Re-thinking Ukraine – an experimental approach to studying perceptions of contested regions

The ongoing war in eastern Ukraine has already led to over 13,000 deaths since the beginning of 2014. As a journalist, one of our groupmates spent a week in Kyiv and Donetsk for a journalistic project in 2015. Taking it as a source of inspiration, our group decided to further investigate the perceptions of Tartu students and residents about the contested regions of Donbas and Crimea in Ukraine.

After discussing different methods to carry out our research, we decided to test and compare the pre- and post-experimental beliefs on the topic of a selected group of participants.

Indeed, the notion of a disinformation campaign from certain countries has been prominent in recent years. To respond, Ukraine and the EU launched fact-checking websites, such as EU vs. Disinfo and, to inform the general public of the real situation in the conflict regions in Ukraine.

Our experimental research aimed at evaluating the effectiveness of such practice by showing factsheets dealing with the ongoing conflict in Ukraine to a group of volunteers. We found that there was a significant shift in attitudes of the participants whom we recruited for the experiment after showing them the factsheets.

The method

In order to select our participants, we posted a public advertisement for our study in different social media groups, presenting our research topic and the purpose of the study.

First, we delivered a questionnaire to assess the participants’ ties with Ukraine (e.g., if they spoke Ukrainian) and direct or indirect experience with the regions of Donbas and Crimea (e.g., if they have ever travelled there, or if they had relatives and friends coming those regions). In addition, we asked which media outlet they followed most frequently.

The second step of our project was to offer the volunteers a test with some statements about different actors that are involved in the contested Ukrainian regions, namely the Kremlin government, Kyiv government, Ukrainian volunteer battalions (towards Donbas and Ukraine as a whole respectively), pro-Russian militants, Ukrainian residents, Donbas residents, and Crimean residents, as well as on the trustworthiness of mass media. They had to choose on a scale of 1 to 7 how much they agreed or disagreed with what was presented.

The third step of the research was to show the participants a chronological report of the events that affected Donbas and Crimea, published by the United Nations Security Council as a form of intervention. Finally, within a week, they were asked to fill in the same first questionnaire about their beliefs to identify whether there was a change in their attitudes. 

The findings

All of the participants reported an attitude change after reading the United Nations’ official factsheet. In particular, the volunteers recalculated their trust in the media outlets they had been consulting.

Moreover, there were slight changes in the extent the Russian government, the Ukrainian government, or the volunteer battalions on both sides were considered to be victims or perpetrators. For example, an American student who consumes international news on a daily basis with his Ukrainian roommate as another indirect source of information tended not to be affected by the factsheet significantly; however, a Ukrainian student who consumes international news once a week with her family as another indirect source of information tended to be affected by the factsheet significantly.

The present research was implemented as a pilot study to test the feasibility and examine the preliminary evidence of perception changes as a result of intervention. Only a few samples were collected after sending a mass email to all university students and writing posts in different Facebook groups. It appears that this is still a sensitive issue towards which few people would like to show their attitudes.

Therefore, we think that aspiring researchers can take our experiment as a pilot study and further research the following issues:

  1. Whether reading a factsheet affects one’s pre-existing beliefs in the case of the contested regions in Ukraine;
  2. Whether the impacts of indirect personal experience weigh against media consumption;
  3. Whether nationality/linguistic affiliation contributes to the volatility of attitudinal changes.

We sincerely hope that our little experiment can trigger more academic discussion on these issues!

Ginevra Orti Manara, Iverson Ng, and Matin Mammadli are second-year students at the Johan Skytte Institute of Political Studies. They conducted the study within the framework of a course last spring semester.

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