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Leading Ukraine Candidate Fights 'Fakes With Fakes' As Facebook Tests New Political Ad Rules

Ukraine first warned Facebook of Russian disinformation and bogus news being spread on the social network in 2015. (file photo)
Ukraine first warned Facebook of Russian disinformation and bogus news being spread on the social network in 2015. (file photo)

KYIV -- On a recent afternoon inside the digital campaign headquarters of Ukrainian comedian and presidential candidate Volodymyr Zelenskiy, around a dozen young volunteers sat glued to computer screens. Their task was twofold: to scour social media sites for impostor accounts and "fake news" about their candidate while trying to fend off armies of bots spreading negative comments on official campaign pages.

In the politically charged atmosphere surrounding a presidential election that's now just 13 days away, it is an exhausting, never-ending task.

Just ask 28-year-old Mikhail Fedorov, a digital strategist who leads a clever campaign that builds on Zelenskiy's own viral posts.

"Every day there's a large number of fakes we have to fight against," Fedorov, whose private firm specializes in advertising on Facebook and Instagram, told RFE/RL between strategy sessions with his team for the Zelenskiy campaign.

Most, he added, are discovered on Facebook.

Presidential candidate Volodymyr Zelenskiy: "We laughed heartily."
Presidential candidate Volodymyr Zelenskiy: "We laughed heartily."

When the campaign finds the fakes, which violate Facebook's terms of service, Fedorov's team follows the same reporting process as any of the world's largest social network's 2 billion other active users: They report the abusive content one example at a time, as there is no direct line for campaigns to Facebook's 6-month-old elections "War Room."

It's a tedious process that can take several days before the offending accounts, pages, or posts are removed. By that time, Fedorov explained, the damage may already be done.

But on March 18, Fedorov's and other Ukrainian candidates' teams got a little added help in their fight.

New Transparency Requirements

In a move meant to curb "fake news," disinformation, and foreign intervention ahead of the country's watershed presidential election -- and to avoid a situation like that in 2016, when Facebook was criticized for failing to stop alleged Russian meddling in the U.S. presidential election -- sponsors of political ads in Ukraine are now required to publicly disclose their identity.

Mikhail Fedorov, a digital-campaign-team member for Ukrainian presidential candidate Volodymyr Zelenskiy with his team in Kyiv earlier this month.
Mikhail Fedorov, a digital-campaign-team member for Ukrainian presidential candidate Volodymyr Zelenskiy with his team in Kyiv earlier this month.

Similar transparency requirements were recently introduced in the United States, United Kingdom, Brazil, India, and Israel. Facebook has said that it plans to introduce the rules globally by the end of June.

The move is a long time coming for Ukraine, which first warned Facebook of Russian disinformation and bogus news being spread on the social network in 2015 to sow discord and whitewash a Russian military invasion.

President Petro Poroshenko, who is now fighting for reelection, famously pleaded to Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg in a May 2015 Facebook post to open a local office in Ukraine staffed with people in tune with the political situation and Russia's perceived misuse of the platform.

The request was aired two days later during a town-hall meeting at Facebook's Silicon Valley headquarters and met with laughter.

Nearly four years later, there is no Facebook office in Ukraine and a position for a Warsaw-based public-policy manager for Ukraine remains unfilled, the company confirmed to RFE/RL.

The latest poll by Rating Group shows Zelenskiy leading the field at 24.7 percent among Ukrainians planning to vote on March 31, in the first of two possible rounds, followed by former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko with 18.3 percent and Poroshenko with 16.8 percent. None of the other 36 candidates garnered more than 10.3 percent support.

"One step of this [transparency] process is for the person running the ad to provide identification documents to confirm they are who they say they are," Jan Sciegienny, head of corporate communications for Facebook in Central and Eastern Europe, told RFE/RL in e-mailed comments about the new rules.

Identity confirmation consists of turning on two-factor authentication, then providing Facebook with a government-issued ID, two official documents, or a notarized form from Facebook. The process is estimated to take 48 to 72 hours.

Besides confirming their identity, political advertisers must label their ads as political and provide a "Paid for by" disclaimer to be approved by Facebook. Authorized Facebook pages in Ukraine will also display all locations of the page administrators in the "Info and Ads" section.

'Wide Range Of Bad Actors'

In addition, Facebook will house all Ukraine-related political ads with disclaimers in a public database for seven years. Ads that run without a disclaimer will also be kept in the database if they are reported and determined to contain political content.

The transparency requirements come after Facebook announced in January that it would prohibit electoral ads bought outside Ukraine from appearing there in the run-up to the election.

"We know that a wide range of bad actors (from Russia and elsewhere) will look to target a major public event like an election," Sciegienny said of that measure. "Our aim is to help protect elections in Ukraine and part of that includes guarding against foreign interference and not accepting electoral ads from foreign territories."

Some in Ukraine have questioned whether that meant Facebook would also prohibit ads from Crimea, the Ukrainian Black Sea peninsula annexed by Russia five years ago, as well as areas of the eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions controlled by Russia-backed separatists. Sciegienny confirmed to RFE/RL that that was the case.

"According to Ukrainian law, these regions are currently territories not controlled by the Ukrainian government," Sciegienny said.

Too Little, Too Late?

Dmytro Zolotukhin, a Ukrainian deputy minister of information policy who has met with Facebook representatives in Kyiv on at least two occasions in recent months, praises the new ad rules and transparency requirements, telling RFE/RL they mark a big step forward for Facebook that "will make [information in] this sphere much more clear."

But coming less than two weeks before the first round of voting, some observers say Facebook's move is too little, too late and argue that there are simple ways to get around the new requirements.

Nina Jankowicz, a global fellow at the Washington-based Wilson Center's Kennan Institute focused on Russian disinformation, warned that in a country like Ukraine -- with its many ties to Russia -- the new advertising and transparency rules can be "quite easily circumvented."

"It would be easy for a layman, let alone a member of the Russian security services, to exploit the loopholes in the geographic requirements and still purchase ads," she told RFE/RL in January.

Ihor Razkladai, a Ukrainian lawyer at the Kyiv-based Center for Democracy and Rule of Law who has helped conduct trainings with Facebook in Ukraine, told RFE/RL that researchers he worked with were already finding Facebook accounts "with large followings" being "rented for big [sums] of money."

If You Can't Beat 'Em, Join 'Em

Fedorov welcomed Facebook's new policy but said his team would not count solely on the social network for combating the fakes and disinformation targeting their candidate.

Last week, taking a page from Zelenskiy himself -- who has crowdsourced his platform and potential cabinet -- Fedorov's team launched a project to crowdsource its fight against disinformation and fake accounts.

The project will work like this: When disinformation or a fake accounts appear, a chat bot designed to recognize key words will mobilize supporters on social media to "defend Zelenskiy."

Last month, Fedorov's team launched a competition "to come up with the best fake" about Zelenskiy and share it on social media using the hashtag #ZeFake.

In fighting disinformation fire with fire, Fedorov said he hoped to "destroy and depreciate" the potentially damaging messages spread about his candidate. He claimed it had already worked, though he declined to provide details.

The candidate himself promoted the competition in a video address published on social media and appeared pleased with the result.

"We laughed heartily" at the fakes, Zelenskiy said before reading some aloud. "Zelenskiy is a reptilian. Zelenskiy is Merkel's lover...Zelenskiy is actually a woman, moreover, the illegitimate sister of Tymoshenko who is taking revenge on her."

The winner?

"Zelenskiy is the great-grandson of an honorary member of the Rothschilds."

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