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The "I Love America" Facebook page boasts 1.1 million fans, with viral content that reaches more Facebook users than some of the largest media outlets in the United States. A typical post is a celebration of the U.S. military and patriotism.
There are lots of references to "our country" and "our military." Not mentioned is that the page is managed by ten people based in Ukraine. (There is also one manager from Kazakhstan, one from France, and one from the United States.) A website that was previously linked in the "About" section of the "I Love America" page is registered to Andriy Zyuzikov, an online strategist from the Ukrainian city of Odessa.
The "I Love America" page regularly recycles memes used by the Internet Research Agency, the Russian entity that set up phony Facebook pages to benefit Trump in advance of the 2016 election.
While "I Love America," which was established in March 2017, focuses on patriotism, in recent weeks it has used its extraordinary reach to push pro-Trump propaganda.
These pro-Trump memes are cross-posted from several explicitly pro-Trump pages, with names like "God bless Donald and Melania Trump and God bless America." All of these pages, which were created in the last few months, are managed exclusively by people based out of Ukraine.
But the "I Love America" page is only the tip of the iceberg. There is a complex network of Facebook pages, all managed by people in Ukraine, that collect large audiences by posting memes about patriotism, Jesus, and cute dogs. These pages are now being used to funnel large audiences to pro-Trump propaganda. The pages have also joined political Facebook groups and are active on Instagram, which is owned by Facebook.
Facebook promised this would not happen again. “In 2016, we were not prepared for the coordinated information operations we now regularly face. But we have learned a lot since then and have developed sophisticated systems that combine technology and people to prevent election interference on our services,” Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg wrote in 2018.
While there is no indication that the Ukrainian network of Facebook pages is backed by any government, they are exposing Americans to a flood of inauthentic and manipulative content related to the 2020 election.
David Carroll, a professor at The New School and an expert in social media, called the existence of the Ukrainian network "troubling" and said it suggests Facebook has "not decided to use their own detection technology to prevent further dissemination by 'inauthentic coordination.'"
Renee DiResta, a technical research manager at the Stanford Internet Observatory, told Popular Information that activities of these Ukrainian Facebook pages heightened her concern that "foreign agitators" are "joining political Groups created and inhabited by real Americans."
A Facebook spokesperson told Popular Information that the company does not believe any of the Facebook pages discussed in this article violate its policies, including the policy against "coordinated inauthentic behavior." Facebook defines "coordinated inauthentic behavior" as "when groups of pages or people work together to mislead others about who they are or what they are doing." Facebook said it would "continue reviewing this activity."
Ukrainian "I Love America" page is recycling memes from Russian interference operation
The Mueller Report detailed Russia's efforts, through the Internet Research Agency (IRA), to interfere with the 2016 presidential election. One of the IRA pages was called "Being Patriotic" and amassed over 200,000 followers before it was taken down by Facebook in 2017. The memes posted by "Being Patriotic," however, were archived by researcher Josh Russell.
The "I Love America" page reuses numerous memes that were posted on "Being Patriotic."
The page, which is the largest known to be recirculating IRA memes, also repurposed IRA content in Facebook videos.
Massive "I Love America" page funneling users to pro-Trump propaganda
While the "I Love America" page was created in 2017, in recent weeks it has cross-posted content from explicitly pro-Trump pages, including "Click Like, if you love Donald Trump as much as we do. TRUMP 2020," "God bless Donald Trump and God bless America," and "God bless Donald and Melania Trump and God bless America." All of these pages, which were created in the last few months, are managed exclusively by people based in Ukraine.
The content posted on these pages is incendiary and frequently includes misinformation. The meme on the left, for example, falsely claims that Hillary Clinton sold access to her email server to foreign governments.
The remarkable reach of "I Love America"
The "I Love America" Facebook page has a massive reach on the platform that exceeds nearly all U.S. media companies. According to Crowdtangle, a social analytics company owned by Facebook, "I Love America" has more engagement -- likes, shares, and comments -- over the last 90 days than USA Today, one of the largest media organizations in the country with 8 million Facebook followers. Over the same period, the engagement of "I Love America" dwarfs major publications like the LA Times and digitally native outlets like BuzzFeed News. More engagement on Facebook corresponds directly to a bigger reach, and more people seeing the content.
Using cute dogs and Jesus to recruit new Trump supporters
"I Love America" is part of a complex network of Facebook pages managed by people in Ukraine that cross-post content and, more recently, direct users to pro-Trump propaganda. Some of these pages, including "Like our page if you are proud to be an American" and "Everyone should respect and stand for our American Flag. God Bless," play on similar patriotic themes. But the network also attempts to draw in users with other interests, including cute animals.
For example, the "Cute or Not?" Facebook page, which was established in July 2017, has eight page managers based in Ukraine. (There is also one manager based in Kazakhstan and one in the United States.) Typically, it posts images of cute dogs.
But recently, "Cute or Not?" also has cross-posted content from "God bless Donald and Melania Trump and God bless America."
"Cute or Not?" has also cross-posted content from other Facebook pages in the Ukrainian network, including "US Federal Insider."
Ukrainians also operate a page called "I Love Jesus Forever." Most of the posts, as you might expect, are about God and Jesus.
But the "I Love Jesus Forever" page has also started cross-posting pro-Trump memes from "God bless Donald Trump and God bless America."
The extraordinary power of the Ukrainian Facebook network
None of the IRA pages identified in the Mueller Report had more than 390,000 followers. The Ukrainian network is much larger, with "I Love America" boasting over a million followers and multiple pages with 400,000 followers or more.
It's not possible, from outside the company, to identify the full scope of the Ukrainian network. But, using "I Love America" as a starting point, Popular Information cataloged pages overwhelming or exclusively managed from Ukraine that cross-posted each other's content. Using Crowdtangle, which catalogs most of the larger pages, it is then possible to get a sense of the scope of the network's reach.
Over the last 90 days, these pages have garnered 30 million engagements on Facebook.
To put that in perspective, over the same time period, New York Times, typically one of the top five publishers on Facebook, had less than 18 million engagements. The Washington Post, over the last 90 days, has 14 million engagements. The reach of this Ukrainian Facebook network, repurposing IRA memes and cute puppy pics, is as large as the two most prestigious papers in the United States combined.
The reach of the Ukrainian networks is now being weaponized to boost incendiary pro-Trump content. Although the explicitly pro-Trump pages are still small, one post published to "God bless Donald Trump and god bless America" has over 44,000 shares. It's an extremely impressive number for a small page that was started just weeks ago.
Ben Nimmo, director of investigations at Graphika, believes that the Ukrainian network of Facebook pages lacks the sophistication to be a government-backed effort. "We're seeing state-linked operators trying harder to hide, reducing their linguistic footprint, masking their technical signals and covering up the identities of the people behind them," Nimmo told Popular Information.
In this case, the location of the page managers was available through a transparency tool that Facebook put into place after the 2016 election. Nimmo believes this operation "looks more like a clickbait group trying to build followers by posting cat photos, horses, and patriotic memes."
Still, the impact on American voters could be the same, especially if the tactics include bombarding Americans with false and divisive political material.
UPDATE (9/23, 5PM):
UPDATE (9/23, 7PM): This article has been updated to include additional information from Facebook’s comments to Popular Information on Sunday.
Thanks for reading!
I've been following your coverage of FB -- this column spurred me to sign up for a paid subscription! Now, sic 'em!
Mark Zuckerberg and his monstrosity of a propaganda machine is complicit in the destruction of our Constitutional system of government. I don’t know why FB hasn’t been more effectively curbed. Oh wait. Congress.