- - Monday, November 6, 2017

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

A year before fake news created in Russia was unleashed on the 2016 U.S. presidential election through social media, those of us in the Ukrainian government were warning Facebook about the likelihood that would happen. We have, sadly, become experts in fake news attacks.

Since Ukrainians elected Petro Poroshenko as their president and installed a new, pro-Western government in 2014, the country has been under assault by Russia, which backed Ukraine’s previous Kremlin-leaning government.

These attacks have been carried out in ways that are obvious: militarily, including the illegal seizure of Crimea and the insurgency in eastern Ukraine. And in ways that are less obvious: attempts to undermine the Poroshenko government and sow dissent via propaganda and fake news. Experts call this lethal combination Russia’s “hybrid war” against Ukraine.

Indeed, a report by Oxford internet Institute said that Ukraine was one of the first countries to face a “serious disinformation crisis.” The report stated what we know to be a fact. Ukraine is on the “front line” of “numerous disinformation campaigns.”

Russian entities, including a notorious fake news content factory identified as the internet Research Agency, devised misleading information and spread it throughout Ukraine by way of social media. Russian operatives used a full range of fake news tactics from trolling on Twitter to posting real-looking, though fake, U.S. news broadcasts that “reported” fictitious investigations against Ukrainian figures on YouTube.

Fake news had become so large a problem in Ukraine by 2014 that a nongovernmental organization called StopFake.org was set up to identify and debunk Russian disinformation. Earlier this year, President Poroshenko was forced to ban the use of two Russian-owned social networks in Ukraine that spread fake news. A poll conducted in February found that a majority of Ukrainians believe that Russian fake news and propaganda is a national threat.

Facebook was a favorite channel for those efforts to destabilize Ukraine.

In 2015, before it became a factor in the U.S. presidential election, I met with Facebook’s head of public policy for Central and Eastern Europe and the head of its Brussels office. I told them that we in Ukraine were worried about the way social media was acting as an accelerant for made-up news stories.

My colleagues and I in the Ukraine government were worried because the information campaign was working so well. Russian-propagated fake news on Facebook was seen as true by many Ukrainians. The reason: Facebook makes fake news stories easy to share with friends and family, multiplying its malicious intent.

Facebook’s response to my warning was disappointing. Company officials told me that Facebook is an open platform that allows everyone the possibility to communicate.

Now that the problem has hit in America, though, Facebook is taking a different tack. It has finally stepped up and taken responsibility for its part in the spread of malicious and false content. The Ukrainian government is glad to see the U.S. Congress calling the U.S. tech giants to testify. We hope that the U.S. internet and social media companies, which dominate the world market, will start to crack down on fake news.

In its testimony to the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism, Facebook said that 126 million Americans saw Russian-made political content during the two years prior to the 2016 U.S. election. The internet Research Agency fake content factory set up about 120 Facebook pages that posted 80,000 times and bought 3,000 ads, Facebook said.

Russia-created fake news spread through social media is a global problem. By necessity, Ukraine has become an experienced warrior against it. We are disappointed Facebook failed to heed our warnings two years ago, but hope it will do so now in the U.S.

• Dmytro Shymkiv is the deputy head of the presidential administration of Ukraine and secretary of the National Reform Council.

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