A massive network of Facebook pages with viral content that reaches more Facebook users than some of the largest media outlets in the United States has been pushing pro-Trump propaganda and are run by Ukrainians.
In some of these pages, there are lots of references to “our country” and “our military.” The “I Love America” page is managed by ten people based in Ukraine – there is also one manager from Kazakhstan, and one from the United States. A website that was previously linked in the “About” section of the “I Love America” page is registered to Andriy Zyuzikov, an online strategist from the Ukrainian city of Odessa.
The “I Love America” page regularly recycles memes used by the Internet Research Agency, the Russian entity that set up phony Facebook pages to benefit Trump in advance of the 2016 election.
While “I Love America ” focuses on patriotism, in recent weeks it has used its extraordinary reach to push pro-Trump propaganda.
These pro-Trump memes are cross-posted from several explicitly pro-Trump pages, with names like “God bless Donald and Melania Trump and God bless America.” All of these pages, which were created in the last few months, are managed exclusively by people based out of Ukraine.
But the “I Love America” page is only the tip of the iceberg. There is a complex network of Facebook pages, all managed by people in Ukraine, that collect large audiences by posting memes about patriotism, Jesus, and cute dogs. These pages are now being used to funnel large audiences to pro-Trump propaganda. The pages have also joined political Facebook groups and are active on Instagram, which is owned by Facebook.
Facebook promised this would not happen again. “In 2016, we were not prepared for the coordinated information operations we now regularly face. But we have learned a lot since then and have developed sophisticated systems that combine technology and people to prevent election interference on our services,” Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg wrote in 2018.
While there is no indication that the Ukrainian network of Facebook pages is backed by any government, they are exposing Americans to a flood of inauthentic and manipulative content related to the 2020 election.
David Carroll, a professor at The New School and an expert in social media, called the existence of the Ukrainian network “troubling” and said it suggests Facebook has “not decided to use their own detection technology to prevent further dissemination by ‘inauthentic coordination.'”
While the “I Love America” page was created in 2017, in recent weeks it has cross-posted content from explicitly pro-Trump pages, including “Click Like, if you love Donald Trump as much as we do. TRUMP 2020,” “God bless Donald Trump and God bless America,” and “God bless Donald and Melania Trump and God bless America.” All of these pages, which were created in the last few months, are managed exclusively by people based in Ukraine.
The “I Love America” Facebook page has a massive reach on the platform that exceeds nearly all U.S. media companies. According to Crowdtangle, a social analytics company owned by Facebook, “I Love America” has more engagement — likes, shares, and comments — over the last 90 days than USA Today, one of the largest media organizations in the country with 8 million Facebook followers. Over the same period, the engagement of “I Love America” dwarfs major publications like the LA Times and digitally native outlets like BuzzFeed News. More engagement on Facebook corresponds directly to a bigger reach, and more people seeing the content.
“I Love America” is part of a complex network of Facebook pages managed by people in Ukraine that cross-post content and, more recently, direct users to pro-Trump propaganda. Some of these pages, including “Like our page if you are proud to be an American” and “Everyone should respect and stand for our American Flag. God Bless,” play on similar patriotic themes. But the network also attempts to draw in users with other interests, including cute animals.
For example, the “Cute or Not?” Facebook page, which was established in July 2017, has eight page managers based in Ukraine. (There is also one manager based in Kazakhstan and one in the United States.) Typically, it posts images of cute dogs.
But recently, “Cute or Not?” also has cross-posted content from “God bless Donald and Melania Trump and God bless America.”
“Cute or Not?” has also cross-posted content from other Facebook pages in the Ukrainian network, including “US Federal Insider.”
Ukrainians also operate a page called “I Love Jesus Forever.” Most of the posts, as you might expect, are about God and Jesus.
But the “I Love Jesus Forever” page has also started cross-posting pro-Trump memes from “God bless Donald Trump and God bless America.”
None of the IRA pages identified in the Mueller Report had more than 390,000 followers. The Ukrainian network is much larger, with “I Love America” boasting over a million followers and multiple pages with 400,000 followers or more.
It’s not possible, from outside the company, to identify the full scope of the Ukrainian network. But, using “I Love America” as a starting point, Popular Information cataloged pages overwhelming or exclusively managed from Ukraine that cross-posted each other’s content. Using Crowdtangle, which catalogs most of the larger pages, it is then possible to get a sense of the scope of the network’s reach.
Over the last 90 days, these pages have garnered 30 million engagements on Facebook.
To put that in perspective, over the same time period, New York Times, typically one of the top five publishers on Facebook, had less than 18 million engagements. The Washington Post, over the last 90 days, has 14 million engagements. The reach of this Ukrainian Facebook network, repurposing IRA memes and cute puppy pics, is as large as the two most prestigious papers in the United States combined.
The reach of the Ukrainian networks is now being weaponized to boost incendiary pro-Trump content. Although the explicitly pro-Trump pages are still small, one post published to “God bless Donald Trump and god bless America” has over 44,000 shares. It’s an extremely impressive number for a small page that was started just weeks ago.
The impact on American voters could be the same as the Russian election interfence, especially if the tactics include bombarding Americans with false and divisive political material.