Maia Sandu’s online popularity translated to election win in Moldova, analysis

Moldova’s new President-elect Maia Sandu out-competed the incumbent President Igor Dodon in online campaigning ahead of the second round of voting, helping her secure victory in the November 15 runoff, according to social media monitoring conducted by Mediapoint of Moldova and MEMO 98 of Slovakia during November 2-13, IPN reports.

According to the analysis, the runoff – a repeat of the 2016 elections – was widely seen as a referendum on the country’s direction, with Dodon representing closer links with Russia and Sandu with the EU. As in 2016, Sandu prevailed on Facebook where she generated over 400k interactions, close to two and a half times the figure of Dodon. This was despite the fact that Dodon was significantly more active on Facebook, producing 86 posts to Sandu’s 49.

In comparison to 2016, both candidates effectively doubled the number of interactions on Facebook, which can be attributed to an increase in the number of users over the last four years, as well as more viral videos from candidates. As with the lead up to the first round a fortnight ago, the online battle ahead of the run-off focused primarily on Facebook, with over 135 posts from the two candidates’ pages and 564k interactions over the period, compared to only 45 posts and a little over 75,500 interactions on Instagram.

Spending on paid promotion by Dodon and Sandu continued to be relatively low, with a little over €13,000 invested by both candidates on Facebook and Instagram. However, Sandu spent five times more than her rival, almost €11,000 against only €2,000 invested by Dodon.

In terms of the content of their posts on Facebook, both candidates focused primarily on their campaign messages, communicating directly with voters. When it comes to other topics and issues, Sandu focused on fighting corruption and poverty, on culture, jobs & unemployment, as well as the handling of COVID-19, with its health and social implications. Dodon, apart from concentrating on the election, focused on ethnic polarization, education, on the Ion Chicu government, salaries & pensions and measures against COVID-19.

As in 2016, the campaign rhetoric became much more negative prior to the second round, with Dodon attacking Sandu on a number of issues. He accused her of opposing the celebration of Victory Day on 9th May and her stance on excluding Russian as a mandatory language in schools. Dodon also blamed Sandu for supporting the Union of Moldova with Romania and for other things, which made her refuse to debate him on television.

Youtube channels, some of which were created after the first round, were used extensively to distribute false allegations and disinformation about both candidates. Videos published on these channels contained propaganda elements.

The monitoring team also found that in addition to Facebook and Instagram, Sandu also used TikTok to appeal to young audiences (1.26 million views of her profile on TikTok in between the two rounds), while Dodon used mainly Youtube to deliver his message to voters in the form of videos (1.32 million views). Traditional media affiliated with Dodon took an active part in the negative campaign against Sandu.

According to the press release, the social media monitoring was supported by the SlovakAid and the National Endowment for Democracy. Founded in 2009, Mediapoint is the first new-media organization of Moldova that aims to promote social innovation through digital projects and bold ideas. MEMO 98 is a Slovak organization with over 20 years’ experience in election monitoring. It has taken part in about 150 election observation missions in over 55 countries.

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