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1 July, 2019  ▪  Yuriy Lapayev

The power of Facebook

Do we stand a chance to win a battle for social networks?

It’s been a while since social networks seized to exist as a mere communication tool to get in touch with the former classmates. Nowadays this is a gigantic industry involving practically all the aspects of human life, and, what’s interesting, recently influencing social interaction more and more. The world was witnessing the government change in Venezuela online, after the ‘blue tick’ of Nicolas Maduro’s Twitter account was transferred to the opposition leader Juan Guaido. To a large extent in Ukraine the new president owes his astonishing victory to an extremely successful advertising campaign in social networks. Therefore, unsurprisingly, military, counter-intelligence and security agencies moved their fierce struggle onto a new battlefront – online. 


Hidden poison

There have been countless examples of well thought out manipulations conducted by the Russian security services on social networks since 2014. In the beginning of the so-called “Russian spring” most of the “people’s republics” [1] had their own pages on various social networks, although these were not always popular or successful. For instance, page of one of the “republics” had a rather impressive amount of followers – it was liked by nearly 40,000 users. Interestingly enough, only approximately 30 out of those were real people – the rest were presumably online bots. Before long, Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) began blocking these online pages and arresting its administrators. Sometimes this task wasn’t as easy as it seemed, since most of the serves were located outside of Ukraine. On more than one occasion, online bots posting on these pages attempted to force people out on the streets, calling for the “third Maidan” [2] manipulating sensitive topics such as inflation or rising costs of utilities. One of the very recent online attacks spread the rumours about the “inevitable” declaration of the martial law in Ukraine. Online agitators used the classical set of arguments – they claimed that certain military units would be withdrawn from the Joint Forces Operations territories (OOS), the army will be disarmed and will be forced to refrain from opening the fire in the conflict zone. 

There were also some novelties among those manipulative techniques. For instance, recently a lot has been said about the fake “orders” allegedly “issued” by the Ukrainian Minister of Defence “ordering” to confiscate all the imported cars on the EU license plates [3] and transfer these vehicles to the Ukrainian armed forces. Facebook and VKontakte were full of fake “scanned copies” of the non-existent “orders”, all of which, however, contained numerous spelling and factual mistakes. For example, the head of the defence ministry was mentioned with his military titles, despite the fact that at time he has already retired from the army. However, this skilful manipulation of the two hot and sensitive topics promised its authors an easy success. On another occasion, there was a rumour shared via social networks, claiming that the Ukrainian government has allegedly approved a bill allowing country’s secret services to wiretap and intercept citizens’ private communications on social media, messengers or even on their cell phones. Funnily enough, this fake contained a reference to a state authority that does not even exist in Ukraine – but does, however, exist in Russia. However, the numerous Olgino trolls [4] have always struggled to implement their Russian-prepared narrative in Ukraine. It would be worth to name several mistranslated gaffes, when online translators made some rather ludicrous errors – everyone knows infamous examples such as “Combat Seeds” (a translator’s error made while translating the name of Semen [Semenchenko], Ukrainian politician, since in Russian ‘semen’ also means ‘seed’) or “Savchenko’s Hopes” (Russian automated translator has mistakenly translated the Russian version of the name Nadiya Savchenko (Nadezhda Savchenko in Russian), where the word “nadezhda” also means hope). Recently one of the Ukrainian bloggers has even created a digital test-program designed to detect online Russian trolls. This test, which will seem like a complete gibberish to those who are fluent in Ukrainian, will nevertheless appear like a logical text if one uses automated Russian-Ukrainian translators. Nevertheless, despite the certain level of success, quite a lot of Russian psychological warfare attacks have gone unnoticed until the very last moment. “The most successful operations were those which had gone unnoticed”, – says Valentyn Petrov, head of the cyber security department at the National Security and Defence Council of Ukraine (NSDCU), in conversation with The Ukrainian Week. He thinks that it is impossible to separate social networks behavioural patterns from the Kremlin military strategy – and the counterattack must be seen as equally important. Even now, there are quite a few pages on social networks that are either calling against destruction of Ukraine as a state, or are trying to fuel separatist moods. Having said that, according to Petrov, Facebook has demonstrated an immediate reaction – the social network quickly removed the posts, which were calling to bring down Ukrainian government or were sharing confidential military information. 

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Kremlin trolls have not left aside the key event of Ukrainian politics this spring – presidential elections. Before, during and after these elections one could help but notice a lot of posts shared across various social networks aiming to create the maximum possible polarization of the Ukrainian society. Quite frequently we are not talking about the actual supporters of one or another candidate, abut about the online bots. Identifying these bots is hardly a complicated task – they rarely use an actual profile picture, or they just upload a random picture uploaded from online photo stocks; they may use some stereotypically Ukrainian symbols such as trident or a national flag; their names sometimes are just formed as a adjective to one of Ukrainian cities and sometimes their names are even a combination of digits. Ideological narrative demonstrated by those accounts is suspiciously close to the one relished by the Russian propagandists and their vision of the situation in Ukraine – they claim Ukraine needs federalisation and compromise with Russia, they insist Ukraine should give up its EU and NATO aspirations. Various linguistic or grammatical errors made by these bots, as well as their lack of knowledge of the specifics of Ukrainian politics, make it easy to identify accounts, which are operated from the outside of Ukraine. Another, somewhat more sophisticated method, which is currently being used by the social media propagandists is creation of politically neutral, Ukrainian-speaking online groups or pages on social media, that are frequently sharing memes or comic content. Therefore, these groups gain a lot of followers owing to their politically-neutral, as it may have seemed, content, and a light, entertaining manner of writing. At the same time, the comment sections under each of the “neutral” posts is stormed with endless complaints and outrage by the users, who are complaining about “impoverishment”, “the blood money”, “betrayal” and “bad government”. [5] This situation somehow resembles the catastrophic American scenario – Russian bots also, very successfully, managed to escalate tensions between the representatives of different political parties manipulating the sensitive issues such as race, gun laws, abortion or the rights of minorities. In the United States Olgino trolls supported both sides in their fierce online clashes. Such tactics may become successful also in Ukraine, which is currently facing post-election divisions visible even without external interference. The more arguments are instigated online (for example, due to a new law which was just passed), the better it is for Russia, because the last thing Kremlin wants is a strong and united Ukraine. “The more differences they can stir between us, the more lenient we will be in the upcoming diplomatic talks”, – says Valentyn Petrov. According to him, Ukrainians, who are damaging the reputation of Petro Poroshenko or Volodymyr Zelenskiy online, are subconsciously aiding their enemies and weakening international position of their own country. We have recently witnessed something similar – during the active phase of military action in Ilovaysk and Debaltseve, as well as owing to the social outcry and protests, Moscow was hoping to strengthen its position at Minsk talks. At the same time, attention gained by these events was absolutely incomparable to its scale, which only proves the artificial creation of panic. Therefore, instead of tanks, fire and live ammunition Ukraine is facing virtual online bullets, and the aim, as well as result, of these online attacks are similar to the live explosions.


New president – new threat


The issue of information and cyber security gained a new meaning when it comes to the newly elected Ukrainian president. In of the very few interviews he had given, Zelenskiy insisted on the need of absolute transparency and direct communication between the state authorities and its citizens. Overall, the idea seems right and logical. This is especially important considering the fact that results of the presidential elections clearly demonstrated that the lack of effective communication became one of the main reasons for Poroshenko’s defeat. Even very obvious and substantial Poroshenko’s achievements were never properly explained and transmitted to the citizens, which, in the end, have only devalued these achievements. Additionally, it is true that the state authorities should rather be listening to the problems of the ordinary people, than blindly following the ‘Potemkin’s’ reports submitted by the members of the staff.

At the same time, it is still questionable, whether one should prioritize such kind of communication in the current political circumstances. The problem of such type of communication is that it may expose certain security vulnerabilities; be used not only for the better, but also for the worst, and end up being exploited to manipulate the public opinion. The more open and exposed is the system, the more prompt it is to the external threat.  There are all the possible scenarios. For instance, one may submit thousands of different insignificant and trivial requests and questions to the state authorities, thus creating the so called informative noise, whilst ignoring the urgent and crucial issues. Such control would also require close cooperation with the administrators of the social media pages, obliging them to verify the identity of the users’ pages and making it impossible to use fake accounts. One tweet from the real and official account of Donald Trump brought down the price of shares of LockheedMartin, while another one nearly started the nuclear war with North Korea. It is highly unlikely that anyone could predict the scale and potential damages caused by the controversial tweets, for instance shared from the fake account of a well-known politician. In the times of ‘deep fake’, when advanced technology can create a fake video imitating certain person’s motions or voice (frequently, these could be politicians), it would be very unwise to ignore this threat. At the same time, any online moderation is a sensitive issue and will automatically lead to the accusations of censorship. One should also understand that at the moment not everyone in Ukraine is using social networks on a daily basis and thus may also claim that his or her voice has not been heard. 

Furthermore, in the above-mentioned circumstances, Zelenskiy’s announcement, claiming that blocking Russian social networks was unnecessary, because Ukrainians are “using VPN to access them anyways”, seems rather irrational. It is true that some users did indeed switch to VPN and proxy-tools in their efforts to access the blocked content. However, according to the research, published by Kantar TNS CMeter, Russian social networks and media sources have been gradually losing its popularity in Ukraine. For instance, in August 2018 Russian social platform VKontakte was number 10 in the top-25 most visited websites in Ukraine, while in February 2019 it ended up being 14th, and in March 2019 – it fell down to 16th. Another Russian online service, Mail.ru, has also lost its popularity, and after being scoring 17th out of most visited websites last summer, this year it was not even included in the list at all. This means less revenue from Ukrainian users and as a result – less taxes to the Russian state budget. The main reason for Ukrainian sanctions – Russian military invasion – has not disappeared and all the talks about the possible removal of the block may hardly be regarded a wise decision. It is unlikely, that the new president would dare and consider lifting the sanctions. However, there is a way around it – to avoid outcry and social disapproval, the new president may wait for the sanctions period to run off and then quietly avoid renewing them. It is the task of the citizens to monitor this and demand renewal of the sanctions and blocking the Russian source until Russia withdraws its troops from the occupied territories. 


The Voice of the country


One of the key priorities is to form the legal framework of the state’s and citizens’ relationship with the social networks. Currently, the are no set of laws regulating the social media and within Ukrainian legal framework, Facebook and other social media do not exist as a subject to local laws and regulations, and, as a result, all the related problems do not exist either. At the same time, one doesn’t need to invent anything new – United States and Germany, as well as European Union, partially, have already adopted the legislation regulating the use of the social media. Therefore Ukraine will only have to adopt the best out of those laws to its current needs.

There has also been confusion when it comes to drafting these laws. NSDCU insists that the legislation has to be drafted by the Ministry of Information Police (MIP) of Ukraine, with the following approval by the Ukrainian parliament. At the same time, in conversation with The Ukrainian Week, Dmytro Zolotukhin, deputy head of MIP, insisted that drafting the law is the task of Ukrainian MPs.

Zolotukhin also gave an example of France, where the parliament passed a controversial law, which significantly helped in fighting online propaganda, especially on social networks. The draft law was submitted to the French parliament by the member s of the La République En Marche! political party and debates surrounding the draft lasted for nearly a year. According to Zolotukhin, Facebook has recently received three heavy fines in France, each amounting from €50 mln to €300 mln, partially because of the above-mentioned French law.  Additionally, the social network giant was also accused in breaking French anti-monopoly laws and insufficient personal data protection. Zuckerberg has afterwards personally visited Emmanuel Macron in order to settle down the dispute. 

Ukraine is not France, though, and Ukraine will struggle to make its voice heard on the international arena. Currently, Ukraine does have the leverage to pressurise the multibillion corporation. Thus Facebook has a free hand to act the way it pleases in Ukraine – from ignoring the official complaints to delaying pages verifications if requested by the authorities. Despite the earlier agreement, Facebook has failed to disclose the information about the financial sources of political advertisement, especially the advertisement which would still pop up across Facebook breaking the election silence in Ukraine in April 2019. Yet, the situation for Ukrainian users in Facebook remains unsettled and complicated. While we are not talking about the famous baseless mass-blocking conducted by Facebook in 2018 against many Ukrainian users, currently a number of Ukrainian social and political activists are absurdly blocked on Facebook, and their posts are removed. For instance, a video published on Facebook, where the Russian teacher has been abusing the student from Caucasus has been widely shared on Facebook, but Ukrainian journalist Igor Medelyan, who has simply reposted this video, was immediately warned of hate speech, and his repost was deleted. 

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The light side of Power

In any event, social networks are not only a source of headache for Ukrainian intelligence and government officials – the state has begun using social media in order to fight fake information and push its own agenda. Ukrainian armed forces successfully picked up Russian tactics of manipulating the enemy using the sudden fakes in the social media. Currently we can hardly talk about the adequate response from Ukraine to Russia, because financial resources brought to this information war by two countries are incomparable. Additionally, social networks provide a great deal of important information for those who are using it for open source intelligence. In fact, thanks to social networks Ukrainian volunteer organization, InfoNapalm, succeeded in gathering countless proofs of Russian military intervention in Crimea and Donbas, proof of Russia’s involvement in the MH-17 catastrophe, managed to identify Russian military equipment in the East and prepare a great deal of material for the international courts. This has eventually forced Russian military commanders to ban the use of social media among its soldiers. Despite the orders, many soldiers still use the social media – here and there, someone would publish their photos, someone would forget to remove the geographical tag from their publication, and someone would boast about their “trip” to Ukraine. One of the examples is the Russian attack on Ukrainian vessel in the Kerch Gulf – the video of the Russian attack has been leaked online just few hours after the incident. Indeed, the Satan in the famous American movie, The Devil’s Advocate, once said – “Vanity is definitely my favourite sin!”

[1] Puppet “states” in the east of Ukraine, controlled and military supported by Moscow.

[2] Manipulative slogan, claiming that Maidan protests of 2013-2014 failed and Ukraine needs another revolution. 

[3] Ukrainians have been massively importing cars with EU license plates using the loophole in the law to avoid paying taxes. When the government tried to close the loophole, it led to protests by the car owners. 

[4] A common name for the so-called Internet Research Agency, a Russian agency whose employees are engaged in online influence operations using fake social networks accounts to push for Russian agenda in various countries across the world. The agency was named online a troll factory from Olgino due to its location in one of the areas of St Petersburg. 

[5] The words zubozhinnya (impoverishment), torgivlya na krovi (the blood money), zrada (betrayal) or poganavlada (bad government) entered into Ukrainian political slang as a specific vocabulary used by either trolls or online demagogues using social media platforms to create argument. Zrada, which initially means “betrayal” in Ukrainian, became a synonym for a populist panic or political paranoia. 

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