Russia's disinformation campaign on Facebook could have been more widespread than we knew

Photo: Justin Sullivan/ Getty.

Before they capitalised on Facebook to promote fake news and divisive ads to the American public, and to organise anti-Clinton or pro-Trump rallies in different states, Russian trolls used the social-media platform to push out Ukrainian activists, The Daily Beast reported on Wednesday.

Though it’s unclear when pro-Kremlin trolls’ campaign against the activists began, it reportedly reached its apex in 2014 and 2015, shortly after Russia annexed the territory of Crimea and significantly ramped up its aggression against neighbouring Ukraine.

According to the report, the trolls made countless complaints to Facebook alleging that Ukrainian activists’ posts contained nudity or content that could be classified as hate speech, even if they did not. Once the complaints were filed, Facebook reportedly acted by deleting the posts in question or suspending the accounts associated with them.

“I’ve been blocked [from Facebook] because of a post about a rainbow,” Ukrainian activist Yaroslav Matiushyn told The Daily Beast. “I put a picture of my city [with] a picture of [the] rainbow. The picture said, ‘Everything will be ok.’ I was blocked for a month.”

Matiushyn added that he was banned from the website again when pro-Kremlin trolls filed several complaints against another one of his posts, alleging that it contained nudity. But the post “was a text post,” Matiushyn said. “It wasn’t erotic text — no porno, nothing erotic.”

Facebook recently came under the microscope after it emerged that fake accounts linked to Russian entities used the platform to spread disinformation and bought $US100,000 worth of divisive political ads leading up to the election.

The company still does not know the extent of Russia’s ad purchases or whether these unidentified ad buys are still on the site. Facebook has since confirmed that Russia-linked groups went further than buying ads and posting memes — they tried to organise anti-immigrant, anti-Clinton rallies in Texas and Idaho.

In the wake of the Russian troll campaign against Ukrainian activists, several Facebook users brought up the issue to Facebook co-founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg when he called for questions to be submitted prior to a May 2015 town hall, the report found.

Mark ZuckerbergDavid Ramos/Getty ImagesMark Zuckerberg.

“Can you or your team please do something to resolve this problem?” asked one user, who mentioned that “fake abuse reports” appeared to be targeting pro-Ukraine users who were posting about the Russia-Ukraine conflict. The comment got 49,000 likes.

“Lately something totally inconceivable is going on in the Russian segment of the Facebook,” wrote another user. “The users whose opinions differ from those of the Kremlin are blocked though they do not violate any community rules.”

Zuckerberg touched on the issue during his town hall in May 2015 and said that several posts that had been flagged contained “hate speech” and anti-Russian “slurs.”

“We did the right thing according to our policies in taking down the posts. I support our policies in taking down hate speech,” he told attendees.

Zuckerberg extended an apology to users whose posts had been taken down despite being in compliance with community standards, and attributed the error to a bug in Facebook’s software.

But it wouldn’t be the last time the tech titan would fail to address a growing problem.

Former President Barack Obama tried to warn Zuckerberg about the threat of fake news and its effect on the 2016 election less than two weeks after Donald Trump won the presidency,The Washington Post reported on Sunday.

Nine days before Obama warned him about the effect fake news had on the November result and the problem it would pose in future elections, Zuckerberg struck down the notion as a “crazy idea” that “surely had no impact” on the end result.

Following the president’s warning, Zuckerberg acknowledged the problem but said fake news wasn’t widespread on Facebook, according to The Post. He added at the time that there was no easy solution to the issue, according to those familiar with the matter.

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