Russia conducted pseudo elections in the temporarily occupied territories in September, 2023. Residents of Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhia regions had to “elect” representatives to Oblast level “legislative authorities” and local administrations. Earlier, OPORA explained how and why Russia conducts pseudo elections in the temporarily occupied territories (further — TOTs), and detailed why that “electoral process”was null and void, in political and in legal terms. In this article, we will tell you how the “pre-election campaign” rushed in the Telegram, and how pro-Russian media tried to legitimize fake elections in the seized Ukrainian territories.
We explored 225 Telegram channels including news resources and the channels of official authorities sharing content for the temporarily Russia-controlled parts of Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhia Oblasts. We collected the total of 6,984 posts mentioning the coming pseudo elections. Based on the obtained data, we identified topics and narratives of propagandists about the pseudo elections, and estimated the frequency of mentioning political parties. We detected that Russians posted suspiciously similar texts to promote candidates in different regions.
What Parties Did Russia Try to “Sell” to TOT residents?
Russia started talking about local elections in the temporarily occupied territories back in winter 2023. As soon as in spring, they started preparing for them. At about that same time, Telegram channels started telling about the parties planning to run for the fake elections. After all, the running candidates were only the parties represented in the RF State Duma:
- “United Russia”;
- “Fair Russia”;
- “New People”;
- LDPR (Liberal Democratic Party of Russia);
- CPRF (Communist Party of the Russian Federation).
Local population do not rush to create their own political forces or compete for power in the so-called “elections.” Moreover, whereas in the so-called “LPR” and “DPR” all of the above parties run for candidacy, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia Oblasts have shorter lists. The “New People” did not nominate their candidates there. The party members explained to one Russian media that they had not had enough time to open party cells in the newly occupied territories.
“United Russia” is the Most Frequently Mentioned Party
Although the “electoral lists” only present 5 parties, propaganda channels mostly tell about the “United Russia.” According to OPORA study, this party nominated the highest number of candidates in the TOTs. That is why the analysis of propaganda we undertook is permeated with the “electoral campaigning” of the “united-russia” members since over the entire period of preparation for the so-called “elections,” the propaganda machine worked fro their benefit exclusively.
In order to prove that the “United Russia” fills by far the entire info space of the occupation channels on Telegram, we made calculations of the frequency of mentions of this and other parties. The findings are presented in the charts below.
The situation is roughly the same in all the temporarily occupied territories but sometimes, such as in Luhansk Oblast, the prevalence of the “United Russia” is even higher: all other parties in total have only been mentioned in 5% of posts.
“Big Suport” for Putin’s Party
PR people from the “United Russia” are actively promoting the narrative that in TOTs they get the support from young people and from “common” people. The claim that some of them are ready to vote for their political force in the “elections,” and others are even prepared to join.
Many candidates from the “United Russia,” according to the propaganda, had not had any political career in the past. Attracting many more people into their party, the “United Russia” people attach them to party commitments, and also create an illusion of their party enjoying support among different groups of society.
To convince people that the “United Russia” dominates, the occupiers share stories about administrative and political bodies joining the party as the joint effort of the entire office. Thus, recently, the so-called “LPR Transportation Ministry” joined the party. The “United Russia” is allegedly trying to use such approach to consolidate political control and centralize their impact in the temporarily occupied territory.
The occupiers also explain why residents from the occupied territories of Ukraine “support” the “United Russia.” In particular, the following text was shared by at least 14 resources targeting residents in Zaporizhzhia Oblast. They are mass media channels, officials, and public institutions.
According to the propagandists, locals allegedly wish to vote for the party for the following reasons:
- Ukrainian people in the occupied territories support Vladimir Putin’s track and, accordingly, his party
- “United Russia” supports the so-called SMO and helps Russian military
- “united-russia members” are political leaders and administrators who assumed responsibility for the region’s future, that is why they enjoy respect among local residents.
Although the post is about Zaporizhzhia Oblast, the party members most probably invent similar reasons to win support also in other regions.
Primaries of the “United Russia”
Telegram channels were also actively covering the so-called primaries of the “United Russia” taking place in May, 2023. The occupiers resorted to the procedure familiar to Western audiences to create an illusion of competition among candidates, and an image of general interest among local population in the “political process.” It is also another opportunity to share party ads before the launch of official “pre=election campaigns.”
The propagandist Telegram channels covered the “primaries” as a “big democratic and innovative procedure.” For example, at least 5 channels shared a publication about the history of introducing preliminary voting within the party, quoting Putin’s opinion about the benefits of primaries.
A critical part of propaganda was the populist step that “United Russia” made when they drafted the “Popular Policy Paper.” It is a document where TOTs allegedly submit their proposals about the required changes or improvements in their city or area. Based on the published proposals, we can imply that most Berdyansk and Melitiopol citizens are concerned about water quality and insufficient “beautification” of their city districts and recreation sites.
Imaginary perfection of Russian “elections”
Також пропагандисти прагнуть показати, що в російське виборче законодавство — ідеальне: начебто “псевдовибори” ТОТ організовані згідно з виборчими стандартами, таємниця голосування забезпечується, кандидати у депутати — ціннісні й поважні люди, а виборці найбільше на світі хочуть проголосувати за свого кандидати від “Єдиної Росії”. Втім, нагадаємо, що навіть у Кремлі вже публічно визнали, що російські вибори — це лише “дорога бюрократія”.
The most ironic publication was entitled “Why Russian electoral system is the most transparent system in the world ”.
In response to the accusations about Russia violating the international law, the propagandists (represented by a public official of the so-called LPR and a director of Luhansk grammar school Lidia Volkova) replied that “the overseas bureaucrats should not be determining the future of Ukrainian regions, it must be done by local residents.”
This way the propagandists are trying to prove in their posts that the election process in Russia is more transparent and legally perfect than in the Western countries. They also create an illusion that local population support the elections. However, in fact, people were forced to vote, and whoever refused was detained and required to write the “explanations.”
Links between the channels and the “copypaste”
When we analyzed the posts, we noticed that some of them have some suspiciously similar texts. When we took count of the duplicate posts with the help of the “approximate string matching,” we found out that half of the search results by the key term “elections” had two or more replicas in other Telegram channels.
Please, find below the visualized representation of the dissemination of copy-pasted texts. For this purpose, channels were distributed according to the regions: Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts in a separate section, and Zaporizhzhia and Kherson Oblasts wen along in the same chart. The thicker the line connecting two channels the more identical post they have. The larger the circle next to the channel’s name, the more identical posts they have with other channels. All of this is yet another evidence to the fact that the occupation Telegram channels are coordinated.
We found most of the copy-paste cases in the channels of the occupation authorities and news resources. On the other hand, the original content is more often posted by pro-Russian bloggers and journalists in the personal channels.
Network of telegram channels in:
The highest number of texts replicated in other channels were published by the channels “Лента новостей Херсона | Z” (170 similar posts), “Лента новостей Мелитополя | Z” (151) and “Лента новостей Бердянска | Z” (122). They are part of one media group as they have similar names, visual styles, shared websites and infrastructure in the Russian social platform of “VKontakte.” That is why they are major content suppliers for each other. In addition to this group, the copy-pasted content was found in large numbers in a Zaporizhzhia related channel “ЯZp” (142) and in Kherson channel “Новини Херсонщини” (95).
As to official channels of the so-called authorities, most doubles are attached to the occupation administration channels of Nova Kakhovka (150), Kherson Oblast (84), Zaporizhzhia Oblast (65), city of Bryanka (51) in Luhansk Oblast and “board” of the self-proclaimed LPR (59). There are also many similar posts on the official channel of the “United Russia” party in Luhansk Oblast (80). It is possible that their texts are copied by news channels and party cells in the Oblast’s smaller towns.
Although Telegram channels from Donetsk region were most numerous in our sample (68), they had the least of “copy-paste” in their information space. Most of the copied texts are posted by channels related to Kherson and Zaporizhzhia Oblasts. It might be explained by the peculiarities of work processes the propagandists use in different occupied territories. It must also be kept in mind that the southern regions were occupied 8 years later than Luhansk and Donetsk. That is why their propagandist infrastructure is not as developed as in the East.
The record breaking number of doubles is attached to the news post about the first press-conference of “United Russia” in the occupied territories. It was originally published by the “DPR” chief Denys Pushylin. Later, it was copied or reposted by 22 occupation channels of Donetsk region, such as the administration authorities of the so-called “Donetsk People’s Republic ”: “ministry of communications,” “ministry of coal and energy,” “ministry of labour,” “ministry of industry and trade,” “ministry of sports and tourism,” administration of the “DPR” head, pension funs, etc.
Why Would Russia Opt for Telegram?
Telegram has yet again confirmed their status of a convenient platform for Russian propaganda and disinformation. This platform has never hindered the occupiers to build the travesty of “elections” in the temporarily occupied Ukrainian territories, ignoring all things Russia is doing in the TOTs, such as the illegal pseudoreferenda. Telegram does not accept the cooperation offers from Ukrainian law-enforcement, while they treat content moderation as “political censorship” they shall never accept.
All the examined channels only speak of the “United Russia,” their updates, and achievements. We failed to locate any political ads for the benefit of other parties, while they were mentioned only in the organizational context (such as in the lists of parties and candidates running for the pseudo elections). This amount of information about the united-russia’s presumably prepared local citizens for the pre-designed “victory” of this political force.
The huge scope of identical content implies the well-coordinated work of the occupation Telegram channels: they post identical texts, re-post each other’s messages and share identical narratives. OPORA has already explained how Russia was using Telegram for informational occupation of the seized Ukrainian territories. A propos, during the fake elections it continued to serve this function.