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Thursday, April 18, 2024

Facebook Is Still Letting Russia Interfere in Politics

Nicolae Fratea is on a mission to purge his Facebook timeline of weird political adverts. Every couple of days, he’s presented with accounts that, on the surface, look innocent—they often share the same innocuous profile picture of a cathedral in Chisinau, Moldova. But when he scrolls past, these pages present him with what he describes as “soft propaganda,” trying to entice him to join anti-government protests.

The ads echo the political messages of Ilan Shor, a sanctioned politician and businessman with deep links to the Kremlin, who has been accused by the US government of trying to destabilize Moldova on behalf of Russia. On Sunday, these ads helped promote Moldova’s most recent anti-government rally in the capital, Chinasu, which was attended by thousands of people

A video editor by day, Fratea now spends his evenings sleuthing for information on the shadowy Facebook pages that deliver these adverts. “What all these pages have in common is the fact they promote Shor’s parties, his agenda, and his news channels,” says the 38-year-old, who works for the news channel Jurnal TV. When he sees them, he leaves a review to warn others. His most recent reads: “Fake account! Fake page!” He also reports them to Facebook. But in 90 percent of cases, he says, the platform replies telling him everything looks normal. 

Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 was presaged by years of information operations, which used propaganda networks on social media to spread misinformation, influence elections, and undermine social cohesion. Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram, promised to crack down on these state-backed influence campaigns in response to the war. “We’re taking extensive steps to fight the spread of misinformation,” the company said in January, in a report detailing its wartime policies to the EU. “We established a special operations center staffed by experts from across the company, including native Russian and Ukrainian speakers, who are monitoring the platform around the clock, allowing us to respond to issues in real time.”

Moldova, however, appears to fall outside that purview—despite sharing a border with Ukraine. The influence campaign being waged in Moldova would be unthinkable in Western Europe or North America, says Felix Kartte, senior adviser at the technology and democracy campaign group, Reset. “We're seeing basically Kremlin agents running overt campaigns on Facebook, trying to bring down a democratic government by mobilizing sham protests via Facebook ads.” 

Meta spokesperson Ben Waters says that Facebook adheres to US sanctions. “When Ilan Shor and the Șor Party were added to the US sanctions list, we took action on their known accounts,” he adds. “When we identified new associated accounts, we took action on those as well.”

In the months immediately after Russia launched its full-scale assault on Ukraine, Moldova worried it could be the Kremlin’s next military target—especially as the Russian army pushed towards the nearby Ukrainian city of Odessa. Around 1,500 Russian soldiers are already stationed in Transnistria, a breakaway region of Moldova. 

When Russia retreated to Ukraine’s east, the fear of an invasion eased a little. But it has been replaced by another more insidious concern that Russia could take over Moldova from the inside.

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Russia’s influence operations often focus less on trying to push specific political parties, and more on undermining trust in government or driving wedges between different social groups. Lithuanian fact-checkers from the group Delfi Melo Detektorius say they are witnessing attempts to drive a furor about an EU law approving the sale of insect powder for human consumption. In several countries, notably Poland, Russia has been accused of pushing disinformation about LGBTQI communities. In Moldova, the current messaging focuses on the high price of utility bills, which have surged after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.  

“This is part of the Russian playbook,” says Valeriu Pașa, president and chair of Watchdog.MD, a Moldovan think tank that has been tracking disinformation and online influence campaigns. “If you cannot convince someone to endorse your version of events, you can at least try to confuse people until they don’t trust anything.” 

Shor, who owns a football club and a duty-free company, along with other businesses, was a bit-part player in Moldovan politics until 2015, when police opened an investigation into suspected fraud at three banks, including one where Shor was the chair. He joined the Șor party and ran for mayor in the city of Orhei. He won the election with 62 percent of the vote, but he was convicted of bank fraud two years later. He now lives in exile in Israel.

Since then, the Șor Party has received advice from political strategists sent by Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB), according to documents obtained by The Washington Post. When those strategists reported back in 2021, they described what had been decided: Șor was to be positioned as a party offering “concrete action,” it would be populist “in the real sense of the word,” offering to change “people’s lives for the better.”

The US sanctioned Shor in October, saying the support he had received from Russia was designed to destabilize Moldova.

The Șor Party did not respond to a request for comment. 

As a person under sanctions, Shor is not technically allowed to advertise on Facebook. But Watchdog.MD says Shor has found a loophole in Facebook’s ad system that allows him to dodge restrictions to  promote his political agenda. 

On February 3, he appeared in a video criticizing the government for the surging cost of energy bills, which soared five-fold after Russia cut the supply of gas flowing into Moldova. “Today, the most necessary professions in the country, such as doctors and teachers, are forced to take out loans in order to pay for utilities,” he says, expressing his support for a petition that calls on the government to write off the population’s winter energy bills. 

What’s strange about the video is its origin. It was posted by a page that has been liked by only 19 people. But the video has been watched more than 600,000 times, a huge amount in a country with a population of less than 2.5 million. Watchdog.MD says the video has been aggressively promoted using ads. But on February 10, when researchers looked at the page’s ad library—where past and present adverts are meant to appear—the video was gone. Watchdog.MD does not know how to explain why Shor’s ads don’t always show up in Facebook’s ad tracker. 

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Every week, new pages sprang up, running new ads on behalf of the Șor Party. Between the 13th and 19th of February, Watchdog.MD identified seven ads run by five different pages. Between the 1st and 10th of February, there were seven ads run by six different pages. 

Many of these pages were created with Vietnamese names, including Shop Mua Bán (Shop, Buy, Sell) or Shop Ban Giay (Shoe Shop) or Tạp Chí Phái Đẹp (Beauty Magazine). Their names were later changed to names that referred explicitly to Moldova, such as “For Chisinau” or “For the People.” Many of the pages state that they have admins based in countries such as the United Arab Emirates, the Philippines, and Indonesia. 

“It’s clear that behind these ads are people who know very well and understand how Facebook works and how to avoid all these internal rules,” Pașa says.

The pages are often taken down after Watchdog.MD reports them, but as soon as Facebook bans one, another will soon replace it. Pașa is frustrated at Facebook’s lack of a systemic approach to dealing with the problem. “They say they are investigating, and we trust them, but their approach is reactive.” 

Facebook has been reporting on similar types of Russian influence campaigns since at least 2017. During the US presidential election in 2022, the platform banned political ads entirely. But in Moldova, the ads keep coming.

Reset’s Kartte says the ads he’s seen have been such a clear violation of Facebook’s terms of service, it implies the platform has not invested in sufficient resources or staff for the local market. “In Moldova, they clearly do not care,” he says. 

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