How to spend a million to promote fictitious ranking and make half a hundred fake people praise (and later — discredit) a candidate for the Kyiv city mayor.
Have you seen a picture on social media with the “rating” where Andriy Palchevskyi was ahead of Donald Trump and run up to Joe Biden? The joke is based on real events: in the recent weeks, Facebook users, and not only Kyiv citizens, have seen in their newsfeeds the ads with the “sociological poll” results. According to them, a Kyiv mayoral candidate Andriy Palchevskyi is catching up with the incumbent city mayor Vitaliy Klitschko. OPORA decided to figure out the suspicious Facebook activity of the support group of Palchevskyi, a TV host, a businessman, and a leader of “Peremoha” (lit. – Victory).
When in March, 2020, we researched the links between the most popular pages of Ukrainian Facebook, we found several networks, groups of pages synchronized to share identical content. One such network includes three pages — Украина Онлайн (lit. – Ukraine Online), Свободная Украина (lit. – free Ukraine), and Асоціація платників податків. Київ (lit. - Association of Taxpayers. Kyiv). It actively uses paid posts to promote a politician, a businessman, and a TV presenter Andriy Palchevskyi. The pages are synchronized to post the following things, among others:
[The results of recent opinion polls in Kyiv generated the following ratings…:]
These are the results of a sociological survey run by the Center for Social Development “Inter-action” in September, 2020.
Publication of ratings, the same as payment for their promotion in social media, is not prohibited by law. However, the Electoral Code sets restrictions on the publications of such posts. Opinion poll results must include the information on time of taking the poll, the territory covered, the size and methodology for sampling, the survey methods, etc. The “Intter-action” failed to follow the requirements (by the way, you can find the agency in the Database of pseudo-sociologists compiled by the Texty online outlet). Moreover, they definitely exaggerate the ratings of Andriy Palchevskyi and his party “Palchevskyi Victory.” The differences between the figures by “Inter-action” and the survey results by other sociological companies are striking.
It does not seem like a coincidence: other advertised posts shared by the three pages relate to similar “surveys” or compare Palchevskyi to Klitschko:
In September, 23 advertized posts were shared from the network pages. They mostly duplicated each other. Identical posts were launched on three pages within the same time spans (however, the ad promotion on the page Асоціація платників податків. Київ may start or end a day before). The most interesting thing is the cost. To share the posts, some USD 31,000 to 37,300 was spent, or UAH 880,000—1,060,000. The precise amount cannot be quoted as Facebook only shows the range of costs.
The costs were distributed between the pages in the following way:
- Асоціація платників податків. Київ spent about USD 12,000 – 14,000 ads;
- Свободная Украина – from USD 10 to 12 thousand;
- Украина Онлайн – from USD 8,500 to 10,500.
A million UHA a month for ads on Facebook — is it much or little? You can compare the costs of political parties for the first half of September. Some of them spend more, but their ads cover the entire Ukraine, or many regions.
Meanwhile, almost all ads of the three pages network targeted Kyiv (70.8%), where Palchevskyi is fighting for the mayor’s seat, and Kyiv Oblast (21.7%) where “Palchevskyi Victory” are running to local councils.
The page Асоціація платників податків. Київ belongs to the Kyiv territorial division of the All-Ukrainian NGO “Association of Taxpayers of Ukraine.” It was founded in November, 2014. From June, 25, 2019, to October, 3, 2020, the page spent on political ads almost USD 20,000. The “Opinion poll” with the exaggerated ratings for Palchevskyi was promoted by this page in November, 2019, in January and May, 2020. Initially, they advertised the links to the materials in the such media as Znaj.ua and Politeka. According to the monitoring by the Institute of Mass Information, they often post black PR or paid materials. In September, 2019, Facebook blocked the pages of Politeka and Znaj.ua because they manipulated public opinions. In Autumn, 2020, the page of the “Association of Taxpayers. Kyiv” was posting their “ratings” on their own.
There is an interesting coincidence: Kyiv territorial unit of the “Association of Taxpayers of Ukrqaine” NGO was chaired by Pavlo Pohyba. As informed by the “Petro and Mazepa” outlet, his wife Ludmyla Pohyba became the owner of the “ZNAJ” trademark and the “znaj.ua” domain in April, 2015, that were further promoted by the page Асоціація платників податків. Київ. At the recent elections of the Kyiv city mayor, Pavlo Pohyba was also actively promoting a candidate Serhiy Dumchev.
Асоціація платників податків. Київ have a Telegram channel, where they actively criticize Kyiv mayoral candidates Vitaliy Klitschko, Iryna Vereshchuk, Serhiy Prytula. As to Palchevskyi, he has never been flattered by the “taxpayers.” However, sometimes the channel reposts the Palchevskyi channel, and posts his appearances in the media, and the notorious pseudo ratings.
The pages Украина Онлайн and Свободная Украина were created on the same day – on June, 22, 2020. They seem to be created to share Palchevskyi ads specifically, because over the time of their existence they have only published two posts shown above.
There is knowledge of who pays for the ads — the disclaimers state that the pages are the advertisers. But according to Facebook rules, to publish political ads, you need to state a telephone number, a website, and address of the organization paying for the ads. Thus, according to this data, all the three pages are the neighbours. The Асоціація платників податків. Київ stated they are located at the address of 24 Khreshchatyk Street (in the same building with the Ministry for Agrarian Policy and Food Industry of Ukraine). However, the actual office of the real Association of Taxpayers is at 8 Prorizna Street. Украина Онлайн and Свободная Украина are both located at the address of 6 Khreshchatyk Street (in the same building with the Department for Education and Science of the Kyiv City State Administration). The website of the Association of Taxpayers. Kyiv is inactive, while the websites of Украина Онлайн and Свободная Украина do not include any information, but for the name and address (literally no data):
Svobodnaya Ukraina (lit. – Free Ukraine)
These are not all the shared features of the three pages. They also share the tactics of using fake accounts (bots) to promote the posts. Activity of fake users are rather easy to spot. For example, under the following advertising posts of Украина Онлайн, Асоціація платників податків. Київ and Свободная Украина:
We analyzed 2,530 comments (find the list at the link) under the seven aqdvertized posts with the “ranking” shared by three pages, and found over fifty bots producing artificial activity in the comments. They are mostly speaking in favour of Palchevskyi, and praise him. They highlight that he is a “Kyiv-born” and an “experienced / well-deserved manager.” Otherwise, they complain the rating is untruthful, as the actual scores of Palchevskyi are even higher. The bots criticize Klitschko. Oddly enough, but the bots also praise another candidate for the Kyiv city head position — Mykola Tomenko.
[Valentyna Moroz: I think many people would agree with my opinion, that Palchevskyi managed to get to the lead for a good reason. He enjoys people’s trust, as he is not afraid to talk about problems and suggests new solutions.]
[Ania Tarasova: I wonder how many people participated in the poll. Otherwise, I am happy to see the results. I am sure, Palchevskyi will have grown his ratings before elections and win.]
[Alla Bogun: Klitschko is not a good administrator at all. Well, he had earned some money, that’s enough! He should be ashamed! Intellect is zero. He can’t even read from cheat paper! He is confused about word sand their meanings! How long will it take us to laugh at the clueless! He is a good boxer, that’s true. I used to watch all of his fights before, and I cheered for him. But let’s be objective, a good athlete does not mean a good manager. Andrey Ivanovich! Do not let any reporters to your place, or they might dump things. You can expect anything from enemies!]
[Natali Mir: As to Klitschko, it’s exaggerated. HIS RATING IS ZERO.]
[Inna Kovalenko: “Dear children, what do you think – who is to blame to have a gang of thuggish clowns rule the country: Igor Valeriyevich Kolomoyskiy, or your parents sick in their f*** heads?” A teacher Holoborodko.]
The bots mostly write the comments in Russian — Ukrainian language comments are a rare find.
Palchevskyi bots are diverse. A large number of fake accounts share the feature of not having photos, posts, or friends (such as the page of Angelina Vyatkovska). Some pages openly promote Andriy Palchevskyi, such as the page of Borys Dziubak (we also found the page of a real person wherefrom they borrowed the photos to create this bot — it is a blogger from Poland). There is also a group of bots where the pages look like the real people, with photos dating back to 2018 and 2019. If you take a closer look, you can see that most of the photos were added in June-August, 2020, “backdated.” Some exmaples include the pages of Oleh Babkin, Ania Tarasova and Yakiv Miroshnychenko:
Not all of the 63 fake accounts are prominent in comments to the advertised posts, but they equally actively comment at all the three pages. Some bots were active at all of them — comments from the user Yevgeniy Igorev could be seen both in Украина Онлайн, and on Свободная Украина and Асоціація платників податків. Київ:
[Yevgeniy Igorev: Wow, I wish good luck to Palchevskyi. I don’t like to see Klitschko continue his affairs here.]
[Yevgeniy Igorev: Andrey Ivanovich does a great job, his trust levels are growing more and more. I wish him luck.]
[Yevgeniy Igorev: I hope Palchevskyi eventually wins. It is so painful to see Kyiv under the rule of Klitschko.]
[Liusia Zaytseva: Finally, do I see the proper rating, but the fact that Klitschko is on the top position is confusing, he will kill his rating himself. We are looking forward to have an experienced manager as a mayor!]
[Liusia Zaytseva: We need the real change, and also the punishment for those who deserved it. That is why I am going to support Palchevskyi, he can understand it as no one else!]
The latter category of bots includes those that commented under one post only. For example, Marina Smirnova, who commented on the advertised post on the page of Асоціація платників податків. Київ and had the top number of reactions for her comment:
[Marina Smirnova: Great news! I support Palchevskyi myself, and he is the one I want to see as the next Kyiv city mayor. I think, he is going to have all the chances to gain the upper position.]
Bots in Facebook is not a new phenomenon. In September, 2019, Facebook blocked the pages of Politeka and Znaj.uа for the multiple use of bots to moderate communication in the communities. It goes against the rules of the social media.
As we can see, at this local elections, the pages Украина Онлайн, Асоціація платників податків. Київ and Свободная Украина, that often post links to Politeka and Znaj.ua, and might be related to one of the outlets, have also been using bots to impact public opinion. Usage of bots is rather dangerous: since no person feels like be in the minority, massive attacks of bots may impact their choices to vote for a certain candidate.
The situation changes....
While we were drafting this material for publication, Украина Онлайн, Асоціація платників податків. Київ and Свободная Украина suddenly stopped posting the opinion polls and assumed the position opposite to the previous views. While earlier, ads only had praising comments about Andriy Palchevskyi, now, they all focus on discrediting him:
[A blogger debunked the myths about Palchevskyi that he generated about himself.
Title: No property, and sacked his family: new facts popping up… ]
[Litigated with his wife for money, and does not pay child support.
Title: “Rents a sleep mattress in a shared apartment: Palchevskyi pretended to be…]
It is notable that the pages Свободная Украина and Асоціація платників податків. Київ that were sharing fake opinion polls in favour of Palchevskyi some two weeks before now accuse him of that, and predict his “failure at local elections”:
[Title: Andriy Palchevskyi party predicted to fail at local elections: rating data]
[Andriy Palchevskyi caught at sharing fake opinion polls.
Title: Palchevskyi launching fake polls trying to convince everyone he had…]
Speaking of bots we identified before, this time, the pages of Свободная Украина and Украина Онлайн did not have them active at all. However, on the page of Асоціація платників податків. Київ , we found some of them.
[Violetta Herasymchuk: I would entrust the capital city to Palchevskyi. Because he has the managerial experience, he is a Kyiv born, and surely does not have any financial tycoons behind. He succeeded to earn the money himself, working in US and other corporations, he earned millions by this day, and successfully invested them into business in Ukraine.]
[Violetta Herasymchuk: High time! The conman should be thrown away from elections in Ukraine, especially when you take a look at his political force. The gang does not inspire any confidence with me]
[Elena Sinitsa: For me, Andrey Palchevskyi is an embodiment of hope to reclaim Kyiv for Kyivites, rather than developers, oligarchs, and other financial groups of influence… I hope he manages to win, for our sake!]
[Elena Sinitsa: It turned out that Palchevskyi is not a person he pretends to be. Unfortunately, many people are right when they say he is a conman.]
In addition to the network of these pages related to Palchevsky, OPORA detected another similar network functioning in the interests of Viktor Medvedchuk, a head of political council of the “Opposition Platform – For Life.” But it will be another story in the following text.