PhD candidate in political science at the University of Washington. For the last seven months, Calvin has served as an expert analyst for NDI's international election observation mission in Ukraine, focusing on how media and digital trends are shaping—and in some cases undermining—the information environment around the election.
It's no secret democracy faces substantial challenges around the world. But while the challenges are great, we at NDI believe the opportunities are even greater. For more than 35 years, NDI has been honored to work with thousands of courageous and committed small-‘d’ democrats around the world, to help countries develop democratic institutions, practices and skills necessary for success. Over that period, we've worked in more than 150 countries. Through our DemWorks podcasts and videos, we're engaging in conversation with those who have been on the frontlines of democratic development work around the world. They'll share what they do and how they do it, their on-the-ground experiences, the challenges they face, the obstacles they overcome, and the unique national contexts in which they must operate—and in the process show how DEMOCRACY WORKS.
Michelle Brown: Hello, my name is Michelle Brown and I'm the senior advisor for elections at the National Democratic Institute. I will be your host for this DemWorks podcast. In this episode, we will discuss how advances in digital communications impact pivotal elections. We'll be focusing on the country of Ukraine, which just held extraordinary parliamentary elections—only a few months after a surprising presidential election saw comedian-turned-politician Volodymyr Zelensky defeat incumbent president Petro Poroshenko. Today, I'm in Kyiv to discuss the recent elections with NDI analyst Calvin Garner. Calvin is a PhD candidate in political science at the University of Washington. For the last seven months, Calvin has served as an expert analyst for NDI's international election observation mission in Ukraine, focusing on how media and digital trends are shaping—and in some cases undermining—the information environment around the election. Calvin, can you tell us a little bit about your background prior to Ukraine?
Calvin Garner: Yeah, I'm a PhD candidate in political science at the University of Washington. My research has a regional focus on Ukraine and Russia, and more broadly I study democratizing and authoritarian societies. Before that, I worked for a private research that did political risk analysis. I also worked in the House of Representatives as an aide to Congressman Peter Welch of Vermont.
Brown: And what are you working on here in Ukraine?
Garner: I'm here in Ukraine as part of NDI’s election observation mission for the parliamentary elections. I work as the mission’s long-term analyst for the information media environment. This is a job I also held during the presidential election earlier this year. This means essentially that I'm in charge of analyzing whether a wide variety of electoral stakeholders can access the media, and also assessing whether voters have the ability to access high-quality information so that they can make a good decision on election day. I also deal with emerging issues such as disinformation, which is a growing threat to the information environment in countries around the world.
Brown: Here in Ukraine, what is the media and information environment like?
Garner: In Ukraine, voters have access to a really diverse range of viewpoints, which is great and really important for a democracy. Additionally, the government really plays no role in determining what is in the media—which again is a really strong point for Ukraine, and is not always the case in countries in this part of the world. That said, there are some important challenges that Ukraine is continuing to grapple with that bear mentioning. First of all, Ukrainians get the majority of their news from television, and TV ownership is concentrated in the hands of just a few oligarchs. An oligarch is just a really, really wealthy businessperson who uses that wealth for political means. In nearly every meeting I've had since January, the people I've spoken with have highlighted media ownership as a problem, precisely because media owners dictate what the editorial policy is at the television stations they own. This obviously creates a really uneven playing field for political parties and candidates for office. Media owners can use their television channels to support some candidates and oppose others, and that obviously impacts the way elections play out. Another thing that bears thinking about in Ukraine is the increasing importance of the internet for news consumption, and this is something we're seeing again in a lot of countries around the world. But here in Ukraine—as is the case in a lot of places—there's very uneven quality in what people find when they go online for news. One of the problems that is common here is the practice of a candidate or a political party paying a reporter for favorable news coverage. This is something that's still fairly prevalent online, so that's an issue with internet news consumption. That’s a problem. I think another issue I would highlight is Russian disinformation. Russia has been conducting a sustained and intense disinformation campaign aimed at Ukraine for the past several years. This problem is well-documented. It is ongoing, and it's not uniquely an electoral problem, but it affects the elections. Disinformation is aimed at discrediting the Ukrainian government, at dividing Ukrainian society along linguistic or religious lines, and that affects the way people see the world, and the way they think about politics. We've also seen Russian disinformation that is specifically related to these elections. There's a general attempt in a lot of Russian media to portray politics in Ukraine as a circus. That's a word we see coming up over and over again, and in addition we've seen some Russian media target certain candidates. For example, the current president, Zelensky, and the former president, Poroshenko, are often singled out with really negative coverage in Russian media. On the other hand, some politicians are displayed in a much more favorable light.
Brown: Do they target certain areas or parts of the country?
Garner: One of the things we see is that consumption of Russian media is a lot higher in the east and in the south of the country. The people who are consuming more of those media outlets—and Ukrainian media outlets that are sympathetic to those views—have a much higher dose of Russian disinformation in their news diet than for people in the west or in the north, who might not be consuming those outlets quite so much.
Brown: Is it significant that it's the east or the south as opposed to west or central?
Garner: One of the things that's important about Ukraine is that politics has traditionally been divided along an east/south versus north/west line, and a very exciting thing that we saw with the election of President Zelensky is that old divide really went away. The whole country voted in favor of President Zelensky, which is noteworthy and really unique in Ukraine's post-Soviet history. However, the fact that there is a higher amount of Russian disinformation in the media environment in the south and the east of the country affects the way politics plays out there. You see certain parties get a higher percentage of the vote because those parties are actively supported by Russian disinformation campaigns. I think the final point that is really important to keep in mind about Ukraine is that the media environment—while it is stronger in much of the country—really faces much larger challenges in the Russian-occupied areas of Crimea, and also the regions of Donbas that are currently not under government control. In those areas, you see really, really high amounts of censorship, and an even more sustained propaganda campaign to discredit the Ukrainian state and to divide society.
Brown: You've talked a little bit about media ownership, that people get information from TV, that there's a lot of information—more and more, they're getting their news from the internet. Can you talk a little bit about how either SMS or messaging apps or other social media are affecting this information environment around these past elections?
Garner: Yeah, so one of the things that we've seen in Ukraine in the past is that text messages and locally-oriented or regionally-oriented discussion platforms can be an avenue through which disinformation is spread. Sometimes that disinformation doesn't even rise to the level of the national media, but it can still really affect what's happening locally. So we decided to start monitoring regional and local telegram channels that were publicly available, to see the way that they were talking about the elections. We found that by-and-large they didn't really discuss the elections all that much. They tended to be more interested in pop culture or local events or things like that. But when they did talk about the elections, they tended to be more negative than positive. Another interesting thing that we noted is that sometimes these channels—which were supposedly just about regional news and local events, and that sort of thing—would then link to much more politically-oriented channels. That created a little media bubble where almost all of the discussion was intensely negative about politics. We saw that the discussion on these channels would also target the same political actors that we saw targeted in Russian disinformation campaigns. Just to give you an example of what I mean by that: We saw that in the recent parliamentary elections the telegram channels would accuse Zelensky of having broken his promises to the Ukrainian people, of being naive, of being politically ineffective. These are the same sort of attacks that Russian media had launched against this newcomer president, who came in with a really broad base of public support and a high degree of optimism from Ukrainian citizens.
Brown: When we think about the presidential elections, and the runoff that happened earlier this year, and then these recent parliamentary elections, have you seen any change in disinformation strategies from the presidential elections to these recent parliamentary elections?
Garner: We have, and it's really interesting actually: This is kind of a good news story. One of the things that's worth highlighting is a positive development that we've noticed. During the presidential elections, there was a very sustained negative campaign targeting the Central Election Commission—and the CEC is the organisation here in Ukraine that's in charge of running the election and counting the vote and doing it fairly—and a lot of the disinformation we saw said that they were going to either cheat, or they were too inefficient to do this properly, trying to undermine public confidence in whether or not this would be a fair election. One of the things we saw was that public confidence leading up to the election was in fact very low. However, they had a good election in the first round. They had a clean election in the second round, and public confidence has since skyrocketed in the CEC. That to me shows that while disinformation might affect people and how they view the world, it doesn't have to completely control it. So when people saw a free and fair election, their confidence increased quite dramatically. And now in these parliamentary elections we really haven't seen any targeting of the CEC at all—at least not on the scales we did previously.
Brown: How have different stakeholders—people like civil society and the government—responded to disinformation during this electoral cycle?
Garner: Well, civil society here in Ukraine has done a really great job of leading the way on figuring out how to tackle the nature of the disinformation problem here in Ukraine—in fact, has been a model to a lot of countries around the world. Civil society organizations and media watchdogs have invested a lot of time and energy in monitoring this disinformation and documenting it, then moving into myth-busting mode and debunking a lot of these narratives, increasing media literacy in society, and helping people to figure out what's true, what's false, why would we be subject to disinformation, those sorts of things. Finally, understanding what are the dynamics in public opinion around disinformation. Who's more likely to believe something that's false, and who's less likely? I think one of the things that civil society is starting to move into—and it’s really important that we continue with—is figuring out: “Okay, we have a disinformation problem. What's the best way to combat disinformation? What are the countermeasures that are going to be effective?” That is sort of the next frontier for a lot of these groups. The government of Ukraine also deserves some credit for trying to do what they can to tackle the problem. In recent years the government has worked to limit access to Russian TV and Russian social media sites that were really active avenues for disinformation into the country. This has been somewhat effective in limiting the number of people who are exposed to disinformation. We saw that consumption of Russian television dropped. We saw that Ukrainian activity on Russian social media sites dropped. But this isn't a perfect solution. Some people still go online—and in focus groups that NDI has done, some people will talk very openly and almost with a little bit of pride about the fact that they can get around these government controls. They don't like the government telling them what they can and can't access. So I think this is a tricky situation for the government. Ukraine is a country at war, and the government's trying to find the right balance between fighting external disinformation and still protecting free speech.
Brown: That sounds like that's a tricky balance to strike.
Garner: Yeah, it is.
Brown: We've talked about civil society and the government. How have different members of the tech industry, of these different social platforms, dealt with disinformation during this electoral cycle?
Garner: It's pretty uneven here. We've seen engagement from some of the tech companies more so than others. I think that there's been a lot of attention on Facebook—and some of the problems that have happened on Facebook in recent years—and that's totally appropriate. We've also seen Facebook starting to make some moves to try to address this, and I think that's worth acknowledging and encouraging, and making sure that that continues. One of the things that Facebook has done is to say that if you run a page or a group that influences a lot of people, and a lot of people are paying attention to, then you have to disclose who you are and where you live. The end result of this is you can't have somebody in another country pretending to be a local Ukrainian activist running a politically-oriented page, which is something we've seen in the past. Another thing that they've done is increased transparency around who's buying political ads, and this is really important. The political ad space online is not something that's currently regulated by Ukrainian law, and so it's very important that these tech companies step up and start providing some transparency. This is a step in the right direction, but again more work needs to be done here.
Brown: Well, let me do a follow-up: Given what you just said about the things they have been doing, is there anything you think they should be doing, or you would recommend that they do differently, for the next electoral cycle?
Garner: One of the things I think has been important—and one of the things I've heard from our civil society partners—is that it's not always easy to access this information. I think that Facebook could make a concerted effort to make the transparent information on political ad-buying available much earlier, and in a way that's easier for groups to access, particularly if those groups might not have a lot of technical skill, or a lot of sophisticated knowledge of how to work with computers. That's something that I think is doable, and should definitely be in place for the next election. Another thing I've heard is that sometimes people just don't know who to call, and the reason [for that] is there's nobody from Facebook here in Ukraine. I think that in countries that are having sensitive elections where disinformation is a problem, Facebook should have permanently-based staff that local political parties and candidates for office and civil society activists can turn to if they have a problem. That would do a lot to helping people understand what Facebook is doing, to make things better, and help Facebook understand the challenges that these actors are facing as they're trying to run in elections or get information about candidates, or that sort of thing.
Brown: We know disinformation campaigns have a life well beyond elections, and can alter or shift fundamental political and social views. What do you think we might see in the future?
Garner: I think as we look to the future, things are going to get more complex and maybe more complicated before they get a whole lot better. [both laugh] I know that wasn't what you wanted to hear. But the one thing that I think about—and that I kind of worry the most about—is what people are calling “deep fakes.” This is now possible with really advanced computer technology, to create a video that is just as good as real-life, and it's very difficult to tell the difference. You can imagine an entire election campaign turning on a video of a politician doing something scandalous or illegal or whatever you can think of, that is completely fabricated. I don't think we have a really good idea of how to react to that yet, and how to react when that happens. So that's the sort of thing I worry about in the future. That being said, I think it's important to remember that all of this technology is very new, and we are still trying to figure out how to deal with it, and I think we will. I am optimistic that as people live with this technology longer and longer, and are exposed and understand the issue of disinformation more and more, we will get better at figuring out how to fact-check things on our own, how to be literate consumers of media. I think that this is something that's—it's a problem, but it's one that we'll figure out over time.
Brown: Is there anything you think we can do, or any advice you would give that would help groups leapfrog or catch up faster—things that they could be doing?
Garner: What sort of groups?
Brown: I don't know. That one I'm just tossing off, to be honest. That one's actually curiosity. That's a legit “What does Calvin think?” question. I mean, this is “interview over” to a certain extent, but I do feel like we're playing a game of catch-up, to a certain extent. We see them doing certain tactics, or we identify certain tactics, or we identify certain themes, and then there's a little bit of a [reaction] to it. So we're sort of constantly catching up, in a way, and that's understandable because we're in the beginning of this whole thing. We're on the frontier of this battle, so to speak. But I’m just legitimately trying to think: “Are there ways we can leapfrog, or not play catch-up? How can we be A) either more proactive or B) can we leapfrog in some ways, to catch up faster?
Garner: Yeah, I see what you mean. I think in some ways having the sort of information-sharing that we just talked about between the tech companies—where a lot of this stuff is playing out—and the civil society groups or the political candidates or the people who are dealing with this. If they can get their heads together more, I bet they can come up with some really creative solutions, and so I'm hopeful that there will be more of that in the future. But I think that something really fundamental about what you just said is not going to change, and that's that we will be playing catch-up. We have to be comfortable with that, and the reason is because we have to keep information free. So as we deal with this problem piece-by-piece, we have to do it in a way that preserves free access to information and free access to get information out there, which means creative people who want to cause trouble will find other ways to do that. We just have to know that this is going to happen, and we're going to have to be as creative as possible, and as diligent as possible in reacting to it. But on some level if we want to preserve these freedoms, that means we stay in reaction mode some of the time at least.
Brown: It almost sounds like one strategy—just to pull out a point you’ve made—is while we are playing catch-up, one of the things that won't change (that’s good) is for partners, civil society or government or NDI, to be flexible, to understand that it is going to constantly be changeable in a different way. So we're going to be whacking different moles. We have to find the different moles to whack, so to speak. But we do have to stay flexible, because it is so changeable.
Garner: That's right, and I think where possible taking the lead from people who understand the problem in the specific context in which it's happening is the right way to go. The tech platforms have the resources and the technical savvy to respond, but the people who can best help them do that are the ones who are living the problems in the various different countries around the world, as this plays out in different elections in different ways, and it's tough to know what that's going to look like.
Garner: Increasing the frequency and the maybe the depth of these partnerships is always going to be helpful in reacting quickly when something does happen—
Brown: —and takes advantage of them understanding the local cultural context, and understanding how these things manifest in different ways, or could manifest in different ways.
Garner: Right. Cultural context, language, knowledge of the history and some of the local political issues. That's tough for tech companies to replicate, so they should outsource that and be smart about working with the people who have that.
Brown: So if everyone can play their best role—
Garner: That's right.
Brown: —and actually talk to each other [both laugh], then we'll have it solved.
Garner: Yeah, I think so.
Brown: Thank you to our listeners for joining us. Share DemWorks—both our podcasts and our videos—on social media, to amplify the voices of these Democracy Heroes. For more details about NDI and its work—including our new 35th anniversary report, fresh off the presses—go to NDI.org, and while you're there sign up for our monthly newsletter. I'm Michelle Brown, and this has been DemWorks. Thank you for listening.