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23 December, 2019  ▪  Yuriy Lapayev

Barely visible

Why hasn’t Facebook heard Ukraine's voice yet?

It is hard to call Ukraine’s relations with the largest social network on the planet the best ones. Nevertheless, we cannot ignore Facebook or Instagram and leave the situation as it is now. The country’s presidential and parliamentary elections have shown that the political role of social networks is growing and this trend will continue.

The new leadership of the state has announced a course on digitalization, not least seeking to increase its electoral base and develop with it means of communication. After all, data of the recent survey by Ukraine World, which shows the results of an analysis of the first two weeks of the new Verkhovna Rada’s work, show that the most popular party among Ukrainian users of Facebook and Instagram is the Servant of the People. Therefore, it may be behind signing by Prime Minister Oleksiy Honcharuk’s “historic memorandum” with representatives of the telecom market on coverage of the whole of Ukraine with Internet and mobile communication.

The sort of explanation of this document’s importance became posting on the pages of the Facebook-community “Zelenskiy Team” information that 90% of Ukrainians have not had access to the network for years. However, such a statement is broken by the fact that Ukraine is in a worthy place among all countries in terms of coverage and accessibility of the Internet, both mobile and fixed. According to the World Bank, 59% of the population had access to the global network in 2017. In addition, the cost of these services is one of the lowest in the world. It is the minimal prices for services, and not the absence of memoranda, that hamper the development of domestic mobile networks, because it becomes simply unprofitable for operators to invest in expensive projects.

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The same goes for social networks, including Facebook. The Ukrainian Week has already written about the problems dealing with Zuckerberg’s creation (see “The power of Facebook”, 6/2019). There have been some changes since then. First, the actual blockings due to Russian bots’ complaints reduced in number after all, although they did not stop completely. For example, the pages of Memory Books of the Fallen for Ukraine and the Walls of the National Memory of the Fallen for Ukraine were blocked in the summer. There were reports about blocking some publications about the Regiment “Azov”. The peculiarity is that now it is possible to get a ban for political views that do not coincide with the position of the authorities. It is not clear at the moment whether the Office of the President of Ukraine has already managed to set up its own troll factory like the “Olgins” (the derisive name for Russian internet-trolls – Ed.), or it is still using the practices of the previous head of state. However, the uneven, often jumble dynamics of “likes” and positive comments under publications related to Zelenskiy (as under the recent movie “Step to Peace”) hint that work is well underway. And it shows that the president’s environment is paying it a lot of attention. Perhaps, to encourage this way “sick and tired of social media negativity” Master of Bankova.

Secondly, at last Ukraine has its own representative in Facebook. On June 3, political scientist Kateryna Kruk, a well-known activist of the Maidan times, took up this post. Officially, her position is called “Public Policy Manager in Ukraine”, she is responsible for communicating and informing about novelties in the field of social network regulation. In addition, she should study Ukrainian legislation regarding Facebook and represent the company’s interests at meetings with government agencies and the media. Kateryna became famous for her social activism during the Revolution of Dignity, when she tried to convey information about events in Ukraine to foreign readers. For this, the Atlantic Council of the United States awarded her the Freedom Award. Prior to this appointment, she worked as a social media advisor to the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine.

Thirdly, Facebook itself is changing. Like other social networks, he is forced to gradually respond to all scandals around him, to satisfy the requirements of the laws of the United States and the European Union. Although it has nothing to do with Ukraine, it is ultimately beneficial to us. After all, networks of fake accounts and communities that, in particular, work against our country are being blocked. So, according to Facebook, only in September they blocked a coordinated network operating in Ukraine which had 168 profiles, 149 pages and 79 communities. The information it shared could be seen by more than 4 million users, about 400,000 were members of at least one community.

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The cost of network advertising is estimated at $1.6 million. The management of Facebook has linked the creation of a network with the activities of Pragmatico company, which was previously engaged in black and white PR. In October, the social network's policy on counteracting information threats, including coordinated inauthentic behavior, government interference and misrepresentation, was updated. They are still far from ideal, but the conditions for political advertising are gradually becoming more transparent. This is how social networks are preparing for the upcoming US presidential election.

At the end of October, Twitter’s management announced that they would abandon political advertising altogether from November 22, explaining that the decision to disseminate political ideas “should be deserved, not bought”. Following this statement, Hillary Clinton also called Zuckerberg for a similar ban, though he, on the contrary, seeks maximum openness and freedom of speech without political censorship (which does not prevent his company from disclosing personal data of users to third-party players, including China). Obviously, revenue from such advertising is unlikely to exceed the possible future penalties and reputational risks, so it is likely that closer to the US election Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube will have to resort to certain restrictions.

However, as Ukrainian expression of will has shown, solely political advertising solves not everything. After all, in our case, a two-step method was applied when it was not the politician or party who advertised but the media, which were already distributing the messages needed for the customers. In total, according to the former Deputy Minister of Information Policy Dmytro Zolotukhin, during parliamentary election campaign in Ukraine about $4 million was officially spent on Facebook for advertising.

At the same time, the issues of concern still remain. Social networks are outside the Ukrainian legislation; the state relations with them are not regulated. And that means at least that we cannot influence their management at the government level. For example, we cannot speed up the process of verifying pages of government bodies and persons. In addition, we failed to prevent the appearance of a verification mark on the official page of the “Chairman of the Republic of Crimea”, Sergei Aksyonov, which was removed only after the Ukrainian side addressed. The plans of this social network to create its own cryptocurrency Libra, it is easy to imagine space for fraud and problems with law enforcement. Police are actively detaining those who want to “go mining” little-known underground cryptocurrencies, but it is difficult to say what the actions will be against followers of the largest social network in the world.

One way or another, it is time to start doing something so that Ukraine’s position will be heard in Menlo Park and other well-known places in California and to be respected. Time will tell if the power of digitalizator-technocrats succeeds.

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