Sunday

5th Feb 2023

European politicians caught with Russian 'fake likes'

  • Online, people tend to associate high engagement and 'likes' with quality

Fake 'likes' and comments have been bought for European politicians and political parties to possibly manipulate voters via EU-based sites subcontracting to Russian firms.

Sebastian Bay, a senior expert at the Riga-based Nato Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence, said they had found examples of people gaming the system by buying online engagement to falsely boost popularity on social media platforms.

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"Ten to 15 percent maybe of the commercial bots that we have identified have been used for political manipulation," he told reporters last week, noting the figure is worldwide in scope.

But the 15 percent also includes Europe, representing a total of several thousand bots in a research experiment carried out by the Riga-based centre, also known as Nato Stratcom, which specialises in ways online influence works.

Bay and his team were able to disclose the charade by buying the bots themselves and then seeing who else paid for the same services.

The vast majority of the bots were used for commercial ends, including Instagram celebrities covertly obtaining likes or views to dupe advertisers into paying more for advert placements.

Restaurants and hair salons also tried to make themselves appear more popular online.

Bay would not disclose the sites of the political parties, noting instead that the limited sample size of the experiment doesn't give any real insight into how big the problem really is.

Some of the fake engagement may have also been bought by someone else, without the explicit knowledge of the politician or political party, he pointed out.

Most of the political engagement were found on Facebook, and to a lesser extent on Twitter and Instagram.

Outsourcing to Russia

Although there could a lot more, Bays said they identified 70 companies based in Europe that sell social media engagement to people.

Most are sub-contracted to Russian firms and software manufacturers, some of which provide 24-hour customer support and even issue receipts.

"When it comes to this backbone, we haven't found anyone else other than Russian and some Romanian companies I have seen and that is in the European market," he said.

In a further twist, the firms openly advertise on Google, meaning the US giant is generating a profit from services designed to dupe the wider public.

One such company is Social Media Daily, based in Germany.

Last year, it turned a €600,000 profit by buying likes and comments primarily from Russian sub-contractors and then selling them to Europeans at inflated prices, said Bay.

Terms and conditions, found on their website, notes their fakes are only used for commercial manipulation; not politics.

But other similar firms may not care if it is political or commercial, given the sale process is entirely automated from start to finish without any human oversight.

Limited regulation

The blurring of the two is likely to pose some tricky questions on regulation.

Earlier this year, the European Union had passed a law to tighten the rules on how a vendor has been ranked on platforms like Amazon.

Last week, a study found fake reviews for top hotels listed on TripAdvisor.

But those rules don't apply to people who want to buy likes to kick start an online business, for instance.

Instead, the EU has targeted social platforms themselves in the wider fight against disinformation.

It means the likes of Germany's Social Media Daily are broadly left alone, as fake reviews and likes become an increasingly growing commodity.

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