Although the official election campaign for the early mayoral election in Kharkiv did not start until September 11, the actual fight for the minds and hearts of Kharkiv residents began long before that date.
OPORA already reported that some of the potential candidates for Kharkiv mayoral seat were quite actively campaigning, both in the public space of the city and on various media platforms.
After reviewing all political Facebook ads that were broadcast three months before the official start of the election process (between June 11 and September 11, 2021), we found 40 pages that spent a total of $ 77,612 (over UAH 2.07 mln) on Facebook ads, and posted 2,754 ads. These pages include hidden networks that campaigned for or discredited against certain candidates.
In this article, we unveil the early online campaigning for the mayoral election in Kharkiv.
Campaigning from the official pages of candidates
Kostiantyn Nemichev and Alina Mustafayeva stepped into the Facebook fray to win the votes of Kharkiv residents, from their own official pages. Mykhailo Dobkin and Anatoliy Rodzynskyi conducted their campaign other than from official pages.
The highest amounts were spent on Facebook campaigning by a Kharkiv City Council deputy from the "Servant of the People" party, Alina Mustafayeva. During the monitoring period, the total costs incurred by her page exceeded $ 12,500. In total, more than 250 advertising posts were shared (none of which is in the Ukrainian language). In her promoted posts, Mustafayeva actively called for support during the voting, criticized her political rivals, and told in detail about herself, her professional and personal path.
Mykhaylo Dobkin spent more than USD 7,000 on 58 ads. On Facebook, Dobkin talked about his campaign promises and initiatives.
Anatoliy Rodzynsky was third in the ranking; he is the incumbent deputy of city council from “Opposition platform – For life!” He spent $ 2,514 (over UAH 67,000) on his own promotion, sharing only 11 advertising posts.
Kostiantyn Nemichev is the fourth and final candidate on the list. He positioned himself as “the only candidate from the pro-Ukrainian forces.” Nemichev spent almost $ 1,500 on 17 advertisements, where he mostly told voters about himself and his plans as a mayor.
In addition to the actual participants of the election process, we noticed a fairly high activity of other pages. They are local media and public pages covering the life in the city. In general, the activities of these pages either supported or discredited certain candidates for the post of Kharkiv head.
The largest is the support group for Ihor Terekhov, temporary acting mayor of Kharkiv and the secretary of the city council. Almost half of the identified pages were in his favor – 19. In total, they spent $ 24,557 (over UAH 650,000) on sharing 1,633 paid ads.
Some very similar content in promoted posts is found on the pages such as Redpost. Kharkiv news, Kharkiv News, Typical Kharkiv, and Kharkiv Operational . In three months, the network has spent over $ 13,000 on more than a thousand paid ads. All these pages advertise very similar posts criticizing Yuliya Svitlychna and Mykhaylo Dobkin. At the same time, Ihor Terekhov is described on the pages without any negative flair.
Disclaimers for advertisements of all four pages indicate the same number and the same e-mail of the advertiser. The phone number is identical to the advertiser’s number on pages from the coordinated network that promoted the interests of Borys Filatov during the local elections 2020. With the help of the GetContact resource, we found out that the owner of this mobile phone is labeled with other users as Yehor Barshak. Last year, a covert campaign for Borys Filatov was launched by the advertising agency IQ Digital. According to Opendatabot, the man of the same name was the first manager and one of the beneficiaries of IQ Digital.
Another group of pages that actively promoted Ihor Terekhov include the pages of the online outlet (The first capital , The first capital - Sports , The first Capital - Special Projects , The first Capital - News). All pages share political ads, indicating the same phone number, email address and linking to another blank site: pervaya-stolica.online . In total, they broadcast 375 paid ads, worth over $ 5,900 (almost UAH 158,000). Judging by the titles, all these pages were supposed to report local news. In fact, most of the ads were devoted to discrediting two potential candidates – Yuliya Svitlychna and Mykhaylo Dobkin. Instead, the pages paid special attention to the activities of Ihor Terekhov; they “praised” him for local initiatives and emphasized the contribution to the development of the city.
Two separate pages also joined the campaigning for Ihor Terekhov - Kharkiv for Terekhov and Kharkiv is my favorite city . The first page spent more than 2,200 dollars (almost 60,000 hryvnias) on sharing political ads – 74 advertising posts. Most of them covered various events where Ihor Terekhov took part, as well as a positive assessment of his activities as an acting mayor. It is quite significant that a big part of the posts commented on his activities in the style of “Ihor Terekhov repairs sidewalks.” In fact, these programs had been planned in advance and were implemented at the expense of taxpayers.
Of the detected networks, the largest network was that of 9 pages ( Administration of Osnovyansky district , Shevchenkivskyi district of Kharkiv , Administration of Nemyshlyanskyi district of Kharkiv city council , Kyivskyi District Administration of Kharkiv City Council , Moscow district administration , Industrialnyi district of Kharkiv , Kholodnohirsky district , Slobodskyi district of Kharkiv , Novobavarskyi district of Kharkiv ) that positioned themselves as Facebook-representations of official district administrations of Kharkiv. This network spent relatively little on political ads on Facebook – as little as $ 2,288 (slightly higher than UAH 61,000) and shared a total of 92 promoted posts. The format of the pages from the network stands out. All web pages were created between 2014 and 2021 (the last one was created in July 2021- Administration of Osnovyansky district ). Most of them have long published posts on local developments (for example, they shared videos of school performances) or informed residents about certain repair works. Iin general, those were the usual news of housing and utility management services and social sphere. However, in January 2021, a month after the death of Hennadiy Kernes and the appointment of Ihor Terekhov as secretary of the Kharkiv City Council, the communication strategy of the pages slightly changed. The frequency of publishing the posts increased. From time to time, they mentioned Terekhov highlighting his positive qualities and contribution to the development of the city. Since the beginning of the summer, the number of posts mentioning Terekhov has increased significantly. At the end of June, the first ads started coming designed in the style of Terekhov’s election campaign. Over time, such posts began to be shared on all pages of the network, inviting Kharkiv residents to come to a meeting with a probable candidate.
Mykhaylo Dobkin was not left without any online support. We found 5 Facebook pages that spent a total of $ 16,981 (appr. UAH 453,000) to share 374 promoted posts.
Thus, the two pages have the same advertiser’s phone number - RegioNews.ua and Resonant news of Ukraine . The analysis of advertising content can help trace a fairly clear “distribution division of responsibilities between them.” The political ads of the page RegioNews.ua trued to emphasize the positive aspects of Mykhaylo Dobkin as a candidate, and from time to time contrasted these aspects with the negative aspects about Terekhov. On the other hand, Resonant news of Ukraine promoted posts did not mention Dobkin specifically, but they focused all their efforts to severely criticize his political opponent, Ihor Terekhov.
Another page that praised Mykhaylo Dobkin was Kharkiv. Comments - News and events. It shared only 17 advertising posts in three months, paying $ 355 (almost UAH 9,500). It emphasized Dobkin’s views on solving certain problems in Kharkiv: arrears of wages or the ability of all Kharkiv residents to seek medical help without obstacles.
Among the significant number of pages that support certain candidates in the Kharkiv elections, 11 pages that disseminated discrediting messages should be singled out. These pages spent the total of $ 11,548 (almost UAH 309,000) to share 398 ads.
Pages ОбнажёнKha, Дичь Харькова and Цена вопроса mostly had the same goal – to discredit Ihor Terekhov and, in part, other potential candidates. They spent $ 5,589 (almost UAH 150,000) to share 44 ads. At the same time, each individual page spent at least $ 1,600.
All these pages are similar to each other and to another page that we have already mentioned above - Our House is Kharkiv. Mikhail Dobkin’s team . All of them were created between May 23 and July 1, 2021 (except for Nash Dom - Kharkiv. Mikhail Dobkin’s team, that was created in August 2020, before the local elections, but was inactive in sharing political ads from September 2020 to June 2021). Pages ОбнажёнKha and Дичь Харькова were created on the same day – on May, 23. In addition, they all share the same pattern for email addresses that are listed in advertiser’s contact details: email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org. Websites were also similar: tsenavoprosa.site ,, dichkharkova.site ,, obnazhenkha.site ,, nashdom-kharkov.online . All sites are currently inactive. When you go to them you see the service icon that provided site creation services and the inscription “Please renew your subscription”.
Based on the facts described above, we assume that the administration of these pages that disseminate messages about various potential candidates for the mayor of the city of Kharkiv (especially Ihor Terekhov) is directly related to the election headquarters of Mykhaylo Dobkin.
A page Престол 1-й столицы spent the least of all pages – as little as $ 111 (slightly less than UAH 3,000) to share 5 promoted posts. This page is mainly devoted to one of the favorite pastimes of Ukrainians before the election: drawing comics depicting real or fictional situations involving potential candidates. Traditionally, it is quite difficult to find a “positive” character in such comic strips – most of them use a negative light. Престол 1-й столицы (lit. – the Throne of the First Capital) did not directly support any of the candidates but actively discredited Ihor Terekhov, occasionally mentioning other contenders for the “throne of the first capital” - also in a negative light.
At the same time, Mykhaylo Dobkin weas not overlooked in various discrediting messages. The highest costs for political ads were incurred by the Kharkiv for Dobkin - $ 2,580 (almost UAH 69,000), to share 72 posts. Back in early September, this page shared promoted posts, although it is no longer active. The website listed in the advertiser’s contacts is smmagency.club. In design and lack of content, it is very similar to the already mentioned above websites – pervaya-stolica.online. The promoted ads on the page mentioned Mykhaylo Dobkin in the light of quite unexpected and untypical messages for this candidate, such as about the need to learn the Ukrainian language. It is significant that all such posts were written in Russian. In addition, they mentioned Dobkin’s connections with Volodymyr Zelensky, Serhiy Lyovochkin, and Andriy Yermak. As a result,it implied his high chances of winning the upcoming election.
The nature of the content of these posts points to hidden misinformation, because the advertiser deliberately shared promoted posts with slogans that are opposite to the actual agenda presented by Dobkin himself. The title of the page and the content of the posts show that the page is trying to make the impression that it supports Dobkin’s candidacy and that this advertisement is part of the candidate’s election campaign, although it actually misleads users about his actual election program.
Although the page Kharkiv for Dobkin has been already deleted, its methods of discrediting passed to the successor page of Kharkiv For Misha Dobkin that began sharing a very similar ad on September, 12.
The page Kharkiv is Ukraine also often emphasized that Mykhaylo Dobkin “will certainly promote the Ukrainian language and cultural traditions in Kharkiv,” he will close the Consulate General of the Russian Federation in the city. They also mentioned his support for protest movements in Belarus. There were 101 posts of this nature on the page, and $ 2262 (a little over UAH 60,000) was spent on promotion.
Two more pages were especially active - The perfect mayor and Ukrainians. In total, they published 137 advertising posts with a total value of $ 1,700 (ab. UAH 45,000). The Ukrainians page has been recently created as a page of the “Ukrainians” political party running for several local elections. However, they did not nominate anyone for the mayor of Kharkiv. Although not unaffiliated with the party, The perfect mayor page also publishes its posts with the party symbols. In general, key topics of promoted posts were discrediting Mikhaylo Dobkin, accused him of buying votes, of cooperating with the Russian Federation, as well as encouraged to vote for the “Ukrainians” political party.
The pages Kharkiv against Dobkin and Peaceful Kharkiv mainly emphasized in their promoted posts that Mykhaylo Dobkin was a traitor to the national interests of Ukraine and Kharkiv residents, an unworthy successor of Hennadiy Kernes. Besides, they focused on his pro-Russian statements and views. The page Kharkiv against Dobkin shared about 50 promoted posts, with a total value of 1,304 $ (almost UAH 35,000). The page Peaceful Kharkiv had 74 ads, with a total value of $ 1,137 (ab. UAH 30,000).
As to the pages Скучный Харьков and Харьковская Губерния , the advertising posts are shared by another advertiser but they have a very similar disclaimer and content as in the above-mentioned network. These pages spent almost a thousand dollars on 86 promoted posts. The disclaimers have the same phone number and e-mail, and the information about the advertiser is very similar to the advertiser of the previous network – “Information Agency * page name *”. In terms of content, Скучный Харьков and Харьковская Губерния are similar in their approach (or, rather, even more “severe”) to tongue-lash Svitlychna and Dobkin. Terekhov has not been mentioned by these pages at all.
The page Insider Kharkiv shared only 2 promoted ads during these three months, and paid $ 740 (almost UAH 20,000) for them. One of the posts showed a neutral position on local elections, while the other accused activists from other Ukrainian cities of betraying and financing Mykhaylo Dobkin’s election campaign.
Thus, the online election campaign for the early mayoral election in Kharkiv can be labeled as a “gray pages campaign.” Most of the active pages are not directly related to any of the candidates, but the content they publish implies their favoured benefactors. Of the 40 pages under analysis, only four were verified pages of potential candidates in Kharkiv.
The most active Facebook campaigns were those of Ihor Terekhov and Mikhaylo Dobkin. Terekhov does not have his own public Facebook page, but 19 of the 40 pages shared propaganda messages in his favor and discredited his opponents. Mikhaylo Dobkin campaigned from his own page. At the same time, a hidden network of pages discredited Ihor Terekhov (read more about this in one of the following materials by OPORA).
Using such “gray pages” calls into question the transparency of online campaign funding. As shown by the 2020 local elections and the 2019 presidential and parliamentary elections, the vast majority of such “gray” campaigning and discrediting is funded from the shady sources, and the funding is in no way reflected in the financial statements of candidates or parties. OPORA will continue to monitor online campaigning. We hereby call on all candidates to transparently fund online campaigning exclusively from their election funds (find here the detailed guidelines how to do it).
Source of illustration: variety.com