Pro-Russian Facebook Ads Target Italy and Poland Elections Amid EU Probe

In the days leading up to the European elections, hundreds of pro-Russian ads have been found circulating on Facebook, targeting voters in Italy and Poland. This comes despite an ongoing EU investigation into Meta's handling of disinformation on its platform.

Key Takeaways

  • Hundreds of pro-Russian ads are spreading on Facebook in Italy and Poland.
  • The ads are part of a larger disinformation campaign previously flagged in France and Germany.
  • The European Commission is investigating Meta for potentially failing to limit the spread of disinformation.
  • Researchers found that many of these ads were not labeled as political, violating EU regulations.

Disinformation Campaign Expands

According to new research shared with POLITICO, a well-known Russian influence campaign has expanded its reach to Italy and Poland. Initially flagged in April for targeting French and German users, the campaign has now spread to other European countries just days before the European Parliament elections scheduled for June 6-9.

Researchers from AI Forensics and CheckFirst reported that about 275 covert sponsored posts with anti-Ukraine and anti-EU narratives reached over 3 million Facebook users in France, Germany, Italy, and Poland in May. The material impact of these ads remains unclear, but their timing is concerning as millions of Europeans prepare to vote.

EU's Response and Meta's Role

The European Commission has used its new supervisory powers to open a probe into Meta, suspecting the company of failing to limit the spread of disinformation under the Digital Services Act (DSA). Commission officials have criticized Meta for being a "soft target" for Russian foreign manipulation due to its inadequate policing of ads.

Paul Bouchaud, one of the researchers, stated, "Meta reviews, approves, and delivers propaganda ads to millions of EU citizens just days before the elections. If we can detect such foreign interference in real time, Meta should be able to as well."

Amaury Lesplingart, co-founder of NGO CheckFirst, added, "The surge of illegal ads navigating the platforms' rules is a wake-up call for Meta and regulators to enforce the DSA more thoroughly."

The Ads and Their Impact

Using a well-known playbook exposed in previous investigations, researchers detected hundreds of fake accounts that managed to buy ads on Meta to promote their messages in several large European countries. The algorithm, devised by Bouchaud, found ads most likely connected to an operation dubbed Doppelganger, first uncovered in 2022.

Examples of the ads include:

  • Poland: Ads with the message "Ukraine has no place in the EU," featuring images of men exchanging wads of cash, reached over 4,000 Facebook users.
  • Italy: Ads from nine different fake accounts showed a photo of jobseekers in Madrid with the message, "Our leaders must invest in Italy... But they don't seem to care about us. They keep spending billions of our money on someone else's war in Ukraine, sacrificing our future for it."

Meta's Defense and Future Actions

Meta has disputed the researchers' findings, arguing that the definition of political ads used in the research was flawed and that many ads were blocked before publication. A Meta spokesperson stated, "The sample of ads included in this research had already been blocked and disabled prior to this report, most within hours of creation, as part of our security team’s routine, daily enforcements against inauthentic behavior."

The European Commission is currently analyzing the new findings and plans to hold another roundtable with major online platforms, including Meta, on June 3. The Commission aims to ensure that platforms comply with the DSA and effectively combat disinformation.

This article has been updated to add a link to the report.