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Russian trolls on Facebook: Meta fails in the fight against Russian propaganda

Facebook announced weeks ago that it had shut down the network of a Russian troll army in Germany. But t-online research shows that almost nothing happened. On the contrary.

“Miranda Gilson” is active

Facebook a “casino”, “Nobody perfect” in the social network a local recreation area. And “Roderica Appelhans” pretends to be a comedian.

As diverse as the names are, all sites have one thing in common: they are part of a Russian disinformation campaign. The reports mainly publish caricatures portraying Germany, among other things, as a US puppet and brand the Greens as warmongers.

The problem is not new. On the contrary. Facebook’s parent company Meta actually wanted these fake accounts to be blocked. But apparently nothing recognizable has happened since then. Meta fails in the fight against bad mood. And the group also makes money.

The background: t-online had already discovered a coordinated attack that had been going on for weeks in August. With fake accounts, or pages of well-known and deceptively real media brands, with fake articles and videos, the atmosphere was created. The direction was always the same: against Russian sanctions and against Germany’s support for Ukraine. The message has always been: the Berlin government is responsible for the high inflation in the Federal Republic.

After a suggestion from t-online, Facebook’s parent company Meta said it was taking fake accounts seriously. In fact, experts are working on it, and on September 27 the group confirmed the research in an analysis that has received worldwide attention: it’s propaganda aimed primarily at Germany and comes from a fake network in Russia. The company also said the problem is now solved. Meta “closed this network and a Chinese network active in the United States for violating our policy against inauthentic coordinated behavior”.

It sounded good, but it wasn’t true. The account of the successful fight against the net – actually a big lie. Facebook has mass deleted accounts. However, the Russian troll network has not been shut down, but it seems to continue happily. And Facebook does not intervene or intervenes only after the information of the press. After t-online asked Facebook for links on Sept. 29 and has since provided further evidence, Facebook officially says it’s being vetted. Unofficially, it is said that it is not uncommon for such actors to continue even after the discovery. Facebook relies on automatic detection, but it also has a team that is supposed to track down such cases.

Jens Zimmermann, digital policy spokesperson for the SPD parliamentary group, is surprised: “It’s not enough that journalists always have to find out before issues are admitted and addressed,” he said on t-online. The Russian propaganda war is being waged on Facebook in Germany and Europe, “the metagroup must finally accept it”.

However, even among people interested in politics, there is obviously not always a high level of awareness. For example, Alexander Rulitschka spread a caricature of a Russian fake account. Rulitschka is president of the Junge Union München-Nord. In the past, the association has attracted attention several times with particularly provocative posts and in 2017 it won the Facebook award of the young political organization of the CDU and CSU.

The fact that Rulitschka shared an image of the Russian countryside is probably mainly due to his dislike of the Greens: the shared motive was essentially directed against them, like many of the images that were apparently created in Russia. The party had already clearly positioned itself critical of Russia prior to last year’s federal elections and is now acting as a target.

JU official Rulitschka told t-online that he was unfamiliar with the background of the image and had removed the graphics. He now describes the procedure as perfidious: “It is becoming increasingly difficult, if not impossible, to distinguish between such things.”

Many of the reasons may actually come from Germans who are angry about politics or worried about the future. If more and more people don’t blame Russia for it, this suits Putin. At least in the case of Rulitschka, the Russian strategy of providing ammunition for attacks on the federal government had worked.

However, the comments below the images also give the impression that many Facebook users are seeing through the game. Users often certify fake accounts very clearly that they have to do with Putin’s propaganda. His dissatisfaction that the group is not reacting despite corresponding reports is equally great. So says Markus Enderer from Upper Palatinate to t-online. “I have been reporting for many weeks, sometimes multiple times. There are usually few signs of success.” The ads he reported disappeared when t-online sent them to Facebook.

The problem is that users often don’t know where to report paid posts from fake accounts. There is no category of “manipulation of foreign opinion” and apparently Facebook is not thinking of creating a corresponding section. Especially since the group rightly fears abuse.

It should therefore be more promising not to report individual posts on Facebook, but the entire account. Because on Facebook controlling content creators is obviously more important than the content itself and there is also a plausible explanation: if accounts are suspended, the problem with their content has also been fixed. The reverse would not be the case.

But if Putin’s troll army is inexhaustible, this strategy won’t work. The Russian agitators continue to create new accounts for their campaign, some suddenly activated after several months of nothing happening. Internally at Facebook, it is admitted that the campaign cannot be stopped, it has only increased the effort for the unknown people behind the fake accounts.

The problem: Meta also earns money with its inactivity. Accounts now rely mostly on paid ads instead of posting comments under posts on large sites like they used to. In late September, Facebook claimed that Putin’s information warriors had invested around $ 100,000 in advertising in this campaign, but the deadline has remained open and the ruble is still rolling there.

The US site “vice.com” had investigated that between July 2018 and April 2022 Facebook grossed € 30.3 million from actors who later became known to have been involved in coordinated campaigns with fake accounts. Meta keeps the money. Twitter, on the other hand, made its mark by donating $ 1.9 million of Russian media revenues to academia for disinformation research.

Meta is currently also under financial pressure: for the first time in the history of the group, sales are no longer growing, but are decreasing, the share is decreasing. The company also expects weak advertising demand in the near future. Higher barriers to advertising cannot really be expected, and Zuckerberg has announced savings across all sectors. It should please the ruler of the Kremlin and his trolls.

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