A Ukrainian MP has slammed “Orwellian” social media giants and prepared a draft bill for a “Council on Freedom of Speech” in retaliation to Facebook deleting hundreds of accounts it said had promoted him as part of a wide-ranging “influence-for-hire’ operation.
Pro-Russian lawmaker Andrii Derkach was one of several Ukrainian politicians named as having benefitted from two ‘influence networks’ the social media giant shut down in April.
In total, Facebook booted more than 500 accounts off the platform in April for deceptively targeting Ukrainians with political content in an organised way, violating the company’s rules.
Some 105 accounts, 24 pages and five Instagram accounts were found to have been posting content supportive of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s ruling Sluha Narodu (Servant of the People) party and the current Ukrainian government.
But a separate network comprising some 477 accounts, 363 Pages, 35 Groups and 29 accounts, which had amassed an audience of more than 2 million in what Facebook termed a “long-running deceptive influence operation”, was also wiped after a tip-off from the FBI.
This bigger outfit had promoted a number of individuals from across the Ukrainian political spectrum over several years. Both networks used fake profile pages and tried to drive users onto custom-made webpages masquerading as objective news websites.
Facebook highlighted both in its monthly report on so-called coordinated inauthentic behaviour (CIB)as an example of growing so-called ‘influence-for-hire’ operations in Ukraine and overseas.
Controversial Ukrainian MP hits back against ‘censorship’
Andrii Derkach, an independent MP sanctioned in the United States over alleged Russian interference in its presidential elections, was one of those Facebook said had been promoted by the larger of the two networks.
Derkach told Euronews that in his view, major media corporations had “built a dictatorship using liberal values as their cover”.
He added: “Everything they do is happening according to the novel ‘1984’ by George Orwell. This is the story of the Ministry of Truth: there is correct information, and there is incorrect information.”
He said that he and a group of unnamed Ukrainian MPs had drafted a new law in response to what he called social media companies’ “flagrant violation of the basic principles of freedom of speech”.
The draft bill, he said, would introduce a requirement for social network operators to register in the country of representation – making it subject to that country’s laws – and for a Council on Freedom of Speech would be formed, made up of MPs and members of the Cabinet, to arbitrate on complaints.
If social networks refused to abide by the Council’s orders, he said, they could then be “turned off” in the country with the cooperation of internet providers.
“As a result,” he concluded, “an effective mechanism appears to counter the total control of transnational corporations. It will no longer be possible to commit ‘genocide of Ukrainian accounts’ at the request of a hysterical girl from the Facebook office in Poland.
“You will need to provide a justification. This will ensure freedom for users and protect them from censorship and imposition of restrictions for ideological reasons.”
‘Stolen’ pictures used in pro-Ukrainian government influence operation
The pro-Sluha Narodu network was active until February this year, when Ukrainian journalists sounded the alarm over the content it was promoting, after which it went dormant.
A combination of real and fake accounts were co-opted to post politically-charged content in Ukrainian and Russian.
This included news and memes with a focus on corruption, domestic politics and COVID-19, praise of the Ukrainian government and Sluha Narodu, and criticism of opposition parties and politicians like former president Poroshenko and the Mayor of Kyiv, Vitali Klitschko.
The accounts were also used to send users to external websites dressed up to look like independent news outlets, including newstime.news, newstime.buzz, proukraine.online, and theukrainenews.com, which in fact had all been registered under the same email address.
Research by two members of the Digital Forensic Research Lab found one of the Facebook pages, called State News, promoted political content during parliamentary by-elections in the Ivano-Frankivsk region.
They also found that some of the profiles used stolen profile pictures from real people, mostly users of the social network Vkontakte.
All in all, about 23,000 people followed one or more of these pages. “Although the people behind this activity attempted to conceal their identities and coordination,” Facebook’s monthly report concluded, “our investigation found links to individuals associated with Sluha Narodu.”
Sluha Narodu’s press team did not respond to a request for comment.
Politicians across spectrum promoted by ‘ready-made pseudo media farm’
The second, much larger group of posters Facebook pulled down in April largely promoted the interests of three politicians: ex-Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman, Oleg Kulinich, chairman of the parliamentary Trust group, and Andrii Derkach.
Kulinich has denied any involvement by himself or his party and said he cannot explain why they were named in the report.
Facebook said this well-organised “network of networks” had comprised three distinct teams, each spearheaded by an associate of one of the politicians, and each with its own cluster of fake accounts and pages.
The operators were said to have “built a ready-made network of seemingly independent media websites and social media assets that worked to promote content favourable to the three politicians and their political groups”.
With more than 400 accounts and at least a dozen branded websites, the network had also occasionally been re-routed to support other political actors in Ukraine, “likely for hire”.
Their fake accounts were set up one by one or in small batches over a period of months, some with detailed biographies to make them look more authentic. Some of the photos were stolen from real people, while others had been computer-generated. In its report, Facebook also noted: “In an unusual technique, some of the accounts had profile photos that looked like they were created by scanning old-style printed passport photos.”
One clear sign the accounts were coordinated, Facebook investigators said, was that they posted political content according to a consistent timetable seven days a week, and during “prime time” periods of about 12-1 pm and 8-9 pm EET on weekdays and from 5 pm at weekends.
The accounts were also allegedly used as “inauthentic cheerleaders” for Groysman, Kulinich and Derkach, commenting and “liking” favourable posts about the politicians, and re-seeding content posted by other accounts in the network.
They also posted memes and articles in support of Derkach’s Nash Krai Party, Groysman’s Ukrainian Strategy Party, and Kulinich’s Trust group. Some of the pages targeted specific Ukrainian cities such as Kyiv, Odessa, Zhytomyr, Lviv, and Ternopil.
Trust party chair: sanctioned consultant’s work nothing to do with us
In a statement to Euronews, Kulinich said his own Facebook pages and those of the Trust group were self-managed and in no way violated the platform’s rules.
The only reason he could think of for their inclusion in Facebook’s report, he said, was that they had previously hired a social media advertising consultant, Petro Zhuravel, to work with the press office in 2019-20.
Facebook identified Zhuravel as being linked to the influence-for-hire network. This consultant was also sanctioned by the US in February as a key member of Derkach’s media team, and Kulinich said the Trust group had suspended cooperation with him more than a year ago.
“I don’t know anything about Peter Zhuravl’s other actions on Facebook, because he said goodbye to various politicians and political forces,” he said.
“The pages of the Trust party have nothing to do with these coordinated actions. The content of my pages, as well as those of the Trust party, relate only to the work of deputies, the problems of local self-government and our regions.
“In social networks and in communication with the media, I profess the principle of openness and objectivity, so neither I nor the specialists involved in my work use covert means of influencing the public.”
Groysman did not respond to a request for comment.