Case Study: How Facebook Pages Exploit Russia’s War in Ukraine with Fake Videos

The twin Facebook pages market themselves as providing timely and up-to-the-minute coverage of Russia’s war in Ukraine. But on any given day, their followers may see videos claiming The Norwegians attacked Russian ships, Vladimir Putin was defeated on “all fronts”, or that a only British ship blocked a Russian fleet.

None of these titles are true. But that doesn’t stop the Fios Vinks and Fiosl Liesi pages from gaining clicks, views and monetizable following through fake war reporting.

The behavior of these obscure pages with hard-to-decipher names offers a case study of curated disinformation in one of its cheapest forms. Combined, these pages distribute dozens of videos a day — many pulled from YouTube and paired with sensational titles — that aim to funnel viewers into larger Facebook groups that could be sold to buyers looking for a wide audience on social media. The pages appear to be part of a larger network and are managed by a single anonymous account. Their campaigns spread quickly, overriding fact checks and creating confusion.

“It’s a parasitic network trying to monetize another country’s invasion,” said Emerson Brooking, resident senior researcher at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab.

After repeatedly checking videos from both pages, PolitiFact wanted to learn more about the pages’ origins, their prolific posting patterns, and what their endgames might be.

PolitiFact contacted both Facebook pages and received no response.

Wartime Disinformation Strategies

Fios Vinks and Fiosl Liesi were created two days apart at the end of March 2022, almost a month after the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The accounts share multiple videos per day, with each posting about 50 videos per week.

There is no original content. Instead, pages get up videos of various Youtube canals – without ever linking to the original videos.

Copying content from other platforms “is an important way for coordinated disinformation campaigns to produce a lot of content without having to produce it themselves,” said Jo Lukito, an assistant professor at the University of Texas at the University of Texas. ‘Austin School of Journalism and Media.

The format of their video posts is almost always the same: a clickbait caption (“Putin cries!” Where “BIG EXPLOSION“), a thumbnail with relevant photos (Putin, fiery sets, weaponry), and a large urgent text proclaiming “Breaking News”.

Screenshot of Fiosl Liesi’s Facebook page

Viewers see eight to 12 minutes of often unrelated footage with monotonous, robotic narration. The clicks come anyway; Fios Vinks‘ most viewed video in one week garnered 227,000 views. Fiosl Liesi’s On June 23, post a video titled “GIANT EXPLOSION IN RUSSIA! PUTIN Panicked!” has more than 1.2 million – even though there was no missile attack on a Russian gas station, as depicted in the video.

Sometimes headlines are loaded with details that give off a whiff of credibility. Without knowledge of artillery and eastern Ukraine, it would be difficult to verify a recent headline that claimed the Ukrainian military intercepted a “TOS-1A rocket launcher” and “destroyed a Russian T-tank 72B near Derhachi”.

Videos also create a sense of urgency. The videos on both pages claim to cover events that happened 10, 15, and “20 minutes!” Identical videos posted several days apart repeatedly claim that the same event just happened.

Other videos distort historical events. Video of a shopping mall fire in 2018 was used to claim Moscow was a “sea of ​​fire” after a missile attack, which we classified as Pants on Fire. Another took an incident in 2020 when Russian bombers approached Alaska Airspace and claimed it happened”12 minutes ago!”

“This kind of imminence makes people click,” Brooking of the Atlantic Council said. “There aren’t many situations you can get away with repeatedly, but you certainly can in the context of a war.”

Screenshot of Fios Vinks Facebook page

The value of creating Facebook groups

The content of Fios Vinks and Fios Liesi is sympathetic to Ukraine, sometimes celebrating the heroism of ukrainian soldiers Where exaggerate Russia’s failures. But the overall objective does not seem to be propaganda.

Pages might make money, but not through the videos themselves. (We didn’t find any in-stream ads in our search.)

The less obvious tactic is to trick users into joining Facebook groups. Under almost every post by Fios Vinks and Fiosl Liesi, the pages invite viewers to like, share, subscribe and join one of two Facebook groups: “Ukraine versus Russiaor “BREAKING NEWS UKRAINE VS RUSSIA.”

Both groups started in August 2021, six months before the war, and previously had Vietnamese names. “Ukraine Vs. Russia” used to be called “Mua Bán Acc Liên Quân Mobile”, according to the page’s transparency information on Facebook – and people used it to buy and sell video game accounts. “BREAKING NEWS UKRAINE VS RUSSIA” once had a name that translates to “Vietnam Beverage Mixing Association,” where vendors sold items like old cash registers, tea carts and personalized coasters.

Despite their disparate beginnings, information from the two groups shows they belong to the same account – a user with nine followers who goes by the name “Vanessa Oliveira” – and have shared admins and post similar, if not identical, content about the war. . The groups have 75,100 and 62,400 members respectively.

Our report revealed several After Facebook pages who share similar videos and use their comment sections to invite users to join the same pair of Facebook groups. Lukito and Brooking suspect that these pages are all part of the same network.

Experts said it’s not uncommon for profit-seeking pages to create large groups based on a newsworthy topic and, in the future, pivot the content of the group to advertisements and spam, or sell the band itself to an attention-seeking buyer. of his thousands of existing followers. Other social media platforms are also seeing this behavior.

“The band is a valuable financial asset,” Brooking said.

Facebook does not remove content or pages from the platform simply because they contain incorrect information. False claims should be considered prejudicial to violate the community standards.

But “audience harvesting” tactics, as Brooking describes it, could be in violation of Facebook’s rules against “inauthentic behavior“, which involves misleading users about the ownership, purpose, or origin of content.

Pages are penalized – but not removed – when videos they share are verified as fake by third-party fact checkers, including PolitiFact. Penalties include limited monetization, removal of recommendations, and demotion in News Feeds. (PolitiFact has identified many of the videos in this story through its partnership with Facebook. Learn more about our partnership here.) In extreme cases, Facebook will notify users that an account frequently produces misinformation.

But due to the volume of videos posted by pages like Fios Vinks and Fiosl Leisi, many fake claims and videos go unchecked. And by spreading the same messages across multiple pages and accounts, it makes networks like these more sustainable if a page gets checked too many times.

In practice, the moderation approach of these accounts mimics Whack-a-mole. During our reporting, Fios Vinks started directing their followers to a new Facebook group: Latest news today.

“Unfortunately, this is a permanent feature of warfare in the age of social media,” Brooking said. “I think the best we can do is wait for it.”

PolitiFact researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

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