In the new era where “social media is king”, Ukraine followed in the footsteps of the United States with presidential candidates spending substantial amounts on spreading dirt about their political opponents. Thankfully, Facebook recently made it easy to track down page founders.
Chesno civil movement reports that during the presidential election campaign there were at least 35 Facebook pages that posted ads against the four main presidential candidates – Anatoliy Hrytsenko, Yulia Tymoshenko, Petro Poroshenko, and most of all against Volodymyr Zelenskyy. According to Chesno's calculations, at least $250,000 was spent on adverse publicity in the interest of Poroshenko and against his main competitors.
At least $264,000 was spent in total on the pages in March and April 2019. This reflects the minimum proven amount spent on negative publicity because Facebook data does not include payments for the promotion of these pages before March.
Out of 35 pages, Chesno reports, seven broadcast advertisements against former president Petro Poroshenko. Over the course of March-April 2019, at least $11,000 was spent on their promotion (the minimum proven amount). Almost $8,000 was paid for promoting publications on the AntiPor page.
However, the lion's share of the cost of adverse publicity was directed against the main competitors of Poroshenko. More than $250,000 went on spreading negative publications about now-president Zelenskyy, former PM Tymoshenko and ex-defense minister Hrytsenko. Different messages were produced about each of these politicians aiming to discredit them.
The main message about Zelenskyy was that he was a drug addict, inexperienced in politics and a puppet of exiled oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky. Pro-Russian politician and former presidential candidate Yuriy Boyko was the only top presidential candidate, against whom Chesno did not find any large-scale paid campaigns on Facebook.
The following pages were most active in spreading adverse publicity about the presidential candidates: Ministerstvo Baryg (“Ministry of Dealers”), Cynical Bandera, Zhovta Strichka (“Yellow Tape”), Zrada/Peremoha (“Betrayal/Victory”) and Boycott the Party of Regions.
As Ukrainian news site theBabel discovered, the contact information of these pages indicates the same phone number that belongs to Hanna Sipachova who works at the marketing agency Postmen.
Chesno also found other pages probably related to Postmen agency. For example, the telephone number of Hanna Sipachova and Postmen address are indicated in the contact information of Zelenka page. This page spent almost $35,000 on distribution of negative messages against Zelenskyy.
The following do not have identical contact details, but are similar in content to the abovementioned pages: Sluga Uroda (“Servant of the Creep”), Mayonnaise jar, and Kolomoisky – President (page now deleted). They spent at least $40,000. Postmen did not comment to Chesno on this information.
In Poroshenko’s election financial statement there are payments to Postmen amounting to four million hryvnias ($151,000), but this amount is barely enough to cover the expenses for the maintenance of Poroshenko’s official pages, according to Chesno.
Now, Yaroslav Vedmid – the founder and head of Postmen agency – is employed by musician Svyatoslav Vakarchuk’s Golos (“Voice”) for the parliamentary elections. Party representatives emphasize that they do not cooperate with Postmen, but with Vedmid personally. On top of that Golos stressed that Vedmid assured them that he was not involved with any adverse publicity in the presidential election.
Negative publicity against opponents in the election campaign is not a problem per se, Chesno states. The problem arises when things get out of hand – both in terms of the dissemination of false information about political opponents, and in terms of its financing.
Chesno reiterates that only the estimated cost of such campaigns can be determined, but it is not always possible to trace the origin of the money.