Pro-Russian Facebook Ads Target Italy and Poland Ahead of Elections – Politico

Days before the European elections, disinformation campaigns continue to proliferate on Meta’s platform.

BRUSSELS — A new wave of pro-Russian advertisements is spreading across Meta’s Facebook, just days before the European elections, despite an ongoing EU investigation, according to research shared exclusively with POLITICO. This disinformation campaign, previously flagged to Meta in April for reaching approximately 38 million French and German users with nearly 4,000 propaganda ads, has now expanded its reach to Italy and Poland.

Researchers from the not-for-profit groups AI Forensics and CheckFirst report that about 275 covert sponsored posts promoting anti-Ukraine and anti-EU narratives reached more than 3 million Facebook users in France, Germany, Italy, and Poland in May. The exact impact of these paid messages—many of which featured disjointed text—remains unclear.

These findings emerge as hundreds of millions of Europeans prepare to vote for a new European Parliament between June 6-9, an election under intense scrutiny by disinformation experts and cybersecurity officials concerned about Russian interference. Attention is also focused on how major social media platforms like Meta’s Facebook and Instagram will handle domestic misinformation, particularly under the EU’s Digital Services Act (DSA).

The European Commission recently leveraged its new supervisory authority to initiate an investigation into Meta, suspecting the company of insufficiently curbing disinformation in line with the DSA. Commission officials remarked that Meta’s inadequate ad regulation makes it a “soft target” for Russian manipulation. “Meta reviews, approves, and delivers propaganda ads to millions of EU citizens just days before the elections,” said Paul Bouchaud, one of the researchers. “If we can detect such foreign interference in real time, Meta should be able to as well.”

“The surge of illegal ads navigating the platform’s rules is a wake-up call for Meta and regulators to enforce the DSA more thoroughly,” stated Amaury Lesplingart, co-founder of CheckFirst.

Utilizing a familiar strategy exposed in prior investigations, researchers identified hundreds of fake accounts that purchased ads on Meta to disseminate their messages across several major European countries. Bouchaud’s algorithm linked these ads to an operation known as Doppelganger, first uncovered in 2022.

“Ukraine has no place in the EU,” declared five similar ads, each depicting men exchanging wads of cash. These ads collectively reached over 4,000 Facebook users in Poland. “We are all used to constant reports of thefts in Ukraine, but sometimes the cynicism of Ukrainian thieves surprises us.”

“They are taking away our future,” proclaimed ads in Italian from nine different fake accounts, accompanied by a 2014 Associated Press photo of jobseekers in Madrid. “Our must invest in Italy… But they don’t seem to care about us. They keep spending billions of our money on someone else’s w.a.r. in, sacrificing our future for it,” read the ads’ fragmented text.

AI Forensics previously found that Meta largely failed to control advertisers purchasing ads on its network to swiftly reach millions of foreign users with political messages. More than 65 percent of ads related to political and social issues were not labeled as such on Facebook across over 16 EU countries, and Meta removed less than five percent of these ads, according to researchers. Political ad buyers on Meta must present an official ID and are prohibited from promoting messages outside their residing country—a stricter process compared to commercial advertisers.

Meta disputed the researchers’ findings, criticizing their definition of political ads and arguing they did not account for ads blocked before publication.

The European Commission is currently evaluating the new findings provided by AI Forensics, said spokesperson Thomas Regnier, who declined to comment on the ongoing proceedings against Meta, including potential interim measures.

Regnier added that the Commission plans to hold another roundtable with major online platforms, including Meta, on June 3. “This is a highly adversarial space with malicious groups constantly evolving their tactics to evade detection by companies across the internet,” a Meta spokesperson stated. “The sample of ads included in this research had already been blocked and disabled prior to this report, most within hours of creation, as part of our security team’s routine, daily enforcements against inauthentic behavior.”

The spokesperson noted that Meta is heavily investing in regularly sharing threat research publicly and collaborating with other tech firms, researchers, and law enforcement.

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