In early May 2023, The Washington Post asked Volodymyr Zelensky whether Ukraine would hold regular parliamentary elections in the fall of 2023. At that time, the President explained that Ukrainian legislation prohibits holding elections during martial law. A month later, BBC journalists asked again when the elections would be held in Ukraine, and the President reminded them that the voting is possible only during the peacetime. In this regard, Zelensky is absolutely right. The law "On the Legal Regime of Martial Law" prohibits the election of the President of Ukraine or elections to the Verkhovna Rada (Parliament) of Ukraine and local self-government bodies. The regular elections are also hampered by the Constitution, which prohibits the termination of the powers of the Parliament during martial law, and extends them until the day of the first meeting of the first session of the Verkhovna Rada elected after it is lifted. The wave of attention to the topic of Ukrainian elections was also fueled by the manipulation of the quote taken out of context by PACE Chairperson Tiny Cox claiming that Ukraine, despite everything, should hold regular parliamentary elections in the fall. Later, Cox explained that the last word on this issue is that of the letter of the Ukrainian law, and, therefore, elections are out of question.
In addition, the organization of a transparent and fair electoral process is made impossible by the hot phase of the war. How to organize a safe mission of international observers under constant missile strikes? How to organize the electoral process in an overseas constituency that has grown by 8 million people after the beginning of the full-scale invasion? How to ensure suffrage for Ukrainians in the temporarily occupied territories? These issues, among others, require careful research, development of new methodologies and preparation so that the next Ukrainian government is considered legitimate both in Ukraine and in the eyes of the international community.
However, the opponents of Ukraine are not interested in any explanations. The notorious Fox News journalist Tucker Carlson, referring to the mentioned interviews of Zelensky, concluded that the "main defender of democracy in the world" decided to "abolish democracy in Ukraine." Carlson's disinformation narrative about the “Zelensky dictatorship” and “cancellation of elections” was quickly picked up by other American figures, including US House of Representatives member Marjorie Taylor Green and a journalist Glen Greenwald. Civil Network OPORA investigated who else had joined the discreditation campaign in the American segment of Twitter and Facebook, and what key disinformation narratives about the Ukrainian elections are spreading in these social networks.
American Twitter vs Ukrainian Constitution
To begin with, OPORA analyzed how disinformation about the Ukrainian elections is spread in the American Twitter segment. Although it is not the most popular social network in the United States (this honorary title has been firmly held by Facebook for many years now), Twitter can be considered the core of American political life online. OPORA analyzed all English-language tweets from June 1 to July 18, 2023, containing the keywords "elections" and "Ukraine," and selected the tweets with disinformation narratives about the Ukrainian elections. In total, we collected 3,938 tweets from 3,009 accounts.
Who are they?
Most Twitter accounts that spread disinformation about the Ukrainian elections are not very popular: 74% of accounts have less than 1,000 followers. Among these pages, we can see many ordinary users: economists, singers, chess fans and MAGA supporters (Make America Great Again — Donald Trump's key campaign slogan). We also detected potentially inauthentic accounts. Some of them, such as Ann Fama, Debra Milligan, Sophie and 0heiwa0, simply shared videos or articles from the republican media. Others acted more subtly: they followed the topic of elections in Ukraine and discussed it with other users. This is exactly what the CJ account did — we found at least 53 tweets where he consistently explained to others that the Ukrainian authorities had abolished democracy, that they would not hold elections in the next 5, 10 or 20 years, and insisted that other countries had held elections during wars.
Only 24.2% of the accounts that fell into the focus of our study had a large audience: 19.4% — from 1,000 to 10,000 subscribers, 3.8% — from 10,000 to 50,000, 1.3% — from 50,000 to 500,000. Most large accounts fall into one of the following categories:
- media or news aggregators (Twitchy Team, Activist News, Antiwar.com, The Grayzone);
- humorous accounts (Memology 101, Serious Joint Avatar Fighting Homelessness)
- organizations (Libertarian Party of Mass, RNC Research, Turning Point Action),
- journalists or bloggers (Michael Tracey, Catturd ™, Sprinter)
- politicians or experts (Mick Wallace, Robert Barnes, UltraMJTruth).
In addition, we noticed several special categories: proponents of conspiracy theories (Richard, Shaney Boy, Ł€ƤŘ€ĆĦΔỮŇŦØŴŇ_ŴŦ₣☘️. #LeprechaunTakeOver), the far right (Shawn Farash ❌🐻, Try That In A Small Town Ya Filthy Liberals👊🤕, 🇺🇸BellaLovesUSA🍊🇺🇸), as well as Christian figures (Anna Maria Perez⭐, Fr. Michael Haji-Lillie, James Smith).
17 accounts in our sample had more than 500 thousand subscribers. They include a well-known supporter of conspiracy theories in the English-speaking environment, hacker and scammer Kim Dotcom (1.4 million subscribers), a journalist Glen Greenwald (2 million), member of the US House of Representatives from the Republican Party Margery Taylor Green (2.5 million), satirical conservative publication The Babylon Bee (2.9 million) and former Fox News anchor Tucker Carlson (9.2 million), known for his anti-Ukrainian statements.
What do they discuss?
The most popular narrative in our sample is that the absence of elections means the absence of democracy. For the users whose tweets we collected elections are an inseparable and often the most important sign of democracy. At the same time, other processes instrumental for democracy are mostly ignored. Because of this, Volodymyr Zelensky's words about the impossibility of elections during the war are perceived as a sign of dictatorship. Indicative are the tweets of some users that the Russian Federation is more democratic than Ukraine because elections are held there (although, according to Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, elections in Russia are "not really democracy, it is costly bureaucracy"). Here you can also see many comparisons of the war in Ukraine with the Civil War in the United States. The tweets state that since the United States was able to hold elections in 1864, when the war continued on its territory, why Ukraine cannot hold them now, having many more opportunities (voting by mail, electronic voting, etc.). Users also write that holding elections in Ukraine could demonstrate to the world the power of democracy — the ability to maintain a transparent and fair electoral process even in such difficult conditions.
Given all this, such users perceive the postponement of elections in Ukraine as a seizure of power by Volodymyr Zelensky. We have recorded several varieties of this narrative. Many users write that "Voldemort" Zelensky personally canceled the elections in Ukraine (despite the President does not have such powers, and the Constitution and legislation on martial law determine the restriction of the election process). The other part clarifies that Zelensky cancels the elections, since he prolongs the martial law in Ukraine every three months (again, they ignore the fact that this decision is approved by the Verkhovna Rada every time). Both categories of users agree that Zelensky's actions only mean that he is a dictator who single-handedly determines whether or not elections should take place. It is often supported by the message that the absence of elections is beneficial for the President because he can stay in power longer and receive money from the Ukrainian budget. According to such users, Zelensky will not end the war and is ready to fight "to the last Ukrainian person" in order to have access to power and money as long as possible.
On the other hand, many accounts with a large audience write about the Ukrainian elections and the “dictatorship of Volodymyr Zelensky” in the context of a somewhat broader narrative. One of the first to describe it was a DC_Draino user, and later the same message was repeated by a number of other well-known Republicans — including Tucker Carlson in his video.
The failure to hold elections in Ukraine, according to these users, indicates that Volodymyr Zelensky usurped power. They write about the blocking of a number of pro-Russian media (mostly Medvedchuk's TVchannels and Strana.ua), the creation of a single broadcaster of the telethon, the ban on the activities of the UOC-MP in Ukraine, and the arrests of "priests" from this church, as well as the imprisonment of Ukrainian and foreign journalists (in particular, pro-Russian blogger from Latin America Gonzalo Lira). Most of these users also say that Ukraine has banned “all 11 opposition parties” (although as of February 2022, there were 370 political parties in Ukraine). There are also more radical statements that Ukraine is a Nazi state, and therefore, any electoral processes on its territory will still be illegitimate. Of course, such tweets do not indicate that banned media, churches and journalists support and justify Russian aggression in Ukraine.
Exploring this topic, we also noticed how the discussion of the “cancellation” of the Ukrainian elections and the “Zelensky dictatorship” was gradually transformed into openly political slogans designed to discredit the current US President Joe Biden and improve the voters’ attitude about Donald Trump. The first and most disappointing message for Ukraine is that the absence of elections in Ukraine should automatically lead to the abolition or reduction of financial and military assistance for our country. This message was most promoted by Marjorie Taylor Green who explicitly called for an end to the financing of Ukraine. Green has already come to our attention when we studied the anti-Ukrainian bubble of American Twitter. The politician manipulates the topic of the Ukrainian elections, reinforcing her traditional position against support for Ukraine. They say that earlier the United States reported that they were sending money and equipment to Ukraine because there was a struggle between democracy and authoritarianism. Since Ukraine “canceled the elections,” it is no longer a democracy, and therefore it is inappropriate to finance it now. This message is actively used to accuse the current US President and the Democratic Party of financing another authoritarian regime. It is illustrative that he arrival of US presidential candidate Mike Pence in Ukraine was also perceived as a betrayal of national interests, the interests of the Republican Party and support for the "Zelensky dictatorship". Besides, over time, this narrative has transformed, and towards the end of the period of our study, tweets started reporting that the "cancellation" of elections in Ukraine is allegedly only the first step, the "run-in" of this process, in order to subsequently apply it in the United States. In particular, the users write that before the election of 2024, President Biden will not want to conduct elections, will unleash World War III and, under the pretext of martial law, will cancel the elections in the United States in order not to allow Donald Trump back to power. Thus, the postponement of elections in Ukraine is perceived as an attempt by world democratic leaders to track the reaction of the electorate to such a scenario.
In addition, users often blame the absence of the electoral process not on Russia as the aggressor country that unleashed the unprovoked war, but on Ukraine itself. Thus, some accounts claim that Ukraine had not been a democracy before, repeating the messages of Russian propaganda about the "military coup" in 2014. Other accounts say that Ukraine is still a communist country, so elections had not make sense before and do not make any sense today. According to such users, the absence of elections is not some news, but only a confirmation of the long-standing tendency of the Ukrainian people to authoritarianism. Many users do not understand the difference between martial law and the state of war. Because of this, they often wonder why Ukraine, being in a state of war since 2014, had successfully conducted several election campaigns, and suddenly refused to conduct them after a full-scale invasion.
How does a disinformation machine work?
The topic of the cancellation of the Ukrainian elections appeared on Twitter a long time ago: we recorded the first mentions of it back in May 2023. A dozen or two marginal accounts discussed it quite a bit. It is also noticeable in the period of our research: at the beginning of June, there were no posts at all about the Ukrainian elections, and from June 5 to 22, we recorded only 47 tweets on this topic. 39 accounts that wrote about the absence of elections in Ukraine in this time period had an average of only 745 subscribers. In other words, they did not have much influence on public opinion in the United States.
The first changes in this sluggish discussion of the “Ukrainian dictatorship” took place on June 23. It was when Volodymyr Zelensky gave an interview to the BBC where he answered the question about the next elections in Ukraine: "If we win, there will be [the elections]. So, if there is no martial law, there is no war. And elections should take place in peacetime, when there is no war, according to the law. ” This quote spread quite quickly on English-language Twitter — we managed to record at least 29 tweets where it was mentioned in the context of accusing Zelensky of striving for dictatorship. It was first posted by the Belarusian edition of NEXTA, later it appeared in the Sprinter account, well-known among Republicans, and from there it spread to a number of less popular accounts. In the next few days, the same quote was published by U.S. right-wing political commentator Michael Savage (comparing Ukraine to Stalin's USSR), the SDL account of socialism fans, and a number of right-wing activists (Ryan Shead, BlackPatriotVet 🇺🇲).
The next peak of popularity of the topic of "cancellation" of the Ukrainian elections came on June 26. It is when the discussion of Volodymyr Zelensky's interview was joined by the "heavyweights" of the republican Twitter, Margery Taylor Green and Kim Dotcom, as well as by the well-known blogger DC_Draino and the account of the ultra-right publication The Gateway Pundit. It had an immediate effect on the popularity of the narrative: we found 205 English-language tweets mentioning it. In addition, users did not limit themselves to quoting Volodymyr Zelensky but spread the message that Ukraine is not a democracy, since, along with the cancellation of elections, it blocks the media and closes churches. Zelensky is no better than Putin or Xi, and the United States should stop helping Ukraine that has turned into a dictatorship.
We saw the most powerful surge in the discussion of the “Ukrainian dictatorship” on June 28, when at least 663 tweets with misinformation about the election process in Ukraine appeared. On that day, Margery Taylor Green was joined by ex-journalist Tucker Carlson, who posted a 12-minute video with the eloquent headline “The War for Democracy Enables Dictatorship.” In the video, Carlson mostly repeated the narratives previously shared by the DC_Draino account but did it for an audience of over 9 million. However, on June 28, not only Carlson decided to talk about the "cancellation of the Ukrainian elections": at the same time, videos of the famous right-wing journalist Glen Greenwald came out, as well as statements by Max Blumenthal, editor of the pro-Russian publication The Grayzone. This topic was also supported by the far-right platforms zerohedge and The Babylon Bee. All these posts developed on the previous narratives but we noticed an increase in the frequency of negative mentions of Joe Biden and calls to stop funding Ukraine.
After June 28, there was less and less talk on English-language Twitter about the Ukrainian elections: most popular users like Tucker Carlson or Margery Taylor Green no longer raised this topic. The idea that the "cancellation" of the elections in Ukraine is the preparation of the current U.S. government for the replication of the same scenario in the United States before the presidential election in 2024 gradually came to the fore. At this stage, tweets of Ukrainian and foreign users also began to appear, appealing to the legislation of Ukraine and explaining to others why it is impossible to hold elections during a full-scale war, either from a legal or practical point of view. Some users who posted disinformation tweets changed their minds after such explanations, while others insisted that Ukraine should still hold elections to save democracy.
In general, the story of the "cancellation of the Ukrainian elections" has signs of a planned campaign to discredit Ukraine among the Twitter audience of not only the U.S. right but also among wider English-speaking users. Most tweets on this topic appeared on June 28 — a week after the publication of Volodymyr Zelensky's interview — and had a powerful impact, since many popular far-right bloggers and politicians wrote about it at the same time. In the end, the most dangerous is the trend that we saw after this massive information attack: in July 2023, much smaller accounts already spoke of the “Ukrainian dictatorship” as a proven fact, justifying their demands to cancel the financing of Ukraine and “resist” the current U.S. government who plan to do the same in their country.
Facebook Loophole for Russia Today
Although the basis of the US political discourse in the digital space is built on Twitter, Facebook is still the most popular social network in the country. Also, almost a third of Americans consume news from Facebook. That is why we decided to check how disinformation narratives about the Ukrainian elections are spreading on U.S. Facebook
With used the Crowdtangle analytical tool to download all mentions of the elections in Ukraine from May 1 to July 18, 2023. Among them, we found 101 posts containing disinformation about the conduct of elections in Ukraine during the war targeting the audience from the United States.
Disinformation Facebook posts about the Ukrainian elections did not gather many user reactions. More than half of the publications have only less than 10 engagements (likes, reactions, comments or reposts), and a third of them have not received any. The average number of subscribers to all pages is about 260,000, the median value is about 22,000. However, even in pages with a large number of subscribers, the activity under posts is quite low. Most of the pages that contributed to the dissemination of this disinformation narrative are marginal news aggregators or conservative media, as well as pages of Trump supporters wing of the Republican Party, such as America, Hell Yeah, Forbidden News or Sooner Politics. Also contributing to the dissemination of disinformation were the Trump think tank Center for Renewing America, the Libertarian Party branch in Franklin County, Ohio and South Jersey, New Jersey, the religious organization The Divine Mercy Parish and the Volunteer Center for ALL Conservative Republicans Ohio.
Only four of these publications scored more than 1,000 engagements. Two of them were published by the above-mentioned member of the US House of Representatives Marjorie Taylor Green. On Facebook, she repeats the same narratives she spreads on Twitter. In particular, Green directly calls Volodymyr Zelensky a dictator. These posts were shared 231 times.
The third post belongs to the previously mentioned The Babylon Bee, whose publications were previously shared by the US ex-president Donald Trump. The outlet made a joke that now, in solidarity with Ukraine, Joe Biden should also cancel the next US election.
The fourth relatively viral publication belongs to entrepreneur and media expert Patrick Beth-David. He published a fragment of his interview with Colonel Douglas McGregor with the title “NO ELECTIONS IN UKRAINE UNTIL THE WAR IS OVER — the UGLY TRUTH About Ukraine.” However, the video itself does not mention the elections. In the conversation, Beth-David suggests that Zelensky is perhaps the least interested in ending the war, cynically remaining in power. In response, Colonel McGregor calls Ukraine a failed state with large-scale emigration from the country. McGregor says that the population of Ukraine as of now is about 18 million people, referring to his "own sources from Europe." However, according to a study by the Civil Network OPORA, between 33.8 million and 36.74 million people currently live in Ukraine, which is not even close to McGreror's estimate. In an attempt to verify the data mentioned by the retired colonel, the media quoted an article by the Russian state media TASS, which counted 9 million Ukrainian refugees who "will never return." Any publicly available information about the population of Ukraine that the team found in the studio, was labelled by McGregor either “inaccurate” or “fabricated”, while he was citing his own mysterious sources. Later, the demographic talk was changed by the line such as "everyone in Ukraine knows that Ukraine has no chance of winning." However, 77% of Ukrainians who are quite certain about Ukraine's victory will easily deny this statement. In total, the mentioned fragment of the Beth-David podcast was viewed 39,000 times.
The earliest Facebook posts with disinformation about the Ukrainian elections date back to May 15, 2023. The first publication was a repost of an article by Russia Today with news about the recent interview of President Zelensky to The Washington Post and a quote that Ukrainian legislation does not allow elections during martial law. Propagandists manipulated the reference to the legislation, commenting that in Ukraine "uncertainty about the upcoming elections is growing" because "Zelensky and his ruling party are increasingly strengthening their power." RT did not forget to add a "reminder" that the Ukrainian authorities used the "conflict" to "criminalize political dissidents, ban opposition parties, establish strict censorship over the media and the Internet, and ban the canonical Ukrainian Orthodox Church" (meaning the UOC of the Moscow Patriarchate). Alethia page that posted the article was the only one who drew attention to this publication from Russia Today. Although Alethia has about 6,000 subscribers, the post did not receive any interactions from users (well, like most of the page's other posts).
Almost all the Facebook posts we found contain at least one or several messages formulated by the propagandists from Russia Today. For the most part, these posts are seasoned with headlines that Zelensky decided not to hold another election for his own interests. To reinforce the "authoritarian" portrait of Zelensky, the authors of posts, in the same breath with the state propaganda of the Russian Federation, refer to the ban on pro-Russian parties, the media and the UOC-MP in Ukraine.
Is this our war?
All the posts we found on Twitter and Facebook are just a small part of a larger campaign to discredit Ukraine by a fraction of Donald Trump’s supporters. As part of our research, we also tried to find posts with similar narratives about "Nazi Ukraine" and "dictator Zelensky" in the Telegram. We managed to find at least 30 channels on this social network that tried to promote such narratives. In addition, we found 28 articles in U.S. conservative outlets where Ukraine was accused of canceling elections, imprisoning the opposition, and closing churches. It needs to be kept in mind that open social networks, such as Twitter and Facebook, hardly reflect even a tenth of the discussions and narratives about Ukraine that can be seen in Truth Social — a social network created by Donald Trump for his voters only.
At the same time, the trends described in this study are extremely alarming signals for Ukraine. The fact that the end of the Russian-Ukrainian war and the future of Ukraine are part of the election campaigns of a number of candidates for the U.S. presidential post is both a good and a bad sign. The incumbent President Joe Biden and a Republican candidate Mike Pence are demonstrating unequivocal support for Ukraine and pledging to continue it as long as necessary. However, as this study shows, a fraction of Donald Trump`s supporters discredit Ukraine in the eyes of American voters, questioning the fact that Ukrainian soldiers are defending their own land at the front, and the ability to independently and democratically choose the future. As our Facebook study shows, they use for this purpose narratives that russians had brewed in advance. They disseminate them through their own resources, such as Russia Today. In the end, the outcome of the disinformation campaigns is not only a few thousand tweets from disillusioned Americans, but also very real proposals to stop funding Ukraine. If public support for Ukraine in the United States and other partner countries gradually decreases following such campaigns, we risk being left alone to face the enemy. Although only the American people have the right to decide about the next US president, Ukraine should do its best to promptly debunk the disinformation narratives about our country shared during this and other election campaigns.