A network of nearly 100 Facebook pages run out of Ukraine recently spread viral content about American politics on Facebook, including one called “I love America,” which had 1.1 million followers and, in the last few weeks, started sharing pro-Trump agitprop. Another was originally devoted to cute animals, but recently began posting memes celebrating Melania Trump.
Behind the massive propaganda operation wasn’t a state-sponsored troll farm, just a guy who who wanted to make a boatload of cash–and had the help of his 13-year-old daughter, according to Judd Legum, who published the story in his newsletter, Popular Info.
“Q: Are you happy with a racist president? A: No, we replaced him with president Trump!” read one of the memes cross-posted to “I love America” from another page in the network called “God bless Donald and Melania Trump and God bless America.”
The animal pages were in fact run by the 13-year-old, her father, the man behind the operation, told Legum’s collaborator Mike Sapiton. Andriy Tkachenko also said he employed an “elderly woman with disabilities.” Both of his helpers were what the man called “ordinary people who don’t even speak English to the fullest extent.”
It’s just that easy to game Facebook, three years after BuzzFeed revealed that Macedonian teens were making thousands of dollars on American political clickbait and even though the platform is devoting significant resources to fight misinformation and take down serious state-run operations from Russia, China, and Iran.
The whole scheme was simple, according to Tkachenko, whose motivation seems to have been only profit.
The operation collected viral posts from across Facebook and put them in a database the admins could pick from. They then slightly altered the content to cheat the Facebook algorithm, which down-ranks unoriginal posts. The political memes were just a way to boost engagement, since he noticed they performed well. The pages directed folks to similar sites containing Google ads, which generated the cash. That’s it. That’s all it took.
Tkachenko said business was going so well, he signed a deal on video advertising with an American partner and estimated he could be making $500,000 a month.
Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the story is that “I love America” often reused memes posted by Russian operatives from the Internet Research Agency, the shady operation behind the 2016 election meddling.
“You’d think Facebook would have fingerprinted the RU IRA memes to automate their detection when recycled on new pages with huge audiences in the US but operated out of Ukraine. But no,” tweeted David Carroll, professor at The New School and expert on online misinformation.
When Legum first raised the issue to Facebook, the company said the the pages did not constitute “coordinated inauthentic behavior,” he said. After Legum’s report, the platform did take down the pages. Representatives of the company weren’t immediately available to Quartz for comment.
Meanwhile, the cycle of misinformation continued. News of the takedown coincided with the announcement of an impeachment inquiry against the president related to Trump pressuring the Ukrainian president to investigate his political opponent Joe Biden. People sharing a Newsweek story of the takedown on Twitter immediately started spinning conspiracy theories.
That’s the thing. It doesn’t have to be a cabal to be damaging. It can be just a dude with his teenage daughter, sharing memes about puppies.