#Report
Social media. Image by Gerd Altmann on Pixabay

Two universes: unlike on television, in social networks, United Russia and the Communist Party are almost head-to-head

This is the report on the monitoring of social networks from the 5th to the 9th week of the election campaign of deputies to the Russian State Duma (July 20 - August 22), scheduled for September 19, 2021

Elections can be considered free only if conditions have been created for a meaningful public political discussion in which all election participants have an equal scope of rights. Such a discussion can take place in the media, in the form of traditional agitation of candidates, as well as on social networks.

Unfortunately, as the weekly monitoring1 of the federal TV channels shows, the information given by traditional media turns to be strictly censored, leaving little chances for TV audience to generate a knowledgeable opinion about candidates and parties. Representatives of TV channels often justify the misbalance in the coverage of other candidates (preferring, thus, the candidates of the 'party of power') by the fact that other parties do not produce quality news stories.

In order to understand how much the reality of TV channels differs from the reality of the freer space related to social networks, as well as to see how much the citizens are interested in the activities of various political parties, the 'Golos' Movement launched a weekly monitoring. The monitoring began on Tuesday, July 20. The first report is dedicated to a larger period, including the incomplete 5th week of the election campaign, as well as the 6th, 7th, 8th and 8th weeks. Future reports will be published weekly. Below are its key findings.

5th to 9th weeks of the campaign: Conclusions

1) The coverage of the election campaign on social networks is significantly different from what citizens see on the federal TV channels. In fact, we find two totally different realities. In the freer space of social networks, several 'tiers' of political parties have emerged. The highest rank is occupied by United Russia and the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF) with comparable indicators in terms of the number of posts, mentions, and user engagement. Over the entire monitored period, the two parties accounted for 32.1% and 24.2%, respectively, of all posts related to election participants. The parties of the 'second tier' are the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, New People, and Just Russia – For Truth. These significantly lag behind, however, all of them received more than 5% of the total number of posts with mentions of parties. Next come Yabloko and the Party of Pensioners. All other political parties are hardly noticeable in terms of the number of posts which mention their names.

2) However, the information space of social networks is also distorted due to censored subjects, accounts controlled by traditional media, and pre-moderated large communities. This is especially obvious when analyzing the potential total audience of posts mentioning parties, where United Russia unexpectedly greatly leaps forward. This is achieved thanks to posts about the party in accounts controlled by state or state-controlled media, as well as on public pages with strict pre-moderation, which have already become indistinguishable from the mass media. Thus, in the 8th and 9th weeks of the campaign (from August 9 to August 22), the most 'significant' posts were the posts mentioning United Russia on Youtube from the accounts of NTV2 (13 million subscribers) and Russia 243 (7 million subscribers). United Russia received 9 posts from the channels, and the Communist Party of the Russian Federation only 1.

3) The almost simultaneous and massive distribution of identical posts raises questions about the mechanisms of disseminating and paying for such materials. For example, on August 16 alone (the day of parties' placement on the federal ballot), in the pre-moderated Odnoklassniki4 communities we found 2021 identical messages about the 5th place being allocated to United Russia. In addition, a myriad of posts were identified with the variation on this same topic.

4) Despite a huge gap between United Russia and the CPRF in the potential audience of posts mentioning these parties, in terms of user engagement they turn out to be very close to each other. The top 3 places in this indicator are also held by New People, which overtook not only Just Russia - For Truth, but also surpassed the Liberal Democratic Party by 1.5 times. The Socialist-Revolutionaries, on the other hand, find themselves almost on a par with the Party of Growth and Yabloko. All the remaining parties seriously lag behind. This situation practically does not change from week to week. Only in the period from August 9 to August 22 was there a discrepancy in the level of reactions to posts related to United Russia and the Communist Party. However, it is not as significant as the discrepancy in the other two factors: the number of posts with references and the total audience. At the same time, it is worth noting that although the frequency of mention of the Communist Party remains stable from week to week and the potential audience even decreased last week, the engagement still continues to grow and people continue to discuss the main competitors of United Russia quite a lot.

Mentioning of political parties on social media

The 'Golos' Movement, in its monitoring of election coverage by the federal TV channels, regularly reports5 about the enormous preference of the traditional media when covering the activities of United Russia. By most indicators, including the frequency of mentions, the party is mentioned 1.5-2 times more than all its competitors together.

Just as we expected, the situation on social networks looks different. In the period from the 5th to the 9th week of the election campaign (that is, from July 20 to August 22), 432,430 posts mentioning political parties that nominated their candidates to the elections of the State Duma was identified. During this time, several groups of parties shaped up.

The leader, in terms of mentions for this entire period, was United Russia with its 138,765 posts, that make up to 32.1% of the total number of posts mentioning all parties. However, quite similar indicators are observed for the Communist Party, where we recorded 104,456 posts (24.2%). It was these two parties that ended up in the 'higher tier', representing the two main competitors with comparable rates of mentions on social networks.

Thus, the situation on social networks is significantly different from what can be observed on the federal TV channels, where the predominance of United Russia, in terms of frequency of mentions, is simply enormous. By the way, this very indicator for the Communist Party over the same period lagged behind the 'party of power' by 5 times.

In the 'second tier' there are parties with more than 20,000 mentions over the same period, even though the gaps between them can be quite large. These are LDPR (42,849 posts or 9.9%), New People (29,776 posts or 6.9%) and Just Russia – For Truth (21,519 posts or 5%).

Lagging behind a bit are Yabloko and the Party of Pensioners, showing almost the same indicators: 16,871 and 16,849 posts, respectively. All other parties have fewer mentions.

We note that this allocation of parties has been relatively stable throughout the entire period of monitoring of social networks.

It is worth mentioning that United Russia does not always manage to break away from its main competitor, the Communist Party: on the 5th and 7th weeks of the elections, their mention rates were almost identical. On the 6th week, the gap was by no means significant. The real difference was made by the 6th and 9th weeks. On the 6th week, the site of CEC showed an agreement "on safe elections" initiated by United Russia. The initiative was actively covered by the media, having its reflection on social networks. The 9th week had the drawing of lots related to parties allocation in the bulletin. As a result, social networks were filled with identical messages related to the fact that United Russia occupied the 5th place.

For example, on August 16 alone, we managed to find 2021 identical messages saying the following: 'Election campaign rated 5+: United Russia got the 5th place in the bulletin related to the elections to the State Duma. Russia conducted the allocation of lots in the bulletin of the Fall elections. Position in the bulletin: United Russia got the top five! The number of the party in the electoral lists symbolically coincided with the number of the main candidates from United Russia! More details in the video.' All these messages were posted in different communities of Odnoklassniki. It is noteworthy that in many of these communities, only moderators can publish posts, which makes us assume they were paid for.

We shall note that many 'small' parties have a significant number of mentions associated with the activities of individual candidates. For example, the lion's share of mentions of the Russian Ecological Party 'Greens' throughout the monitoring period was generated by 4 events: the nomination of Sergey Zverev in a single-mandate constituency in Buryatia (this is a rare case when a single-mandate person became the headliner of the entire party campaign); the nomination of a lookalike of the Yabloko candidate Boris Vishnevsky in St. Petersburg; the dismissal of Yabloko's Lev Shlosberg from the elections at the request of Greens' candidate Andrey Pangaev; and an attempt by Greens' candidate Igor Ukraintsev to make the Novosibirsk mayor Anatoly Lokot resign.

For Rodina, the main news stories are also associated with the involvement of 'celebrities,' the singer Tatyana Bulanova and the former football player Dmitry Bulykin, whereas for Green Alternative, the singer Victoria Daineko was engaged.

New People also have their own frontman, the first number on the list, Sardana Avksentieva, who takes a really big place in the campaign. However, it cannot be said that this place is predominant: the share of messages from personal accounts and messages in groups of different regions on a whole range of topics (from business problems to ecology) is very high. At the same time, the dynamics over the past 3 weeks has been progressively upward.

Total audience of posts mentioning parties

The indicator of the potential total audience of posts mentioning parties shows how many subscribers have the accounts or communities that posted such posts. Here the situation is more reminiscent of what we see on federal TV channels: United Russia (2.7 billion subscribers) begins to significantly break away from other parties. For example, the gap from the closest Communist Party (with 1.3 billion subscribers) becomes twofold.

The Liberal Democratic Party and New People were also able to recruit more than 500 million potential total audience during this same period.

These 4 parties are similar to the ones we see both when monitoring the TV channels and when analysing the frequency of mentioning on social networks. However, further on the results become somewhat unusual. The 4th 'parliamentary party', Just Russia – For Truth, falls only to the 7th place by this indicator. It is closely followed by Rodina and the Party of Pensioners. The 5th and 6th places are taken by the Party of Growth and Yabloko.

We see that United Russia has the same peaks attributable to the Communist Party and other parties in terms of the number of posts mentioning parties. The peaks fall on the 6th, 8th and 9th weeks of the election campaign. However, the gap from the second party turns out to be disproportionately great.

This gap is largely created by media accounts, as well as posts in pre-moderated communities. For example, on the 8th and 9th weeks of the campaign (from August 9 to August 22), the most 'important' posts were found on Youtube. They were generated by the accounts of NTV (13 million subscribers) and Russia 24 (7 million subscribers). United Russia received 9 posts from the channels, and the Communist Part just one.

The structure of the most significant posts about United Russia in terms of the size of the potential audience is generally quite indicative. Thus, on the 9th week of the campaign (from August 16 to August 22) 36,731 posts were published mentioning the 'party of power', the potential total audience of which was 636.5 million users. We have highlighted posts from accounts with an audience of over 500k users each. There were only 107 such posts (0.3% of their total number), yet they accounted for almost 1/5 of the audience (18%).

Of these posts, a little more than 1/3 of the audience fell on media accounts. Another 1/3 was in pre-moderated communities, which differ little from the media, as they have a similar editorial policy, related to censoring content. Most of these communities have nothing to do with politics. They contain recipes, congratulations for friends, school jokes, etc. Another 1/3 of the audience falls on personal accounts, which, upon closer examination, also turn out to be either media accounts or professional accounts of politicians, journalists and public figures who differ little from mass media. It is worth mentioning that among the latter, almost 50% of the audience is attributable to the accounts of Alexei Navalny, Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Ilya Yashin, who criticize United Russia a lot.

The situation a week earlier is even more indicative. On the 8th week, there were 105 posts mentioning United Russia, generated by accounts with an audience of more than 500k users. They accounted for 1/3 of the entire audience. At the same time, the top ten posts included nine from NTV, Russia 1, and RIA Novosti. One post was from Alexei Navalny. Among these 105 posts, 42% of the audience fell on mass media accounts, 20% on communities and 38% on 'private profiles' among which the largest actually were NTV, Russia 24, Navalny's channels and the TV channel Dozhd6.

Thus, social networks also distort information due to the presence of censored subjects (accounts controlled by mass media and pre-moderated large communities).

Engagement rates for posts mentioning political parties

The engagement rate shows how actively users respond to certain posts. It is a sum of different reactions: likes, dislikes, comments, shares, etc. This is one of the ways to assess whether a post evokes emotions in people, attracts their attention, or whether the message just disappears unnoticed. Therefore, it is considered an important indicator for assessing the quality of promotion on social networks.

It should be noted that the data on the number of reactions to posts is incomplete. A typical post on social media can collect reactions over several days. In our case, the downloading of the reactions was done daily. Therefore, you shouldn't look for absolute data. However, due to the fact that this, albeit imperfect, methodology was applied equally to all parties, the data can be used for comparative analysis.

Several unexpected results appear. Firstly, despite the huge gap in potential audience between United Russia and the Communist Party, in terms of engagement rate these 2 turn out to be very close to each other.

In the top 3 in terms of this rate, there is New People, which overtakes not only Just Russia – For Truth, but also surpasses the Liberal Democratic Party by 1.5 times. The Socialist-Revolutionaries, on the other hand, find themselves almost on a par with the Party of Growth and Yabloko. All the rest are seriously lagging behind.

This situation is quite similar from week to week. During the period from August 9 to August 22 there was a discrepancy in the level of reactions to posts mentioning United Russia and the Communist Party. However, it is not as significant as in the other two indicators. It is noteworthy that although the frequency of mention of the Communist Party remains stable from week to week (and the potential audience decreased last week), the engagement is still growing, as people continue to discuss the main competitors of United Russia in these elections.

Also noteworthy is the increase in the engagement rate of the Party of Growth, which happened last week. It is associated with an interview given to Ksenia Sobchak by Ksenia Bezuglova, one of the leaders of the federal list of the Party of Growth. As a result, on the 9th week of the elections, the Party of Growth entered the top 4 parties in terms of engagement, having only a small number of mentions (11th place out of 15 parties).

The ratio of engagement rate to the number of posts turns out to be quite indicative: the Party of Growth occupies the first place by large, the second place is taken by another small party, Green Alternative.

However, in the case of these 2 parties (especially, Green Alternative), there is a suspicion that the high indicators are attributable to the fact that these parties are often mentioned not singularly, but together with other, larger and well-known parties.

Next are the Communist Party, New People, and United Russia with very similar indicators. The next group of parties is represented by the Russian Party of Freedom and Justice, Yabloko and Just Russia – For Truth. All the other parties have low average engagement rates.

Methodology

The systems for automatic monitoring of social networks/mass media 'Scan Interfax' and Brand Analytics were used to conduct the research. Monitoring was carried out by the names of parties. In some cases, abbreviated or informal party names were also included (CPRF, 'SRs', 'edinorossy', etc.).

Reports are downloaded daily at 9:00 am. Therefore, the weekly monitoring includes posts published on social networks from 9:00 am of Monday of one week to 9:00 am of Monday of the following week.

Reports for all parties are regularly spot-checked to identify posts that were monitored by mistake. Since the reports on the parties 'Greens', New people, Rodina, and Yabloko initially contained a large number of such erroneous posts, they underwent a full check throughout the entire monitoring period (up to the 8th week) in order to filter out unnecessary posts. For New People, Rodina, and Yabloko, the full check stopped only on the 9th week, when, thanks to fine-tuning of the algorithms, it was possible to reduce the unwanted information to an acceptable level that did not affect the correct determination of the position of parties in relation to the other election participants. Currently, full check of reports is retained for posts mentioning Greens.

Monitoring has been carried out from July 20. Data collection is carried out on social networks (VKontakte7, Odnoklassniki, Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, TikTok, Twitter), blogs, forums, map services, public channels and Telegram chats.

References:

1 See the summary of findings for the first eight weeks of the campaign here.

2 NTV is one of the largest Russian television channels. It is owned by Gazprom Media since 2001.

3 A state-owned Russian news channel.

4 A popular Russian social network used mainly in Russia and the former Soviet Republics.

5 https://www.golosinfo.org/articles/145401

6 The channel is included in the registry of media outlets performing the functions of a foreign agent.

7 A popular Russian online social media and social networking service.

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A demonstration in Moscow. Image - by Andrey, Pxhere.

Russia has finally outlawed Alexey Navalny's political and anti-corruption movement. Here's how the crackdown affects activists, journalists, and ordinary supporters.

Plenary meeting of the State Duma. Image - Wikimedia Commons
#Commentary

The President of Russia approved the law prohibiting those who are "involved" in the activities of an extremist organization from running in elections.

Electoral headquarters of Alexey Navalny. Photo - Wikimedia Commons
#Analysis

On June 9, the Moscow City Court, based on the charges by the Moscow Prosecutor's Office, recognized the Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK), the Foundation for the Protection of Citizens' Rights, and the headquarters of Alexei Navalny as extremist organizations. Now, many citizens are under a threat of pressure and persecution.

Vladimir Putin at the United Russia Congress (2011-11-27). Image - Wikimedia Commons
#Analysis

Between May 24 and 30, United Russia held its preliminary selection of candidates for 2021 State Duma elections. Nearly 12 million citizens participated in the party's primaries. Yet, a more careful examination shows an increasingly controlled and non-transparent process, aimed at having the public formally 'endorse' a carefully vetted list of pre-selected candidates.

Meeting of Central Election Commission Chair Ella Pamfilova with OSCE / ODIHR Director Matteo Mecacci. Photo - CEC
#Report

Between 2003 and 2018, OSCE/ODIHR published 139 recommendations on how to improve the conduct of elections in Russia. In the run-up to the State Duma elections in 2021, Russia has fully implemented just over 10% of them. Some have been tackled more promptly than others.

Man using computers. Photo by: Lisa Fotios from Pexels
#Analysis

Ahead of the State Duma election on September 19, 2021, Russia just tested its remote electronic voting system. While the Central Election Commission of the Russian Federation (CEC) is preparing the report about the results of the test, election monitors say Russia's electronic voting system is a black box.

Alexei Navalny. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
#Analysis

The Russian authorities are expected to orchestrate a result in the upcoming State Duma elections that will give United Russia a clear majority of seats. This does not mean, however, that the manipulation of the electoral process by the authorities is complete. In a limited number of competitive districts, true opposition candidates including candidates who are associated with Aleksei Navalny have a real chance of winning if they are allowed to run. In recent weeks, steps have been taken to block these 'undesirable' candidates from participating.

Central Election Commission (CEC) of Russian Federation during April 21, 2021, meeting. Photo by: CEC.
#Commentary

On March 19, 2021, the new composition of the Central Election Commission (CEC) of the Russian Federation was revealed. Out of 15 members, eight new people joined the CEC. In particular, the new Commission has been 'reinforced' by bureaucrats from the Presidential Administration, the State Duma, and the Civic Chamber (a consultative civil society institution closely linked to the government).