On Tuesday, Mikhail Degtyarev, an MP from the far-right Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, sent a letter to Minister of Telecom and Mass Communications Nikolai Nikiforov requesting that action be taken against Ukrainian bots he said are unfairly targeting Russian-language Facebook users. In a tweet responding to the news, an arm of the Ukrainian government's Ministry of Information Policy seemed to thank those responsible for creating the bots.
Degtyarev, who posted his letter to Nikiforov on Live Journal, complained that bots—fake accounts created to spam news and social media websites—are reporting Russian language profiles to Facebook's “abuse team” for their commentary on political developments in Ukraine.
…многие пользователи из нашей страны все чаще подвергаются “бану” – временной или полной блокировке аккаунта. Блокировка формально осуществляется за нарушение “правил Фэйсбука”, но в большинстве случаев либо правила реально не нарушены, либо нарушены – но в записях годичной (и более) давности.
Несмотря на то, что руководство Фэйсбука уверяет, что каждый случай рассматривается персонально экспертами по конфликтам из “Abuse Team”, в реальности блокировка осуществляется по совокупности жалоб на аккаунт. Причем блокируются именно аккаунты тех людей, которые негативно отзываются о событиях на Украине и об украинской “власти”. На эти аккаунты в “Abuse Team” Фэйсбука поступают массовые жалобы от украинских “ботов”…Есть подозрение, что в этой комиссии русскоязычным сектором занимаются украинцы либо русские эмигранты, политически ангажированные определенным образом.
…many users from our country are increasingly being subjected to bans – their accounts are being temporarily or completely blocked. Accounts are formally blocked for violating the “rules of Facebook,” but in the majority of cases either the rules weren't actually broken or they were broken a year ago (or longer). Despite the fact that Facebook's leadership assures us that every case is addressed personally by conflict experts from the “Abuse Team,” in reality the block comes after complaints against the account have been lodged. What's more, people who say negative things about the events in Ukraine and Ukrainian “events” are the ones being blocked. The “Abuse Team” is receiving a large number of complaints about these accounts by Ukrainian “bots”…There is suspicion that the Russian-speaking parts of this group are Ukrainians, or Russian émigrés engaged in politics in one way or another.
In his appeal to Nikiforov, Degtyarev pointed the finger at the Ukrainian government, suggesting that “Ukrbots” are creations of the country's security service intended to stifle Russian-language debates about Ukraine. “As a result,”Degtyarev complained, “serious political discussions about Ukraine on Facebook are practically impossible to have.”
The “Ukrainian Information Forces,” a group created by the much-maligned Ukrainian Ministry of Information Policy, responded to Degtyarev's appeal with a tweet thanking those who report alleged abuse on Facebook. Though the extent of the relationship between the the ministry and the Facebook bots is unclear, Information Forces’ tweet seemed to suggest at the very least a tacit endorsement of those who created the bots.
— ІнфоВійська України (@i_army_org) September 13, 2016
A big thanks to everyone involved in this.
Degtyarev's complaint is the latest in a back-and-forth between the Ukrainian and Russian governments over bot interference on social media. Both Ukrainian and Russian activists have drawn attention to “troll farms” that they say are organized by Kiev and Moscow and intended to push state government propaganda or suppress dissenting opinions. In August 2014, a group of Ukrainian activists wrote to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg complaining about the Kremlin's bot army. Facebook did not take any direct action in response. In May of 2015, President Petro Poroshenko asked that Zuckerberg open an office in Ukraine in order to better address the issue. Zuckerberg said Facebook might do so in the future, but did not say when.
Russian activists have also complained about Facebook's abuse policies: last summer, Russian bloggers pointed out that Facebook had suspended the accounts of anyone using the word “khokhol”—a derogatory word for Ukrainians—in their status updates. They argued, like Degtyarev, that Facebook's decisions to block accounts are not based on “community standards,” as the company says, but rather on the volume of complaints.
But bots aren't only tools in the information war between Russia and Ukraine; they're also increasingly used to attack domestic enemies: just last week, the Facebook account belonging to Nazar Kholodnitsky, Ukraine's anti-corruption prosecutor, was attacked by bots and blocked. As journalist Ayder Muzhdabayev wrote on Facebook, the attacks seem to have been sponsored by Kholodnitsky's opponents inside Ukraine.
In light of Facebook's reluctance to take action against bots, the question becomes: will Kiev or Moscow take measures to tackle the problem themselves?