In the era of Twitter and Facebook just about anyone can create a new media resource with just a few clicks. It’s simple and cheap. This kind of democratization of the information space allows the new media to quickly carve out a niche and promote themselves to attract the attention of target audience, but it also leads to negative consequences by bringing the methods of manipulating public opinion to a whole new level. Over the past few years, Ukrainians have been subjected to many manipulation methods. These include coordinated networks of social media pages, clickbait headlines that trigger emotional reaction and help both truthful and fake news go viral, as well as sock-puppet farms – networks of fake user accounts that comment on social media posts to create an illusion of their popularity. Although the social media companies treat such activities as a violation of their standards, we still see hundreds of fake pages that are using these tools.

In late March 2023, OPORA published the findings of extensive research study on the activities of coordinated network of 30 “patriotic” news pages that were building an audience on Facebook with the help of clickbait and disinformation. These pages caught our attention by the fact that they often posted information about the death of Ukrainian soldiers or celebrities. The authors of these posts prompted users to follow the links to learn more about circumstances surrounding the death. As for the social media companies, they were more eager to make profit from selling ad space to users (part of this profit went into the pockets of Russian advertisers) rather than check the veracity of posted information. Publication of OPORA’s research findings yielded results: the majority of identified Facebook pages that were monetizing human grief  have already been deleted. However, it is obvious that the several dozen pages identified by OPORA are just a drop in the ocean of disinformation content.

OPORA decided to go the extra mile, so in this article we will present the findings of an even larger study of fake news pages on Facebook.

Patriotism, human grief and 62 million followers

Our previous research was focused almost exclusively on one single network of Facebook pages. All administrators of these pages were physically located in Armenia, while distributing news to a Ukrainian audience. This time, we didn’t limit ourselves to the analysis of foreign influences and gave due consideration to the pages whose administrators live in Ukraine and spread disinformation with the aim of destabilizing the country from the inside. Based on the results of our previous research, we created a database consisting of several dozen Facebook communities. With the help of community search tool, we expanded the database by adding 120 pages that spread fake news in the Ukrainian segment of Facebook audience.

The majority of identified pages are notable for their names: they emphasize their patriotic orientation (Unbreakable Country, Glory to Ukraine - Glory to Heroes, Ukraine Will Be Victorious), mimic the real media (Visti-UA, Life-bbcccnn) or choose abstract names (5 minutes, Life is - ?, Bombshell). Most of them (69 pages) were created in the 2014-2021 timeframe, but the most dramatic increase in number was recorded after the start of full-scale invasion. In particular, the 2022–2023 period was marked by creation of 48 pages that actively spread disinformation among Ukrainian users.

The first thing that catches attention is the size of the audience of such “shitbox news” pages. Overall, more than 62 million users subscribed to 120 pages that were selected for our research, meaning that each page has an average of 505 thousand followers. Zvistka news page (2.9 million followers), News of Ukraine and the World (2.3 million) and In the world of wonders (1.9 million) are the ones that attracted the largest audience. In the past year, we recorded 44 million user interactions with the content of Facebook pages added to our database. In particular, users left 4.7 million comments, 36.8 million likes or other reactions. They also shared the content to their personal pages or other communities 2.89 million times.

The logical question that arises here is: how did these pages become so popular? The most obvious answer is heavy advertising. However, only 21 out of 120 analyzed pages made use of paid promotion services (mainly in the 2019-2020 timeframe), while the majority of advertising posts related to national and local elections in Ukraine. Furthermore, we didn’t find any large networks of pages that could stimulate a discussion by artificial means. The real reason why these pages enjoy high popularity is the nature of content disseminated by them. In our previous research, we detected a consistent pattern: sad emoticons account for 25% of user reactions to the content published on these pages over the past year.

OPORA analyzed the content published on these pages to find out the reasons why they draw such a reaction from subscribers. The bulk of published content is made up of news reports presented in an overly emotional style. The main aim of these publications is to shape public sentiment rather than convey a certain message to the readership. Furthermore, these publications often touch upon widely discussed topics in order to get more views, likes and reposts. For example, three different pages conducted an opinion poll in the same week, asking their followers if the military should get an increase in pay. The answers were given in the comments under the post, which led to increase in user activity.

All 120 pages are parasitic on Ukrainian military and civilian casualties. The vast majority of them (94.9%) post at least one message a day to inform about the death of Ukrainian soldier. Some of the analyzed pages, such as Wave of news  and My country, are almost entirely dedicated to publishing the obituaries.

However, there are two sides to the coin. The majority of pages (89.1%) that publish tragic posts about the death or injury of the Ukrainian military also inform about fake achievements of the Armed Forces of Ukraine. Although we genuinely believe that the Armed Forces of Ukraine are capable of destroying the Crimean bridge, conducting a successful offensive operation and setting off an explosion in Moscow, publication of fake news will hardly help the AFU in any way. Such publications create inflated expectations that can’t be fulfilled, which will eventually result in even higher disappointment.

Furthermore, the pages analyzed by OPORA often publish astrological predictions, forecasts and horoscopes promising that the war will end soon or that Putin’s days are numbered.

As we can see, almost every publication on these pages aims to evoke readers’ emotions: make them feel sad or depressed about military and civilian casualties, or induce excessive joy over “liberation of dozens of villages and towns”. The more emotional the content, the more user views and reactions it receives.

It is telling that Facebook page is not the primary source of fake news or emotionally colored stories that were detected by OPORA. According to Crowdtangle analytics service, 86.5% of the posts that have been published on the analyzed pages over the past year contain links to other websites, which is the main thing that distinguishes the so-called “media” from real Ukrainian media (for example, only 57% of the posts published on the Facebook page of “Ukrainska Pravda” contain links to its official website). This finding prompted us to take a closer look at the “news” websites themselves.

Deeper down the rabbit-hole: disinformation websites

A large part of these 120 pages have their own websites, where the content was published for the first time before being distributed through Facebook and other social media platforms. Based on the results of analysis of Facebook pages, we expanded our database by adding new websites that serve as a primary source of content published on these pages. We identified 177 websites, of which 77 are linked to 2 or more pages. The most popular of these are: (linked to 11 pages), (11 pages), (9 pages), (8 pages) and kraina-news.pp .ua (6 pages). OPORA performed an in-depth analysis of the websites that are linked to two or more clickbait pages. All websites were created in the 2018-2022 timeframe, and all of them were transferred to a new domain after the start of full-scale invasion.

All websites have a simple design, similar ‘clickbait’ style headlines and content. The headlines often include emotionally colored phrases like “BREAKING NEWS” or “YOU WILL BE SHOCKED” (capital letters are used to emphasize that the content is “sensational”). It is noteworthy that the majority of websites replace some Ukrainian letters with Latin characters  or other symbols that look similar in appearance. Apparently, this technique helps them bypass the monitoring systems of social network services.

After turning off the ad blocker, we got a full picture of the ‘brave new world’ that exists on these websites. Almost all web pages serve the ads sourced from two platforms: adskeeper and mgid. OPORA analyzed the advertising activity of these companies within the framework of previous research, which helped us detect the advertisements of financial fraud schemes and dubious medical drugs that allegedly bring profits to Russians.

We came across patently false and fraudulent content while analyzing the pseudo-sensational messages containing insider insights from the frontline, predictions of fortune-tellers and astrologers, or mourning the dead. For example, launched a fake fundraising campaign to help the injured serviceman Maksym Tykhonenko. In November 2022, Tykhonenko touched off a mine and actually lost both legs. However, the man in the photo published by is not Tykhonenko, although he looks something like Maksym. Back in 2020, this same photo was used by to raise money for medical treatment of fire victim Dmytro Kyrievsky (we don’t know whether this fundraiser is a scam or not).

With the help of Crowdtangle, we detected 1,610 posts in public groups and pages containing identical text of fake fundraiser, except for two differences: card details and the photo of victim. Overall, there were almost 150,000 user interactions with these posts, including likes, comments and reposts. Although the real Maksym Tykhonenko was injured 6 months ago, the scammers are still using his name to enrich themselves.

We also came across a post in Facebook group focused on exposing fraudulent fundraising activities. It contains screenshots of pseudo-fundraisers with identical card details that collect money for medical treatment of injured soldiers and seriously ill children. However, we couldn’t find the original publications that were depicted in screenshots.

Therefore, the websites not only spread provocative and manipulative content in order to show dubious ads to as many users as possible, but also create fraudulent content.

How to overcome the disinformation Goliath?

The state authorities, civic organizations and ordinary Ukrainians currently focus their efforts on protecting the Ukrainian media space from Russian influence. The Ukrainian Center for Countering Disinformation and other fact-checking resources work around the clock to prevent Russia from accessing Ukrainian information space and manipulating the opinions of our citizens. However, Ukrainian media space is under constant threat of manipulative influence from within the country as well.

The findings of this study once again prove that the Ukrainian online media space is faced with disinformation campaigns. They take place at two different levels: (1) firstly, campaign sponsors create a coordinated network of websites for publication of manipulative or false information, which is then (2) distributed through similar networks of Facebook pages. Cooperation between the Ukrainian authorities and social media companies as well as vigilant Ukrainian users are essential to ensuring effective counteraction of disinformation activities.

At the end of January 2023, the National Center for Operations and Technology Management of Telecommunications Networks acting under the State Service of Special Communication and Information Protection issued an order to create a centralized system for automatic blocking of phishing websites in Ukraine. The Ukrainian internet providers were supposed to connect to this system by March 2, 2023, but it didn’t happen. As a result, fraudulent web resources continue to increase in number. The use of phishing websites to promote fake fundraisers that collect money for medical treatment of injured soldiers discredits the whole volunteer movement, which is key to Ukraine’s victory in the war.

P.S. In the course of this research, OPORA’s analyst discovered that her grandmother subscribed to one of the “shitbox news” pages. This discovery prompted our analyst to conduct an audit of grandmother’s Facebook feed in order to get rid of fraudulent and intimidating content providers.