Mo, 5.06.2023

Facebook takes on Kremlin trolls

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Photo: Kuvatõmmis

Facebook has set about deleting the fake accounts behind the factious Estoners group Postimees shed light on two weeks ago. But the dragon has many heads: dubious social media profiles already number around one hundred.

A fortnight ago, Postimees revealed nine Facebook profiles concerning which we found evidence to suggest they did not belong to real people. These accounts used names like Kevin Lepik, Oksana Söderholm, Ivan Vasiliev and Oskar Kallas. All profiles were created inside a brief window in September and October.

All were connected to the Facebook group Estoners where they shared sarcastic and noxious photos, illustrations and memes depicting Estonian politicians and social issues.

The group never missed a topic with the potential to divide society. Numerous snippets, both from mainstream and alternative media sources, were shared on a daily basis, from morning until night. The group promoted the #ESTexitEU hashtag and played up fears of mass immigration.

Estoners, that has around 2,000 followers on Facebook, did not overlook last week’s campaign stunt by the Estonia 200 political party that seemed to divide Estonians and Russians into two different camps. Moderators shared news of the campaign in the group and on their own walls.

Fake names, fake schools

At first glance, the group seems to be run by ordinary Facebook users. In addition to propaganda, members also share entertaining posts or pictures of animals and even wish their Facebook friends happy birthday.

The profile of one Kevin Lepik read that he went to Rakvere High School. But when the school’s office manager Annelii Peikolainen checked its student records that go back as far as 1958, she did not find a single Kevin Lepik.

It was the same for active member of the group Sandra Luik. Her account listed the Pärnu Ülejõe School as the source of her education. The school has similarly never heard of a Sandra Luik. “We have no graduate of that name,” said Principal Margus Veri.

Phone numbers listed under contact information are always busy. Attempts to look up the names using public registers and search engines find nothing to suggest such people exist.

At least one person has filed a complaint with Facebook over the Estoners group after Postimees published its article. Complaints were also filed by the strategic communication department of the Government Office and Postimees. The social network set about deleting the fake accounts on Wednesday. Posts and shared content were deleted along with the accounts. Of the nine accounts Postimees reported to the social network, only those of Deniil Männik and Sandra Luik still existed by yesterday evening (Friday – ed.). We finally managed to contact someone who claims to be Männik.

“Yes, I am real,” they said in a Facebook Messenger chat window, while there is no other evidence to suggest Männik is an actual person. The online persona of Deniil Männik is an avid social media user who shares articles from Russian propaganda news site Sputnik, the Estonian ultraconservative Objektiiv news portal as well as Postimees and Delfi as far as they call into question quality of life in Estonia.

“We plan to write a rebuttal where everything will become clear,” Männik said in comment of the accounts of other members being closed. He did not answer any more questions after that.

Strategic communication adviser to the Government Office Siim Kumpas said that he pooled evidence collected by Postimees and the volunteers of the Propastop blog and presented it to Facebook late last week (the one before – ed.). “I called Facebook’s contact to emphasize how serious we are about this. We wanted to have clarity in terms of whether these were fake accounts. And additional information if they indeed were fake,” Kumpas said.

He told Postimees that it was the first time for the Government Office to try and communicate with the social media giant before elections. “It seems they are taking our requests seriously,” he concluded.

Kumpas’ colleague from the Government Office Martin Jaško said that the case of Estoners and its administrators is just the tip of the iceberg of a wider pre-election influence campaign. “Propastop volunteers have by today identified around one hundred profiles that exhibit traits of fake accounts. We also see several groups that have suspicious moderators and no activity. We are constantly monitoring them to see whether they will come to life at some point,” Jaško said.

Siim Kumpas said that the Estoners case that was brought to light by Postimees does not mean that the danger of elections meddling has grown, but that a threat known to exist has materialized. “They revealed their hand. We are now aware of one angle – use of fake accounts – and know to be vigilant in the future.”

New administrators

Even though a number of fake profiles connected to Estoners have been closed by today, the group remains active and its administrators include new names and faces added in recent days that exhibit the same kind of signs of being manufactured. Facebook has not closed the Estoners group as its existence – unlike fake accounts – does not directly violate its terms and conditions.

The Estonian Internal Security Service (ISS) has little choice but to remain an onlooker. Even if the fake accounts represent Kremlin trolls, there is nothing explicitly illegal about their activity. “It must be tolerated as part of the freedom of expression,” ISS press representative Harrys Puusepp says.

A spokesperson for Facebook told Postimees that their investigation into the group is still underway and that new information will be made available as soon as possible.

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