Data Exploitation in the Ukrainian elections

Ukraine held Presidential elections in April 2019. In the run up to the election, Facebook, which is the most popular social media platform in the country, made commitments to open up its ad library capabilities in Ukraine and also ban the buying of political ads by entities located outside of the country. Unfortunately the company took these steps two weeks prior to election day, meaning that months of campaign ads were not archived in the library. In addition, there was reporting of disinformation, bots, and 'fake news' being spotted online by Ukrainians. PI spoke with Ukrainian civil society that work on these issues and there was a general consensus that what social media platforms provide Ukrainians in terms of advertising transparency and detection of bots and trolls, was nowhere near good enough.

The use of data by political campaigns was less reported on, despite the digital campaign manager for the winning party saying that they were running their own data analytics operations. Ukraine has an open data culture, and many of the people PI spoke with in the country said that open data is generally seen as a positive way to combat corruption. However few people we spoke with knew how data may also be being exploited by political actors in the country.

Political parties and politicians use apps to promote their party's ideas and their candidate’s personality. The people with whom PI spoke voiced concerns that the use of social media platforms such as Instagram and YouTube were mainly used by candidates to showcase their lifestyles and personalities, rather than to engage the citizenry in their political manifestos. In Ukraine the front-running candidates - Volodymyr Zelenskiy and Petro Poroshenko - made use of WhatsApp, Telegram, Instagram, Facebook, and YouTube to share campaign videos, updates, and news.

Facebook hasn't yet addressed the serious criticism it has faced in the wake of the election. This criticism includes warnings that foreign actors were able to circumvent the company's ban on foreign-bought ads, the ad library was missing ads, the company failed to provide timely redress when legitimate content was taken down by bots, and more. 

Ukraine will hold Parliamentary election this year as well, and PI will keep an eye on any changes Facebook announces to their ads transparency for the forthcoming elections.