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The anti-Ukraine Facebook network targeting UK voters

Posts are aimed at left and right, with tactics that are a hallmark of Russian security

Photo: Nikolas Kokovlis/NurPhoto via Getty Images

A coordinated network of Facebook pages run from Nigeria targeted UK voters on the right and left using divisive political messaging, and pushed an anti-Ukraine agenda using tactics that are a hallmark of Russian influence operations. 

An investigation by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ) has identified six Facebook pages in total spreading misleading and inflammatory political content in the run up to the UK election. All were either created or repurposed within the space of a week in August 2023 and have a combined total of more than 200,000 followers. 

“Pushing opposite narratives simultaneously, is classic,” said Pierre Vaux, a senior researcher at the Centre for Information Resilience. “We’ve seen this lots of times with Russian information operations,” though he added other actors may also use similar tactics as part of attempts to manipulate the public.

Each page had at least one administrator based in Nigeria. One of the rightwing pages in the network shared a phone number with a Nigerian man who, at the time the network was established in August 2023, was employed by a tech company based in Belgrade, Serbia. One of the leftwing pages also interacted with the man’s Facebook profile. Russia has a history of using Serbian entities to spread pro-Kremlin narratives among Western and Eastern European audiences. 

In a sample of accounts examined by TBIJ, many behaved like authentic UK-based accounts. However, Facebook said the majority of their followers were outside the UK, primarily in Vietnam, which “is consistent with using inauthentic engagement tactics to make Pages appear more popular than they are”.

Vaux analysed a sample of the top 600 accounts most frequently engaging with the six pages, and found that most listed locations within the UK.

The pages shared similar content at very similar times and quickly grew their followings, particularly since the election was announced. The two largest pages, both of which promoted far-right content, increased their number of followers by over 1,000% over 10 months.

The network spread content about the most inflammatory issues in British politics and paid for adverts on Facebook and Instagram, many of which violate the platforms’ rules. 

Experts say it appeared to be an organised set-up, similar to those that have sought to erode the public’s faith in democratic institutions. The timing of its posts are particularly suspicious, according to researchers who examined TBIJ’s findings. 

Vaux described the regularity of the network’s posting patterns as “signature” of an organised influence operation. “It looks like it’s someone’s job to do this,” he added.

Academics who also reviewed TBIJ’s findings agreed. “This is clearly an organised operation”, said Ilya Yablokov, a lecturer in digital journalism and disinformation at the University of Sheffield. He told TBIJ that the network’s coordinated posting times and the politically divisive character of the content they shared reflects tactics he has observed in his research on influence operations linked to the Russian state.

On Saturday, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation revealed the existence of part of the network. Facebook removed the pages included in their report over the weekend, and took down another of the pages after being contacted by TBIJ

A Facebook spokesperson said: “We removed these Pages for inauthentic behaviour deceiving people about who is behind them, including posing as UK-based Pages while being run out of Nigeria.” 

The pages published dozens of unlabelled political adverts, many of which pushed anti-Ukraine messaging, that managed to evade the platform’s advertising rules. 

Facebook’s transparency rules require that any advertisements about “social issues, elections or politics” to be accompanied by a disclaimer showing who paid for it. The ad is then kept on Facebook’s public ad library.

One campaign that began on 26 June promoted candidates from Reform UK and the Heritage Party, a fringe far-right party that splintered from UKIP in 2020. One ad showed Nigel Farage drinking a pint overlayed with the caption: “The people’s champion.” It was not labelled as political, featured no disclaimer and disappeared from the library the next day.

The four pages with the largest following spread far-right views and two smaller ones promote the far-left. All six share content that is highly critical of Ukraine but otherwise post almost exclusively about British politics. In recent weeks they have been spreading divisive and false content on contested election issues such as migration, taxation, social services and gender identity. 

Experts are concerned that networks such as these undermine trust in democratic institutions. 

“They [the network’s backers] probably realise that their strength is not in their ability to seriously change the course of action inside the country,” said Yablokov. “Their task is to confuse.” 

The four right-wing pages, which have about 192,000 followers in total, promote misleading content about migration and express support for the Reform party, as well as spreading Islamophobic and transphobic messages. Several have shared material backing Nigel Farage’s recent comments arguing that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was “provoked” by western countries. 

The other two accounts, which have about 15,000 total followers, promote support for liberal migration policies while criticising the mainstream UK media and right-wing political parties. 

The two sides appear to act in coordination, often repurposing the same content for different means. In June, for instance, the same viral image was posted by two accounts within a day of each other, one mocking Labour and the other mocking Reform.

The network was discovered when TBIJ found that some of the pages had paid to publish adverts with an anti-Ukraine stance that were seen by users who engage with right-wing British political content. 

At least five of the pages have published adverts violating the policy put in place by Meta, Facebook’s owner, that ads about “social issues, elections or politics” must be labelled as political and disclose their funding. Some of the ads were taken down as a result but others were not. If ads are not flagged as political, they disappear from Meta’s ad library after they run. The unlabelled ads TBIJ detected ran for a short period of time before disappearing. 

The ads appear to have evaded detection by promoting the pages themselves despite containing messages relating to elections and politics. These tactics have been observed in similar French-speaking networks based in west Africa, according to research by Reset.Tech, a research non-profit.

A Meta spokesperson told TBIJ: “We provide industry-leading transparency for ads about social issues, elections or politics, and will remove any content we find that breaks our rules. We have built specialised global teams to stop coordinated inauthentic behaviour, and are constantly working to protect the integrity of elections on our platforms.”

Networks based in west Africa have previously been found to spread divisive content ahead of major elections in the West. In 2020, Facebook and Twitter discovered what they described as a “coordinated, inauthentic” network targeting US users in the months leading up to the presidential vote. 
Facebook said Ghanaian and Nigerian nationals had been recruited by people with links to the Internet Research Agency, an organisation set up by former Putin ally Yevgeny Prigozhin to sway the 2016 US election.

This piece was published in partnership with The Bureau of Investigative Journalism

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