While a notorious contest for voter ‘s attention was raging in the public space, there were repeated attempts in digital media to discredit Lithuanian Seimas elections and discourage citizens from voting. Debunk EU research has shown that during the election campaign negative communication in digital news outlets was directed towards three main targets: voting process itself, elections management body, and participants of the elections (candidates and political parties). It was noticed that negative publications were attempting to create an impression, that there is no political force in Lithuania which is capable to represent their constituents.
Debunk EU analysts have looked through 1306 articles about Seimas elections which were published from September 1st to October 15th, 2020. The analysis has shown that the amount of negative communication spiked on the last day of campaigning (October 9th) and reached its peak after the official results were announced (October 12th). According to Debunk EU senior analyst Balys Liubinavičius, with the election day coming up, there were more active attempts to discredit the importance of democratic processes and discourage people from voting.
B. Liubinavičius emphasises that the amount of negative communication was relatively small in comparison to overall coverage about the Seimas elections. The research has shown that although the majority of publications were neutral, one tenth of them were negative. Moreover, comparatively low number of negative articles was followed by quite dispersed and discontinuous activity in September, which was characterized by rather opportunistic and spontaneous approach.
The main distributors of negative information covering 2020 Lithuanian parliamentary elections were laisvaslaikrastis.lt, ldiena.lt and sputniknews.lt. “We have noticed that laisvaslaikrastis.lt created only 67% unique content pieces, while all 100% publications in ldiena.lt were republications of content, created in different digital media sources”, — says B. Liubinavičius. Based on the collected data, the most active source in terms of negative communication in Russian language was baltnews.lt
Despite relatively low activity, it was noticed, that negative communication about the Seimas elections was split into three lines (meta-narratives):
Communication targeting participants in the election (both political parties and candidates).
Communication focused on electoral procedures and elections management body.
Communication concerning citizens voting in elections.
In terms of their approach towards the matter, negative reporting on elections potentially sought to:
discourage voters from participating in the elections.
increase distrust towards institutes and principles of democracy.
compromise or otherwise discredit institutions responsible for elections management, and participants of electoral campaign.
According to the analysis, the biggest share of negative communication fell on participants of the parliamentary elections (38,46%). B. Liubinavičius says that those publications aimed to picture Lithuanian political system as ineffective and incapable to properly cater towards citizen’s expectations.
“It is important to note that we did not observe significant favourability towards one particular political force in the analysed articles, neither from Lithuanian, nor from Russian language outlets. This suggests, that in their application of negative communication, media outlets tended to portray all political parties which participated in the elections as incapable of representing the interests of voters and/or as ineffective political structures, thus correlating with the general distrust of Lithuanian society towards political parties”,— explains the analyst.
Electoral procedures (e.g. registration of candidates, votes counting, voting in advance by post) along with institutions, responsible for the management of elections, formed 35.5% of the negative coverage and were the second most escalated matter in digital media sources.
Analysed articles attempted to discredit the management of the elections by portraying the Central Elections Commission (CEC) as an incompetent and corrupt institution. “The main goal of such content is to make voters question the results of parliamentary elections and their legitimacy in general”, — says B. Liubinavičius.
In the early stages of the election campaign, media outlets tended to engage with negative content that mostly focused on the registration of candidates. “In their coverage, media sources tried to instigate the idea that some candidates were not registered to the elections due to their political views, that didn’t correspond to the official views of the current political regime, rather than the legal reasons that prevented them from participation”,— explains B. Liubinavičius.
As with the late stage of the elections (namely, the period after the closing of voting ballots on October 11th), negative information shifted its focus and concentrated more on producing misleading content that referred to the votes counting procedures. According to Debunk EU research. though the image of CEC as supposedly falsifying the results of the elections was sustained, particular attention of digital media was paid on procedures of voting in advance by post, when it was claimed that the final voting results were supposedly doubled due to the fact, that citizens could have voted by both post and live on the election day, thus resulting in both votes of the same voter being counted.
Negative communication concerning electoral process constituted 26% of the overall coverage. B. Liubinavičius says that the main messages in digital publications concerned voting of the citizens and the general idea of elections. According to the expert, such articles portrayed the elections as a public relations campaign, ‘facade’ and/or ‘imitation’ of democracy in order to underestimate the importance of the elections and create distrust towards the principles and values of democratic government system.
Negative communication line targeting “Election management body” stood out as the narrative, that attracted the highest social interaction score on Facebook (7481 in total), despite placing second by the share of other narratives.
Negative information was most often published in Lithuanian language (72.4%), followed by articles in Russian language, which constituted less than a third of the overall coverage (27.6%).
Compared to Russian, articles in Lithuanian managed to attract more social interactions on Facebook with up to 7286 social engagement number in total, but only an average of 1636 potential contact reach per article. Therefore, low engagement and potential reach rates indicate that negative information tended to circulate among limited number of audiences, forming rather closed social clusters with a limited ability to reach wider specter of readers.
Starting from September 1st to October 15th Debunk EU analyzed 1306 articles related to Lithuanian parliamentary elections. 125 articles (9.57%) were identified as articles having negative sentiment towards the subject, and the rest of 1181 (90.43%) as neutral in their coverage.
2020 elections to the Seimas of the Republic of Lithuania were held on October 11th with a total voters turnout of 47.80%.