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Words, Deeds and Perceptions – Ukrainian Social Media Debates on Wartime Allies

This report was written by Beatriz Almeida Saab, Digital Democracy Research Associate and Heather Dannyelle Thompson, Digital Democracy Manager with contributions from Jan Nicola Beyer, Digital Democracy Research Coordinator and Michael Meyer-Resende, Executive Director, and data analysis by Anastasiia Alekseeva.

Executive Summary

Since the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, countries all over the world have rapidly taken action to support the country with military aid, humanitarian support, public sentiment and political solidarity. 

How is this support reflected in social media debates in Ukraine? To find out, we monitored Ukrainian debates on Twitter and Telegram from November 2021 to July 2022. We analysed 638,717 tweets and 274,254 posts on Telegram.  

These are our findings:

    • Allies that gave significant military support in absolute terms were discussed more heavily online. Most often mentioned on Twitter were the United States, Germany, the United Kingdom, Poland and the EU, in that order. The picture on Telegram was similar, although the EU was the second-most mentioned ally here. While countries like Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania provided the most support to Ukraine relative to their GDPs, they were less mentioned, and when mentioned this was mainly in relation to humanitarian support;
    • Türkiye occupied a unique position in the social media discourse in Ukraine, reflecting that Türkiye’s government has not unequivocally supported either side in the conflict, while trying to act as a mediator. Sentiment towards Türkiye fluctuated heavily;
    • Ukrainian conversations on Twitter and Telegram about the United States and the United Kingdom mentioned their respective leaders (President Joseph Biden and Prime Minister Boris Johnson, respectively) more often than their German, Polish or Turkish counterparts.
    • The topics that generated the most conversation on both platforms during the time of observation included: European Union candidate status; the delivery of military aid from the United States, Germany and Türkiye; and humanitarian support from Poland.

Key Issues on Twitter and Telegram

European Union candidate status 

In June, the European Union granted Ukraine candidate status, as a sign of political support for the country in the war. The rapid process towards candidate status was novel and was heavily discussed online in Ukraine. 

Frustration over the gap between promises made and promises kept  

When looking at some of Ukraine’s allies, there were common trends in the online discourse about military aid and its delivery to the country. A clear trend was frustration expressed over not receiving promised aid, and over the type of aid that has been received, as well as the manner in which it has been delivered.  

The most prominent subject of this discourse has been Germany. At the beginning of the full-scale invasion, Ukrainians had a more positive outlook towards Germany, but that sentiment soured in the following months, as Ukrainians became frustrated with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s lack of leadership on Ukraine, believing that he had stalled on, and even broken his promises to send heavy weapons.  

The United States was also criticised at some points for not doing enough to defend and provide aid to Ukraine

Boris Johnson’s positive reputation in Ukrainian Twitter and Telegram Channels 

If sentiment towards Germany started off as positive, only to worsen over time, the opposite has been the case with regards to the United Kingdom. The increasingly positive attitudes towards the United Kingdom have been partly due to aid, but also due to the role of Prime Minister Johnson who has been a vocal supporter of Ukraine and was one of the first foreign leaders to travel to Kyiv. 

Humanitarian support is heavily appreciated on Twitter and Telegram, but not discussed as often as military support 

When analysing the Twitter/Telegram discourse related to Poland, the posts covered mostly positive topics, such as Poland´s support for Ukraine. The major aspect that has likely influenced this feeling is the high number of Ukrainian refugees who have been accommodated in Poland – 1.3 million – and military support. Ukrainians have expressed their gratitude online towards the country. However, other regional allies that have extended humanitarian support – Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, for example, have not been as heavily mentioned online. When they have been mentioned, this has overwhelmingly been in the form of expressions of gratitude.

Methodology

This report analyses how support by allies was perceived on two important social media channels in Ukraine: Twitter and Telegram. Telegram, as discussed in one of the previous pieces in this series, is a platform increasingly and already widely used in Ukrainian social media, with 65 per cent of Ukrainians getting their news from the platform, according to Civil Network OPORA. Twitter is another obvious medium to study, as it is much used for political discourse, especially by politicians, journalists and analysts, and opinions and analyses on Twitter often travel to other platforms or the news media. Many Twitter users in Ukraine write in English,  it being the most obvious space to connect to foreign policy audiences. 

The tweets selected for this analysis were those geotagged to Ukraine and that mentioned an allied country, its capital city, or its leader – 638,717 tweets in total. Of those tweets, 66 per cent were in English, 13 per cent were in Ukrainian, and 8 per cent were in Russian. All tweets were translated to English for analysis, and empty tweets (or re-tweets without commentary) were dropped from analysis. The analysis of Telegram was based on 274,254 posts in Ukrainian and Russian from 22 of the most popular Ukrainian news channels.

Battle for Attention: How Allies Are Seen Online

The first step was evaluating which countries were most mentioned online by Ukrainians, and what the motivating factors might be.  

The relative importance of all countries mentioned in Ukrainian discourse was assessed based on the sample set (as this piece focuses on allies, Russia and Belarus were removed from the results). As shown in the following graphs, Western allies such as the United States, Germany, the United Kingdom and Poland received the most attention, e.g., the United States accounted for 30 per cent of all mentions on both Twitter and Telegram.

 

Support from allies and the European Union spark online discussion  

The level of help and support plays a major role in how Ukrainians view allies

Popular attention on the two channels seems to be clearly correlated with the amount of military and humanitarian assistance. The United States, the EU, the United Kingdom, Germany and Poland were the largest providers of (or promised the largest) military aid and humanitarian assistance in absolute numbers during the monitoring period. Consequently, they were much discussed. The United States, for example, is by far the largest supporter of Ukraine, having committed 42.7 billion euros. Washington led the international response to Russia´s attack. It is understandable why the United States was the most mentioned country on both Telegram and Twitter

However, this relationship between military aid and popular attention is only evident when support is measured in absolute terms. The graph above shows how much (as a percentage) of a country’s GDP was provided to Ukraine as bilateral aid. When observing which countries contributed highly in comparison to their economic strength, Estonia and Latvia have topped the list (Graph 3).

We see, however, that there was little online discussion and popular attention towards these countries. Estonia and Latvia have also been the largest donors of humanitarian aid and in supporting refugees. While small in volume, online discourse did, however, reflect gratitude for that support.

Tweets expressing gratitude to Lithuania


The rapid response on EU candidacy increased online debate

While the attention to other allies in Ukrainian social media may be attributed to the magnitude of military and humanitarian assistance, the discussion around the EU was unique, in part because of the unprecedented speed and unity of its decision to impose sanctions on Russia and to grant Ukraine candidate status to the Union. On 28 February 2022, four days after Russia invaded Ukraine, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy requested his country’s immediate admission to the EU. The European Commission responded by recommending that Ukraine be elevated to candidate status and, in June, the 27 EU leaders unanimously approved that recommendation. 

This process is usually slow and takes many years but, because of the war and as a sign of support, the EU admitted Ukraine as a candidate quickly. This move by the EU may explain why there were so many mentions about the bloc online. This newsworthiness, and the relative advantage of being more closely aligned to the West during this war, therefore, likely catapulted the topic of the EU up the list on Twitter.  

This supports the assumption that much of the Ukrainian discussion, when it comes to allies, was linked to the degree of commitments these allies made in terms of support. The newsworthiness of Ukraine’s new status raised the profile of the EU (as an ally) in Ukrainian social media. There is, however, a unique aspect regarding the EU’s role. The EU was quick not only to impose economic sanctions on Russia , but also to provide support to Ukraine. Graph 5, below, shows the significant increase of mentions of the EU once the debate on candidate status started and the decision was made. Graph 6 shows the mostly positive reaction towards the EU on Telegram, expressed in terms of emoji reactions to posts. The process is seen as a mutual commitment to anchor Ukraine in a democratic EU/Europe, as opposed to being seen as Russia´s hinterland. 

As can be expected, when the number of Ukrainian tweets that mention an ally are measured over time (since the onset of the war until June, see the graph above), the activity is substantial, but not constant. Between March and April, the attention spiked, but it declined with time, and then stabilised from May onwards. For most allies, attention spiked in April and May, and then declined steadily. 

In a similar manner to the way (social) media attention to the war in other countries peaked in March and April, and then declined, so too did Ukrainians' outward perspective on the country’s allies. This decline in attention, while predictable, implies a point of normalisation of the war and support from allies, even within the country. Overall, the amount of discourse about allied countries in the context of the war in Ukraine fell over time.  

As described above, there is a general idea that for those countries mentioned the most, this is due to the military and humanitarian aid they have provided. We also see in Graph 7, however, that the online attention to countries considered allies was volatile during the last months of observation.  

The next section of this report will focus on a few specific countries, to better understand what other factors influenced their presence (or lack thereof) in public debates on social media and the online sentiment of Ukrainians toward them.

Analysing deeper: Germany, Poland, Türkiye, the United Kingdom and the United States

There is not a one-size-fits-all explanation for the attention paid to the country’s allies in Ukrainian social media. There were specific top-line topics for each country, which we explore here.

Germany: A story of frustration

Figure 5, above, shows a sharp spike in attention to Germany in April 2022. This trend can be attributed to the role of military assistance, as the peak is correlated to the German announcement of more than a 1 billion euros of military aid to Ukraine. It is important to emphasise that attention should not be equated with support or appreciation; in this case, discourse about Germany included a fair amount of criticism of Chancellor Scholz's lack of leadership regarding Ukraine, and allegations that he had stalled and broken his promises to send heavy weapons.  

These interactive charts show the key topics by ally. In the case of Germany (depicted immediately below), mentions are characterised by frustration and disappointment regarding the lack of action and results, a continual request to follow through on promises for heavy weapons, and criticisms of German relations with Russia. What stands out for Germany is that the diverse set of topics in discussions about Germany on Ukrainian Twitter might even show a degree of diversity in the conversation that reflects a heightened attention to bureaucratic and political developments as they pertain to the war. The comparably high attention to Germany may also reflect a typical social media dynamic: Controversy draws more attention.

 

Sentiment analysis of Germany on Ukrainian Twitter tells a similar story. Sentiments towards Germany started off mostly positively in February 2022, with a sharp decline in this and a corresponding increase in negative tweets in March. Since then, the positive sentiment toward Germany has not recovered.

This trend matches Ukrainian news coverage at the time, which also expressed disappointment and frustration with German leadership, its bureaucracy and its inability to deliver weapons to Ukraine quickly.

F

The United Kingdom: The rise of Boris Johnson

In April 2022, attention on the United Kingdom also increased. As already discussed, the spike in attention was generated by the announcement and significant delivery of military aid, as well as by the strong support voiced by Prime Minister Johnson and his early visit to Kyiv, on 9 April 2022.

The case of United Kingdom demonstrates an opposite trend of sentiment from that towards Germany. If Germany started off with positive sentiment that decreased over time, the opposite happened in relation to the United Kingdom. The increase in positivity towards the British was partly due to aid, but also due specifically to the leader, Prime Minister Johnson, towards whom the Ukrainian population exhibited a positive sentiment that grew over time.

This focus on the British Prime Minister can be seen in the key topics graph below. Johnson, who was the first leader of a G7 member to visit Ukraine after the full-scale invasion began, expressed strong support for the fight against Russia. As many tweets that mention the United Kingdom directly mention Johnson, it would be difficult to disentangle the sentiments of the country from its leader. Positive  sentiment can, however, be seen increasing over time, ending at 30.33, much higher than the figure for Germany, and on par with that for the United States (below).  

The appreciation Ukrainians have for Johnson was also visible online once he declared his pending resignation on 7 July. Although Johnson’s resignation fell outside the period of observation, we supplemented our data with the observation of tweets from 7 and 8 July 2022, the day following his resignation. The word cloud below shows how Twitter users reacted to his resignation, with words such as “thank”, “hope” and “support”, only confirming that the prime minister was seen as a genuine ally by Ukrainians. 

The United States: Military might and response

When looking at the United States individually, similarly to the United Kingdom, the online discussion about the country is strongly linked to its leader. Posts on President Biden started off quite negative, possibly reflecting debates about creating a no-fly zone and delays in the delivery of weapons at a moment of peril. As expected, a key topic of discussion on Ukrainian Twitter and Telegram was the military aid that the United States has provided.

When looking at the sentiment towards the United States on Twitter, however, from February to May there was little positive discourse about the country online. This could be related to President Zelenskyy’s response to President Biden’s first speech, expressing American support in standing with Ukraine. The Ukrainian leader criticised the West for not doing enough and, in a video statement, shared his view of a lack of courage on the part of Western countries, which had not sent military aircraft or tanks to Ukraine. In addition to Zelenskyy’s opinion, which is likely to affect the views of Ukrainians, it's possible that the shock of war and the expectation of greater help could explain the poor sentiment towards the United States over this period. 

Positive sentiment increased in June, however, which is likely explained by the delivery of more weapons and regular new commitments to deliveries by President Biden.  

Poland: a welcoming ally

Since the full-scale invasion in February, Poland has played an important role as a regional ally for Ukraine. Since the beginning of the war, Poland has offered a warm welcome to Ukrainian refugees having received from February until the end of August more than 1.3 million refugees, a higher number than any other country. Together with this humanitarian aid, the country has also provided significant military aid (above, graph 3). These two aspects not only increased the online attention the country received, but also created positive sentiment in posts on Poland over this period.

Topic modelling of the Tweets about Poland show that gratitude for support and help is the most widely expressed sentiment. Furthermore, a key topic was Polish President Andrzej Duda. Ninety-two per cent of posts on Twitter mentioning him had a positive tone. 

Topic modelling of posts on Poland shows that the main stories have been positive (Figure 13). This may seem surprising, as the sentiment analysis (Graph 11) does not show such a high degree of positive sentiment. The sentiment analysis would appear to be a less reliable indicator due to the complexity of machine-learning classifications of language. The key topic modelling is likely to be more telling, indicating an overall positive discourse about Poland on Ukrainian Twitter.

Türkiye: An ambiguous role

Finally, Türkiye has played a unique role by remaining ambiguous: The government did not join sanctions against Russia but did deliver weapons to Ukraine. At the same time, it tried to establish itself as a mediator and helped broker a deal on Ukrainian grain exports.

The graph below shows a shift of sentiments during the period analysed. Due to the lower number of mentions of Türkiye overall (compared to the other countries), the greater fluctuation in sentiment might be explained by the smaller sample size. The swings may be random, or they might be explained by Türkiye’s unique position and the controversy surrounding its actions. On the one hand, it has not only played a role in facilitating mediation, but has also provided specialised weapons (the much-mentioned Bayraktar TB3 drones) to Ukraine, and this could be responsible for the uptick in positive sentiment in June.

The fluctuating sentiment towards Türkiye is likely correlated with this ambivalent role the country has been playing. From February to April 2022, there was a more positive sentiment, after the delivery of weapons and military aid to Ukraine. A negative sentiment spikes more often than other countries, however, partly due to the nature of the country’s relationship with Russia, such as in March, when Türkiye refused to impose sanctions on Russia. The tweet below is an example of negative sentiment towards Türkiye’s role as a mediator. 

An analysis of the main topics related to Türkiye on Twitter reveals that, beyond its role as a mediator, Ukrainians also paid attention to specific military supplies from Türkiye, such as the armed drones they provided. This is another indicator of a trend acute attention to military supply and support during a time of war. Most of the conversations within Ukraine about allies revolve around these topics.