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On Monday, Popular Information reported that Ukrainians were running a massive network of Facebook pages, with names like "I Love America" and "Cute or Not," and pushing pro-Trump propaganda on millions of unsuspecting Americans. A few hours after the story was published, Facebook took all the pages down, citing violations of its policies "against spam and fake accounts."
But there is still a very important question: Why?
Why were these Ukrainians amassing huge Facebook pages — the Ukrainian network had as much reach on Facebook as the New York Times and the Washington Post combined — and then using it to spread pro-Trump memes?
None of the top experts in social media manipulation that I consulted for Monday's story, including Renee DiResta of the Stanford Internet Observatory and Ben Nimmo of Graphika, believed that this network was backed by a foreign government.
There were signs that it lacked the sophistication of a government operation. The location of the managers of these pages, for example, was available by using Facebook's public transparency tool. If this was the work of a foreign government, you'd expect the people involved to take the relatively simple steps necessary to conceal their true location.
So if it wasn't a government-backed operation trying to swing the election to Trump, what was going on? To find out, I've gone directly to the source: the Ukrainians behind these pages.
Well, I didn't go directly to them because I do not speak Russian. But I have been working with a Ukrainian journalist, Mike Sapiton, who has interviewed them. Sapiton, who writes for the Ukrainian tech publication AIN, interviewed both Andriy Zyuzikov, who Popular Information identified in the initial piece, and his former business partner Andriy Tkachenko, who was operating the network that was taken down on Monday. Sapiton has provided English translations of his interviews, along with audio recording and chat screenshots, to Popular Information. I also exchanged messages with Zyuzikov over Twitter.
It's impossible to know for sure whether Zyuzikov and Tkachenko's story is completely accurate. But their narrative is consistent with the behavior of the Facebook pages and the informed opinions of the experts I spoke to in the course of my reporting.
Both Zyuzikov and Tkachenko say the purpose of the network was to make money. The financial incentives for spreading false and divisive content to American voters, made possible by Facebook and Google's business practices, pose an acute threat to the integrity of the democratic process.
In some respects, non-state actors pose a more systemic threat than psyops by foreign governments. There are only so many governments with the resources, motivation, and risk tolerance to interfere with a U.S. election. But there is an unlimited supply of people looking to make a quick buck.
Why the Ukrainians posted about Trump and not crocheting
Andriy Zyuzikov registered a website that was previously associated with the "I Love America" Facebook page. In his interview with Sapiton, Zyuzikov acknowledged his initial involvement with the Facebook network but said he soon turned over its operations to a colleague.
"At the initial stage, I helped my colleague deal with the technical details and monetization on Facebook. From that moment all work on promotion is done by my colleague alone," Zyuzikov said, "He really can produce a lot of engagement, and if the New York Times would hire him to work, then their Facebook performance would increase significantly." Zyuzikov later identified that colleague as Andriy Tkachenko.
Tkachenko started posting about Trump, according to Zyuzikov, "because of virality." Zyuzikov claimed that "if crocheting advice would give the same virality, then the page would be inundated with precisely those posts."
In a separate exchange over Twitter, Zyuzikov told Popular Information that he had a falling out with Tkachenko because he objected to the switch to political content. "I blocked [Tkachenko on Facebook]...because I do not want to deal with anybody who promote[s] politics and politicians," he said.
"I understood that soon[er] or later there will appear a journalist like you who will write about this Facebook Page in [a] negative context. I was right. And you are right too. Such pages should not be on [the] Internet at all," Zyyzikov explained.
The Ukrainian man with a plan to make $500,000 monthly posting pro-Trump memes on Facebook
Tkachenko told Sapiton how he ran a massive network of nearly 100 Facebook pages with a reach that exceeded most major U.S. media outlets. "There were only 3 admins running the whole American farm! And these are ordinary people who don't even speak English to the fullest extent," he said. Each of the three administrators ran 20 to 30 pages at a time. (Tkachenko said he also runs a network of pages in Russian with 6 million followers.)
Among his three-person staff were Tkachenko's daughter, who focused on the animal pages. "She is 13 years old, I teach her, and I believe that these skills will help her in the future," he said. According to Tkachenko, "an elderly woman with disabilities" ran the "I Love America" page. Tkachenko said he "taught her everything from scratch."
How could this team build huge Facebook pages with massive engagement? By using other people's content. "We had an internal service that collected viral content across Facebook and gave relevant hints...posts were collected in the internal database. From there, [the posts were] selected and slightly changed by the administrators of the farm," Tkachenko explained. While Facebook down-ranked content that wasn't original, Tkachenko found that you only "need to edit 15%-20% of the material" by changing "the picture slightly" or coming up with "a new description."
Tkachenko claims that he got into posting incendiary pro-Trump memes a few weeks ago because it drove engagement and growth. "We started to publish because the algorithm showed a hot niche. That's the whole story," he said.
The point of all this activity was to make money. Tkachenko says that he had "attracted an American partner and signed a deal on video advertising." He says that when Facebook took down his network, it cost him $1 million. And Tkachenko was just getting starting on monetization. At full capacity, he estimated that the pages could have generated him $500,000 per month.
The people come from Facebook, and the money comes from Google
There are lots of people on Facebook, and people like Tkachenko know how to collect them into groups with memes, propaganda or misinformation. But there aren't a lot of easy ways to turn that audience into cash on Facebook itself. That's where Google steps in. If you have access to a large Facebook page, you can encourage your followers to visit your website. And Google's ad network makes it easy to monetize these low-quality websites.
A report released on Sunday by the Global Disinformation index "found that 70% of roughly 1,700 disinformation sites it analyzed were getting so-called 'programmatic ads' — ads placed automatically — from Google, putting brand names such as Audi and Sprint next to junk content." The group has previously estimated that "[a]t least $235 million in revenue is generated annually from ads running on extremist and disinformation websites," mostly from Google.
We've seen this dynamic be exploited before. In the run-up to 2016, a group of Macedonian teens created over 100 websites pushing pro-Trump content and monetized them using Google ad sense. The teens "told BuzzFeed News that they learned the best way to generate traffic is to get their politics stories to spread on Facebook — and the best way to generate shares on Facebook is to publish sensationalist and often false content that caters to Trump supporters." (Later, BuzzFeed uncovered evidence casting doubt on the story that the Macedonian teens were acting alone.)
Three years later, not much has changed.
Thanks for reading!