The network of 19 pages, at least 55 alleged bots bombarded Dnipro voters during the 2020 local elections campaigns, either supporting Borys Filatov and the “Proposition” party or discrediting his political rival Zahid Krasnov.
According to the Statista portal, about half of users rely on social media as a source of information about political and social developments. At the same time, the environment of social media is different from other environments, as they enable instant information sharing (both faithful and fake), apply targeting (focusing users’ specific interests), or the coordinated behaviour of various parties and the use of fake accounts that shall produce an impression about a certain “public opinion.” Facebook classifies such behaviour as misleading and bans the use of fake accounts that mislead users as to the popularity of posts (accelerating the popularity by bots) and coordinate similar activities of several pages.
OPORA identified several pages that were actively campaigning for the incumbent mayor and a mayoral candidate in Dnipro at the 2020 elections, Borys Filatov, and also discredited another candidate for the position, Zahid Krasnov. Some of them have been in the focus of political ads overviews during the election campaign, other pages of the network could be identified with the help of a special service designed by OPORA, the Facebook ads analyzer. What catches attention is the affinity of advertisers – almost all of them were located in Dnipro, at the addresses of 11 Starokozatska Street, and 58 Starokozatska Street. Furthermore, OPORA identified a series of features indicating to the fact that the 19 pages came together into one advertising network. Below, you can find the ball of yarn untangled, thread by thread.
Neighbors, or What the Identified Pages Share
The pages from this network include the central party page of the “Proposition” and of its member Serhiy Pustovyi; an official page of the city mayor Borys Filatov; pages of local media “Дніпро TV” [lit. – Dnipro TV], “Наше місто” [lit. – Our City]; pages of DNIPRO TV channel projects “ДніпроTalk” [lit. – Dnipro Talk], “Комунальний контроль” [lit. – Municipal Control], and “Не сегодня”[lit. – Not Today]; news outlets “Afisha Dnepra” [lit. – Dnipro Poster], “Днепровская панорама” [lit. – Dnipro Panorama], “Горсовет” [lit. – City Council], “Дніпро. Головне” [lit. – Dnipro. The Frontmost], and public pages “Киев вечерний” [lit. – Kiyv Evening News], “Типичная Оболонь” [lit. – Typical Obolon], “Реальный Днепр” [lit. – Real Dnipro], “Днепровская губерния” [lit. – Dnipro Governorate], “Файне місто Дніпро” [lit. – Nice city of Dnipro], “Днепр оперативный” [lit. – Dnipro Breaking News], and “Я – ДНЕПР” [lit. – I, Dnipro].
This network has three groups of pages are under one advertiser. Five pages are advertised by the “SMM Agency. UA”, other five pages are tended by the “Reklama-Servis” agency, two more are facilitated by the “IQ Digital” agency. All the pages are advertised under the two addresses – 58 Starokozatska Street, and 11 Starokozatska Street (oddly enough, but the address hosts the Department for Administrative Services and Permit Procedures of Dnipro City Council). The 58, Starokozatska Street is a statutory address of the “Proposition” party, and the location of the “Dnipro TV” channel that was established on the basis of the “Dnipro City Television Studio of Dnipro City Council” Municipal Company. In addition, in 2019, 58 Starokozatska Street was a statutory address of the “IQ Digital Group” LLC, an owner of the “IQ Digital” agency. Currently, the agency’s office is located at the address of 11 Starokozatska Street. The same address also hosts the office of the agency “Reklama-Servis.” In the network, there are only two pages with another address: the “Ne Sehodnia” project of the “Dnipro TV” channel (75 Yavornytskoho Street). However, the 75 Yavornytskoho Street is not a random address as the building hosts a municipal company “Dnipro City Television Studio” of Dnipro City Council, the owner of “Dnipro TV” channel.
Information on the “SMM Agency. UA” advertising agency is not available in open access but the telephone numbers from a disclaimer of all pages advertised by the agency coincide with the telephone number mentioned in a disclaimer to the “Dnipro TV” page broadcast by “IQ Digital”. Therefore, it may be assumed that the advertising agencies “SMM Agency. UA” and “IQ Digital” are interrelated, to suggest the least.
From the website of the “IQ Digital” agency, we can learn that the institution offers services of political campaigning and administered the political campaign of a city mayor Borys Filatov (according to them, “the turnkey offer”). At the same time, the agency’s portfolio lists the administration of social media pages of the city TV channel “Dnipro TV”, the new pages “Наше місто,” “Днепровская панорама,” and the page “Днепр оперативный”. However, for the pages “Наше місто,” “Днепровская панорама,” and “Днепр оперативный,” there is no name of a person or organization launching the political ad. The disclaimer for advertisements from the page “Днепр оперативный” mentions the same telephone number as for the “Я – ДНЕПР” page, which ads are shared by the “Reklama-Servis” advertiser.
“IQ DIGITAL” PORTFOLIO
There are no legal details or any other information on the Internet in free access about the “Reklama-Servis” agency, in addition to their website. When you compare telephone numbers mentioned on the “Reklama-Servis” website, you can see that the ads from the “Горсовет” (lit. – City Council) page, with no advertiser specified, are promoted with the same telephone number as the “Reklama-Servis” has in their contacts, the same as for the “Днепр оперативный” page (the disclaimer states the contact number of the “Reklama-Servis”). However, it shall be reminded that the “Днепр оперативный” page is promoted by the “IQ Digital” agency.
Furthermore, the website of the “Dnipro. The Frontmost” (advertiser – “Reklama-Servis”) lists in the contacts section on the website the email of the “IQ Digital” agency.
Therefore, we might assume that “IQ Digital” and “Reklama-Servis” are the interrelated agencies.
How the “IQ Digital” Work
Having learnt about some media projects of the “IQ Digital” agency, we can take a more detailed look at their success story in political advertising. It does not even call for a special analysis as the agency has detailed accounts about the methods of sharing political ads on their website. Within their projects, the “IQ Digital” offer services to create sockpuppet farms, to launch, administer, and promote the clients’ pages on Facebook, Instagram, Youtube, Telegram, to post contextual, media, and banner ads in the Google search engine, and to create the “viral ads.” To promote political ads, the agency offers the integration with the “external pages and channels” and “sharing through bots.”
OPORA’s experts in social media monitoring compiled a sampling of 50 most popular posts (by comments) among all pages in the social media and analyzed the commenters leaving over one comment. As a result, the experts identified 55 allegedly fake accounts that were actively promoting certain messages.
In the first place, it shall be mentioned that the alleged bots delivered their “mission” on 8 of 19 pages in the network. At the same time, they selected key locations for comments on 2 pages – “Киев вечерний” (33 comments) and “Днепровская губерния” (37 comments). As to other pages, (“Файне місто Дніпро”, “Я – ДНЕПР”, “Реальный Днепр”, “Дніпро TV”, “Днепр оперативный,” and “ДніпроTalk”), the alleged bots left from 2 to 12 comments.
The research focused on 24 allegedly fake accounts that either supported Borys Filatov or discredited his political rival Zahid Krasnov. Besides, the comments also got in the neck the “Servant of the People” party and Serhiy Ryzhenko, a candidate from the party for the city mayor of Dnipro. All pages share one commonality as they have not had any personal data or live activity for a year a longer, no friends or thousands of users on their lists. It is suggestive of their non-authenticity. At the same time, it is interesting to see the distribution of comments by bots under the posts: in general, the bots ignored most posts on the pages but mostly left the comments under the posts that were shared by several pages. Thus, the pages of “Киев вечерний” and “Днепровская губерния” had identical posts discrediting Zahid Krasnov. Both posts were commented by alleged bots 8 times:
Besides, among the accounts we also came across the “oldies,” such as Ms Маргарет Тетчер [lit. – Margaret Thatcher]. As usual, she was criticizing the “Servant of the People” party, under the posts on the “Fayne Dnipro” page.
The users Toma Tamara and Tamara Tamarovna commented under the posts on pages “Kiev Evening News,” “Real Dnipro,” “Dnipro Governorate,” and “I, DNIPRO.” In the posts, they encouraged to support Filatov at the elections, criticized Krasnov and the “Servant of the People” party, and Serhiy Ryzhenko, a candidate from the party for the mayoral seat. Similarly, the pages of both Tamaras did not have any personal data or live activity:
On election day (when the Ukrainian law bans political campaigning), “IQ Digital” rendered the services to create the “mobilization wave” and “explanatory posters.” On election day, OPORA registered the shared political ad from the central page and a number of regional pages of the “Proposition” party. Besides, on the “silent day” before the elections, another page posted ads on Facebook – that of Serhiy Pustovyi, a member of the party, who stood for elections as a candidate for a deputy in Dnipro city council.
On their website, the “Dnipro. The Frontmost” outlet also inform about the “price lists” for political advertising, or, as they call it, “writing articles (news pieces) of advertising type”, also posting the content on their Facebook pages:
In addition to all of the above, the “IQ Digital” agency that administered the political campaign for Borys Filatov has operated for over a year ( registration date – 20.12.2019) and has won the tenders for advertising and information services to Dnipro City Council for the total amount of UAH 8,380,000. At the same time, an individual entrepreneur Borysenko Andriy Serhiyovych, a completely identical name with a co-founder and final beneficiary of the “IQ DIGITAL GROUP” LLC, in 2020 and in 2021 won the tenders for services to Dnipro City Council for the total amount of UAH 3,159,400.
What Is Advertised
In addition to the shared addresses identical with the local administrative buildings, identical telephone numbers and advertisers, the pages also shared similar advertising posts. It is notable that most ads were worth under USD 100 but were shared from many different pages. The tactics allowed the ads to stay in the bottom of the list in the Facebook Ads Library and they never hit the monitoring reports, OPORA’s reports among them.
The network of pages shared ads around several key topics only. One such topic common to 12 pages from the network was the campaigning supporting Borys Filatov, a candidate for the city mayor of Dnipro. Most often, the ads in favour of Filatov were shared from the pages Борис Філатов, ДніпроTalk, Горсовет, Реальный Днепр, and Я – ДНЕПР; some mentions came on the pages Днепровская панорама, Afisha Dnepra, Файне місто Дніпро, Наше місто, Днепровская губерния, Комунальний контроль, Днепр оперативный, and ДніпроTV.
In most cases, the pages had usual political ads describing the candidate’s best abilities. Special focus was made on challenges in Dnipro city that were settled during his term in office. In particular, Borys Filatov was praised for the greenspace expansion programme launched in Dnipro.
The pages would often publish a mini-series on subway construction where Filatov played a main part.
Before the second round of elections, on November, 22, the pages were unanimously claiming that Dnipro has dramatically changed in the recent five years thanks to Borys Filatov:
In addition to campaigning for the mayoral candidate, some pages from the network were also active supporting the “Proposition” party that Borys Filatov represented. Specifically, such page shall be mentioned as the central page of the “Proposition” party, a page of a candidate for Dnipro city council deputies Serhiy Pustovyi, and the pages Горсовет, Реальный Днепр, Я – ДНЕПР, Файне місто Дніпро, Днепр оперативный, and ДніпроTV. In most cases, the pages either shared calls to vote for the party or told stories about solving some local issues in the city, but with party identica.
There is another topic highlighted in the network’s pages – discrediting Zahid Krasnov, a key opponent to Borys Filatov, and the “Civic Force”, a party that nominated him to stand in the elections. Krasnov was discredited by such pages as Не сегодня, Наше місто, Я – ДНЕПР, ДніпроTV, Днепр оперативный, Днепровская губерния, Файне місто Дніпро, Реальный Днепр, Горсовет, Afisha Dnepra, Типичная Оболонь, Днепровская панорама, and Наши бадминтонисты (later renamed into “Kiev Vecherniy”).
The discreditation campaign had a large scale mostly due to promoting many posts by the pages where they told about the involvement of one of the members of “Civic Force” in a pedophilia case. The posts were promoted on most pages, however slightly different:
Furthermore, Zahid Krasnov was heavily accused of voter bribery, involvement in crime with casualties, embezzlement of the city budget, and other breaches of the law.
In addition to Krasnov, his close friend and supporter was affected, too. The sufferer was the head of Dnipro regional council Sviatoslav Oleynyk (who spoke in support of Zahid Krasnov and the “Civic Force”):
The last but not least group of posts concerned the criticism and distrust to central authorities, such as the President Volodymyr Zelensky and the “Servant of the People” party. The ads were promoted by 7 pages: Не сегодня, Днепровская губерния, Файне місто Дніпро, Горсовет, Afisha Dnepra, Наши бадминтонисты (Kiev Vecherniy – lit. Kiev by Night), and ДніпроTalk.
Most promoted posts criticized the links between Volodymyr Zelensky and an oligarch Ihor Kolomoyskyi, accused the “Servant of the People” of local issues, and expressed dissatisfaction about the quarantine and central authority’s efforts to contain the coronavirus pandemic, or the poll administered by the Presidential Office on election day of October, 25:
Nevertheless, after the electoral race in Dnipro, most pages stopped sharing the ads related to any social or political matters. As soon as in the early December, 8 of 19 network’s pages (Борис Філатов, ДніпроTalk, Днепровская губерния, Комунальний контроль, ДніпроTV, Не сегодня, Наши бадминтонисты, and Типичная Оболонь) stopped sharing any ads at all. The pages of the Proposition party and a candidate for deputies Serhiy Pustovyi saw the decrease in ads, too. While the party posts in February, 2021, still mentioned the merits of Borys Filatov, the promoted posts from Serhiy Pustovyi were dedicated to local issues only. Other 9 pages (Горсовет, Реальный Днепр, Я – ДНЕПР, Днепровская панорама, Afisha Dnepra, Файне місто Дніпро, Наше місто , and Днепр оперативный) recategorized their focus and now only post news pieces.
Nevertheless, they still show elements of coordinated behaviour.
The coordinated behaviour, establishment of the bot farms, discreditation waves against the opponents and shared disinformation through an array of pages – all of it is possible due to social media. As of today, the Ukrainian law lacks any provisions or restrictions for online campaigning, not even on social media; there are no measures to combat disinformation, both during the election process, and beyond. Thus, currently, there is a possibility to register the shared campaigning materials on Facebook only, since other social media do enable the tracking of promoted posts shared on their platforms. Advertising agencies offering the services for political advertising online might have breached the existing electoral law (such as shared the “mobilization waves” of ads on election day) but they cannot be currently brought to liability. After all, operations of such agencies are a symptom, among others, showing the urgency for legal regulation of social media. If the regulation cannot be entered on top of agenda, the influence on public opinion similar to Dnipro may expand to the entire territory of Ukraine and jeopardize the legitimacy of the entire election process.