“President’s trolls”

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At least 51% of the comments posted on Igor Dodon’s official Facebook page in October 2019 came from fake users. An analysis of all the comments on the official Facebook page of Igor Dodon in October 2019, allowed the detection of a group of Facebook accounts, having behind false and / or anonymous users artificially increasing the number of comments on the page. These “users” place exclusively praiseworthy and appreciative comments to Igor Dodon, supporting his activity and initiatives. The same group of fake users Facebook generated, in October 2019, almost 60% of the comments on the official website of Zinaida Grecianii.

Facebook is the most popular social network in the Republic of Moldova, being used by approximately 66% of the population. Thus, it is not surprising that Facebook has become an indispensable tool for communication and promotion for Moldovan politicians. For citizens, in the context in which the vast majority of traditional media is politically controlled, Facebook can be a platform for accessing information directly from political actors and from independent media. At the same time, if used by politicians to manipulate, social media can become a toxic informational environment in which trolls, misinformation and fake news, endanger free and fair information.

Trolls on social media are fake profiles that try to promote a certain opinion or distort the general perception of certain events. In a political context, trolls can be used to amplify messages, generate false debates, attack opponents or make illusions of online popularity, depending on the current needs of political actors.

The use of trolls for political propaganda is not a new phenomenon. In fact, the interference of online trolls of Russian origin in US presidential elections and elections in the European parliament has become a major issue in recent years, especially with the discovery of the “Russian troll farm” in St. Petersburg by the Internet Research Agency. Once the “Pandora’s box” was opened by major international actors, politicians and political campaign managers around the world began to instrumentalize online political trolling to advance their own agendas and interests in their countries.

Unfortunately, this practice has been taken over and internalized by the political actors in the Republic of Moldova. For example, in the midst of the 2019 parliamentary election campaign, Facebook announced the elimination of a series of accounts and pages that engaged in “coordinated unauthorized behavior”, some of them “related to employees of the Government of the Republic of Moldova”. However, the use of trolls by political actors in the Republic of Moldova continues unabated and, as we will see below, neither the presidential institution in the Republic of Moldova is an exception in this regard.

The official page of the President of the Republic of Moldova Igor Dodon on Facebook has 121 thousand followers, being the second most popular page of a politician in the Republic of Moldova. Every month its posts gather tens of thousands of reactions and thousands of comments. The vast majority of the posts on the page have an official character, summarizing the daily activity of the President at: meetings with national authorities and foreign officials, official ceremonies, meetings with citizens, statements and interviews given to the media, but also congratulatory messages on the occasion. religious holidays.

The number of posts per page is significant, only between October 1-31, 2019, 109 posts have been placed on the official page. The analysis of 107 posts on the official Facebook page of Igor Dodon in October 2019 revealed that, in total, they registered 1,462 public comments, from 436 distinct commentators.

A further examination of the most active commentators on the page revealed that the ranking of commentators on Igor Dodon’s page is dominated by fake troll users. They use a false profile picture, and a false identity, respectively, have a frequency of commenting on the page higher than the average frequency, and in the vast majority of cases have a disproportionately small number of virtual friends in the report with the number of comments they place.

For example, user Nikolai Tarasov, who is a very active commentator on Igor Dodon’s official website, hides under a false identity, using as a profile picture a photo of Russian photographer Valeri Zonov, placed on his VKontakte account. The pages of the social networks doesn’t indicate that he was generally concerned about the Republic of Moldova, especially the activity of Igor Dodon as president.

In fact, in the top 20 faithful commentators on the official page of the President of the Republic of Moldova, Igor Dodon, there are 16 fake users and only four real users. And, in total, of the 1,462 public comments registered in October 2019 on Igor Dodon’s Facebook page, 755 were posted by fake troll users. Thus, we can say with certainty that at least 51% of the comments posted on Igor Dodon’s official Facebook page in October 2019 came from fake troll users.

Top 20 commentators on Igor Dodon’s Facebook page in October 2019

Profile nameCommentsVirtual friends
(31.10.2019)
Profile picture belonging to another person
Roman Ursu8225yes
Кристина Брынковяну7820yes
Oleg Miller7633yes
Plămădeală Cristina7619yes
Mihai Sirbu75278yes
Инна Челак74876yes
Alex Corobcianu4444yes
Eva Cebotari4214yes
Крина Нодкина 36231yes
Татьяна Курачева310yes
Profil REAL  no
София Рудова28163yes
Profil REAL  no
Profil REAL  no
Nikolai Tarasov241074yes
Anastasia Guţu2177yes
Ecaterina Gutu20165yes
Elena Mardari2052yes
Profil REAL  no
Александр Мыдру133yes

The president’s trolls react positively to the posts on Igor Dodon’s page, artificially increasing the number of support messages through exclusively praiseworthy and appreciative comments to Igor Dodon and his activity.

In some cases, the trolls act as a defensive mechanism, entering into controversies with Igor Dodon’s critics, creating the illusion of unquestionable popular support. In fact, in many posts on Igor Dodon’s page, the comments section only contains messages written by trolls.

The president’s trolls are active supporters of Zinaida Grecianiii, president of the Socialist Party of the Republic of Moldova. Out of the total of 381 comments posted on its official page, 225 comments were generated by the same group of fake users who comment on Igor Dodon’s official page, which represents almost 60% of the comments.

Of course, Igor Dodon and/or the Socialist Party of the Republic of Moldova are not the only political actors in the country, who use trolls to promote political interests. Unfortunately, their behavior is in a generalized tendency to manipulate in the online environment.

This tendency acts to the detriment of democratic institutions, because online manipulative interference negatively influences the quality of public debates and the ability to seek common solutions to societal problems, often contributing to the accentuation of societal divisions. Finally, online manipulations contribute to the erosion of the foundation stone of democratic societies – free and fair elections, influencing through false information the decisions and electoral choices of citizens.

There are no simple solutions to such phenomena in the online environment, especially if they are automated and widely used. Finally, users are the ones who need to know to what extent the groups they belong to and the communities they post are contaminated with fake users, who have a certain political agenda in the back. Users’ preferences and decisions should also be based on an understanding of online misinformation patterns.

Sources:

Public Opinion Survey: Residents of Moldova May 8, 2019 – June 10, 2019, p. 77 : https://www.iri.org/sites/default/files/iri_moldova_may-june_2019_poll_final.pdf

Cum au fost manipulați americanii de hackeri și troli ruși, ca să iasă Trump președinte: https://www.vice.com/ro/article/bjeqym/americanii-au-fost-manipulati-de-hackeri-si-troli-rusi

Removing Coordinated Inauthentic Behavior From Moldova, 13 February 2019: https://newsroom.fb.com/news/2019/02/cib-from-moldova/ 

Din analiză au fost eliminate două postări din octombrie 2019: cea mai populară și cea mai puțin populară, în funcție de numărul de reacții publice.

[5] Au fost utilizate instrumentele de ”reverse image search” Google și Yandex, precum și site-uri specializate deschise de recunoaștere facială.

This study was conducted as part of a project funded by The Black Sea Trust for Regional Cooperation – a project of The German Marshall Fund. The views expressed in this material do not necessarily represent the position of The Black Sea Trust for Regional Cooperation, The German Marshall Fund, or its partners.

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