Reports that Russia attempted to sow social unrest in the United States have been a near constant presence in headlines this year. But according to Vitaliy Moroz, head of new media at Internews Ukraine, Russia used these strategies against Ukraine for years before turning them against the U.S. during the 2016 Presidential elections.
According to Moroz, Russia has been using trolls, bots, and fake social media profiles to manipulate the Ukrainian media and online social networks for years.
“[Ukraine] was a playground for Russia to test and then come up with ideas for how to tackle the US elections,” he told Hromadske.
Moroz first came across Russian online interference during Ukraine’s 2009 presidential elections. “The first time I witnessed the use of bots, they interfered in the election hashtag #ElectUA,” he recalled.
"They were senseless tweets to interfere with the flow [of information] so that users who wanted to follow the Ukrainian elections would be irritated and just give up on watching the elections through Twitter.”
Since then, Moroz’s research has uncovered a number of cases of Russia using social networks to push fake news stories. These include the case of the “fake doctor” who gave a false account of the Odesa massacre, a series of street fights and a fire that took over 40 lives in May 2014.
“When tragic events happened in Odesa, [Russia] decided to convince international audiences that Ukrainian activists need to be blamed for the tragedy,” Moroz told Hromadske. “So, they created, just for a couple of hours, a fake profile on Facebook and claimed that a hero, a doctor, was a witness to this tragedy.”
Then, Moroz explained, the post was “translated into many languages and spread all over the internet.” More importantly, however, it was picked up by Russian TV.
“[Ukrainian] activists called the abuse team and in an hour or two [the account] was deleted,” he recalled. “But it was still circulated on TV.” The “doctor” was later revealed to be a dentist from the Russian city of Stavropol.
The list of examples from Moroz’s research goes on. In February 2015, Russian bots spread rumors that the Ukrainian economy would collapse by attacking Ukraine’s currency, the hryvnia, on Twitter. Around 40,000 tweets appeared online under the awkward hashtag #hryvniaisentrapped.
Moroz also recorded 17 thousand tweets from strange accounts that included the tag #CrimeaisRussia in posts about unrelated topics, ranging from discounts on the “fast installation of engineering systems” to delivery services for water heaters.
“Twitter acknowledged that the active audience of Twitter is 330 million users, and it acknowledged that five percent of them are bots, automated. This means that roughly fifteen million or more Twitter accounts...are bots,” Moroz told Hromadske. “Russia uses this to divert discussions from initial points. They just want to make the impression that Ukraine fails, that everything is bad in Ukraine.”
That, he says, is also Russia’s goal with America.
According to Moroz, concern about Russian trolls has been growing in the West since around 2012. Initial concerns were dismissed, however, because tech giants like Facebook and Twitter refused to interfere, maintaining that their companies were “platforms” rather than “media.”
But Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election has changed the discussion. On October 31, the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee questioned representatives of Google, Facebook, and Twitter about Russian efforts to use their platforms to destabilize the U.S. political system and the 2016 presidential elections.
According to the U.S. government and media reports, the Kremlin’s so-called Troll Factory — officially known as the Internet Research Agency in St. Petersburg, Russia — used social media networks to push fringe narratives from the political left and right. The trolls reportedly purchased over $100,000 in Facebook ads, pushing content that reached over one-third of the US population. They even organized several protests in the US from a distance.
Increased government regulation of social media is one option for combatting Russia’s online manipulations. However, it provokes concerns about freedom of speech.
As tech companies continue to advocate for self-regulation, they are being forced to confront flaws in their own policies and being pushed to make improvements. But Moroz also pointed out that “times of crises” always have repercussions for freedom of speech.
The Ukrainian authorities provoked concern about freedom of speech in May 2017 when they instituted a ban on Russian social networks. The government presented the threat of Russia’s online influence and its contribution to the ongoing war in Ukraine’s Donbas region as justification for the ban.
“Social media and tech companies are playing [a growing] role in our everyday life. This means the government will try to regulate [them],” Moroz told Hromadske. “I hope that the digital rights of users won’t be infringed upon, but the tendency is not very optimistic.”
/Interview by Nataliya Gumenyuk
/Written by Eilish Hart