“We Need to Talk”: Ukrainian and Russian media talk past each other

Proposed “TV bridge” dialogue between Ukrainian and Russian TV studio audiences fell apart after one pulled out amid public outcry

“We Need to Talk”: Ukrainian and Russian media talk past each other

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When a proposed joint television program between the Ukrainian NewsOne TV channel and the Russian Russia 1 did not go as planned, Ukrainian and Russian media outlets sharply diverged in their coverage of the event.

The organizers of the program, which was titled Надо поговорить (“We Need to Talk”), presented it as an open, apolitical dialogue between the people of both countries. Ukrainian officials as well as the public, however, bridled at that characterization. NewsOne soon withdrew from the program, citing threats of violence toward its journalists, but Russia 1 aired the program as scheduled, without a Ukrainian partner. The DFRLab analyzed the Ukrainian and Russian media coverage of the program in the days leading up to it and after it, finding that both sides latched on to diverging narratives.

The concept for the joint program, also referred to as a “TV bridge,” invoked an earlier series of programs between U.S. and Soviet TV stations during the Cold War. These joint programs, called “spacebridges,” brought U.S. and Soviet studio audiences together via broadcast to discuss current affairs. The most seminal of these, December 1985’s “A Citizen’s Summit” between audiences in then-Leningrad and Seattle, largely invoked skepticism from the U.S. media. In its review of the program at the time, the New York Times questioned its authenticity: “Say right off, however, that the people in Seattle speak in many voices; the folks in Leningrad have but one.”

Ukraine’s NewsOne Withdraws from the Program

Soon after Dmitry Kiselev, a Russia 1 TV anchor christened as Russia’s “chief propagandist” in both Western and Russian media, announced the joint program on July 7, NewsOne came under intense pressure from the Ukrainian public and officials.

On the morning of July 8, center-right political party Holos organized 50 protesters to picket NewsOne office. That same day, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky issued a video statement via Facebook that the proposed program sought to divide Ukrainians ahead of the snap parliamentary elections later that month. Later that day, following the President’s criticism, nearly 200 far-right demonstrators gathered in front of the NewsOne headquarters in Kyiv to protest the channel’s participation.

These negative responses culminated in NewsOne’s withdrawal that same day from the proposed program, citing directs threats of violence made against the channel’s reporters and their families. The Ukrainian Security Service announced that the journalists and the owner of the outlet, Taras Kozak, would be called in for interrogation.

Russia 1 went forward with the program on July 12, 2019, without a Ukrainian broadcast partner, calling in Ukrainian celebrities who were popular either during the Soviet time or in the 2000’s. The program pointedly avoided discussing Russia’s annexation of Crimea or on Russian aggression in eastern Ukraine, focusing instead heavily on themes of cultural and national unity between the two countries.

Narratives Spread About the Program

Overall, Ukrainian and Russian sides operated and disseminated opposing narratives to explain the dynamic within the program to both internal and external audiences:

An apolitical dialogue between ordinary citizens

Kiselev’s instigating announcement on YouTube emphasized that the dialogue without middlemen and politicians was long wanted and should be conducted. Putin’s Press Secretary Dmitry Peskov followed up by expressing the need for dialogue between people of two countries, regardless of political “turbulence.” NewsOne also confirmed the apolitical nature of program, using the alleged popularity of such initiative and a call for peace as a rationale. The message, however, was quickly deleted.

This narrative was dubious from the outset due to the nature of the TV channels: while NewsOne is private and can ostensibly abstain from taking a political position, Russia 1 is a state-owned TV channel that propagates only pro-Kremlin positions.

This narrative was spread by organizers of the TV program on the Ukrainian side, thereby taking a political stance on what they were claiming to be was an apolitical discussion, and Russian media similarly pushed the same narrative to their Russian audiences up until the one-sided broadcast on July 12.

National security threat/revenge of pro-Russian forces

Within hours after the announcement, Ukrainian politicians, state bureaucrats, and activists condemned the idea of the broadcast as a “threat to national security” and “inappropriate event.” This narrative yielded an immediate critical reaction by large portions of Ukrainian society that perceived this broadcast as an attempt to collaborate with an aggressor.

This narrative was prominent following the program’s announcement on July 7 and continued to spread the next day, though only in Ukraine. The framing of the program as a national security threat plummeted after the President’s address and NewsOne’s subsequent withdrawal.

Ukrainian side is undermining peaceful dialogue/does not seek peace

After its withdrawal, NewsOne, as well as other pro-Russian media in Ukraine and media in Russia, disseminated a narrative that the Ukrainian side is an aggressive and non-peaceful actor in relationship with Russia. This particular argument was a powerful message for Russia’s internal audiences and pro-Russian citizens and political powers in Ukraine before the country’s parliamentary elections. Additionally, the same narrative was disseminated for Spanish-speaking audiences through RT’s Spanish service.

A dangerous PR stunt

Both Russian and Ukrainian media echoed Ukrainian President Zelensky’s statement that the dialogue was a stunt to score political “points” before elections, especially the idea that the program was intended “to divide Ukrainians into two camps.” This narrative was widely shared and used as evidence that the proposed dialogue was a national security threat and that the Ukrainian side is undermining peaceful dialogue narratives by Ukrainian and Russian media, respectively.

Ukrainian nationalists dictate rules for the whole country

This message was created by pro-Russian media outlet Strana.ua and claimed that Zelensky was incapable of acting independently of far right actors in Ukraine. The narrative was not widely shared in Russia and Ukraine, but it was nevertheless amplified for foreign audiences via RT’s German service and tellerreport.com, which translates non-English reporting into English. The nationalist angle was further strengthened by an accompanying photo of Zelensky and videos of military at a festival organized by the Azov regiment, a far-right militia now operating as an official part of Ukraine’s National Guard.

President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky on the Free Mariupol festival on June 17 (screenshot of German RT service) (Source: Deutsch RT/archive)
Yuri Biriukov’s post denouncing the TV bridge program, posted 17 minutes after Kiselev’s announcement. (Source: Yuri Biriukov/archive)

A Sysomos scan of media mentions for the phrase “We Need to Talk” in Russian during the week of July 7–14, 2019, across both Ukrainian and Russian media revealed further trends. For example, in both media environments, the number of mentions peaked on July 8, the day after Kiselev’s announcement.

Trending of the keywords Надо поговорить (“We Need to Talk,” the name of the program) during the period of July 7–9, 2019. (Source: @r_osadchuk/DFRLab via Sysomos)

The dynamics of the spread, however, differed in Russian and Ukrainian media markets. The Ukrainian media had far higher engagement within the first 48 hours after Kiselev’s announcement, dwarfing the Russian media engagement during that period. Many of stories in Ukraine focused on canceling the joint program or were critical of the idea.

Top six most engaged-with articles mentioning the phrase “We Need to Talk” in Ukraine on July 7–8 and focusing on the cancellation itself (red boxes) or criticizing the idea in general (green boxes). (Source: @r_osadchuk/DFRLab via BuzzSumo)

During that same 48-hour interval, Russian media focused on Zelensky’s statements, the reasons for the program’s cancellation, and the “hysterical” reaction in Ukraine.

Top six most engaged-with articles mentioning the phrase “We Need to Talk” in Russian on July 7–8, most focusing on the cancellation (green boxes) or the “hysterical” reaction in Ukraine (red boxes). (Source: @r_osadchuk/DFRLab via BuzzSumo)

Over the next six days, including the day after the program aired in Russia, engagement on the Ukrainian side rose, peaking over the first two days and dropping to a relatively constant level thereafter, suggesting a similar decline in interest in the topic. On the other hand, Russian media saw an additional, though smaller, uptick on July 12, when the program aired.

Trending of keywords Надо поговорить (“We Need to Talk,” the name of the program) during the period of July 7–14, 2019 in Ukraine (top) and Russia (bottom). (Source: @r_osadchuk/DFRLab via Sysomos)

In Russia, meanwhile, the media’s reaction was relatively mixed. Of the six sources with the most engagement, three sources reported that the TV program would go forward, and the other three’s coverage ranged from dry reporting that the program may be canceled to indication of “hysteria” in Ukraine.

Top seven mentions of Надо поговорить (“We Need to Talk) in Russia between July 7‑18, 2019, with some indicating that the program would be aired (green boxes) and others stating it would be canceled, in part because of Ukrainian “hysteria” (red boxes). (Source: @r_osadchuk/DFRLab via BuzzSumo)

Reaching a Foreign Audience

While most of the media outlets citing Kiselev’s initial announcement focused on either Ukrainian or Russian audiences, some targeted a foreign audience. A backlink analysis of the original announcement video from Russia 24’s YouTube account revealed that deutsch.rt.com, the German-language version of the Kremlin outlet RT, was in the top three in terms of engagements. RT’s article focused on the ultimatum from far-right protesters for Zelensky to answer the ostensible threat and prosecute the journalists and media owners involved, while also pushing a narrative of Zelensky’s inability to counter those demands. The latter attack was allegedly proven by the photo of the Ukrainian president attending the “Liberation of Mariupol” concert organized by the Azov regiment.

Top three backlinks of Kiselev’s original YouTube announcement, including the third one from RT’s German-language edition. (Source: @r_osadchuk/DFRLab via BuzzSumo)

In terms of engagement, the top articles that included the link to NewsOne’s official statement of their withdrawal from the program included an article from the Spanish language edition of RT. RT’s article presented the concept of the joint program in a positive light but also highlighted Ukrainian officials’ adverse reaction and the threats of violence NewsOne’s journalists claimed to have received.

Follow along for more in-depth analysis from our #DigitalSherlocks.