A US-Sanctioned Oligarch Ran Pro-Kremlin Ads on Facebook—Again

Last February, when researchers at London-based nonprofit Reset found that Meta was allowing Ilan Shor, a Moldovan oligarch with links to the Kremlin, to run an ad campaign on Facebook, the company promised to stop him. But Shor, whom the United States sanctioned for illegally financing political parties in Moldova and pushing Russian disinformation, wasn’t finished.

Just months after Meta said it would stop Shor’s ads, according to new research from Reset shared exclusively with WIRED, Shor and his eponymous Shor Party had spun up an even more elaborate advertising campaign on Facebook that aimed to destabilize Moldova’s local elections in November and undermine Moldova’s entry to the European Union.

Over six months, the campaign used more than 100 fake Facebook pages to run hundreds of ads that amassed 155 million impressions and earned Meta at least $200,000 in revenue, according to Reset’s research. Several of the ads even featured deepfake videos of Moldova’s pro-Western president, Maia Sandu, wearing a hijab and announcing her intention to resign.

Despite multiple clear signals of a coordinated campaign by an individual who was banned from advertising on the platform, Meta’s automated and human systems failed to track and remove the campaign. For Reset, uncovering the Shor campaign was trivial.

“The way that I found the second campaign is simply I typed the name ‘Ilan Shor’ into Facebook’s ad archive,” a researcher at Reset, who did not want to be identified to protect their privacy, tells WIRED.

Ads posted by Shor’s group were active on Tuesday afternoon, according to a WIRED review of the Facebook Ad Library. As of Wednesday morning, after WIRED reached out to Meta, many of the ads were marked “inactive.”

“Facebook and Instagram have become the handmaidens of Vladimir Putin’s covert campaign to disrupt European democracy, perhaps nowhere more egregiously than in Moldova,” Ben Scott, director at Reset, tells WIRED. “If Meta cannot prevent Russian agents from running obvious influence operations aimed at toppling a democratic government, it indicates they are not serious about the most basic threat mitigation. After a year of massive tech layoffs on product safety teams around the world, our findings are an ominous sign of what is to come in the upcoming Moldovan presidential and European parliamentary elections.”

Meta declined to respond to WIRED’s specific questions about how Shor was able to restart a new campaign a few months after it was alerted to his previous campaign, but it says it removed Shor’s ability to buy ads after he was sanctioned.

“Malicious actors like this are persistent, and as we’ve said before, we’ve previously detected efforts to use other Pages and accounts in an attempt to amplify content related to him,” Ben Walters, a Meta spokesperson, tells WIRED. “We have and will continue to take action when we find inauthentic behavior, or content, or ads that violate our policies.”

Sandu’s office declined to comment on the report.

Shor was sanctioned by the US in late 2022 for working with the Kremlin to undermine Sandu’s government and “return Moldova to Russia’s sphere of influence,” the US Treasury Department said at the time. Moldovan authorities also banned Shor’s party in June 2023 after the oligarch was sentenced in absentia to 15 years in prison on fraud and money laundering charges. Shor lived in Israel at the time, though he has reportedly departed the country, and his current whereabouts are unknown.

US companies like Meta are prohibited from engaging in financial transactions with sanctioned individuals and groups. The Treasury Department, which manages the sanctions program, did not respond to WIRED’s request for comment.

Shor’s initial ad campaign that Reset identified early last year called for uprisings and protests against the pro-Western government in Moldova. Compared to the most recent campaign, however, it was much smaller in size and coordination.

The second ad campaign, which began in July, was designed to target local elections that took place in Moldova at the beginning of November. The campaign ramped up in September when the ads were viewed more than 40 million times, Reset found.

The campaign does not appear to have made any effort to hide who was behind it. Almost all of the 609 ads Reset detected directly mention the names Ilan Shor or political candidates connected to Shor’s parties. Around 40 percent of the ads feature video footage in which Ilan Shor’s face is clearly visible, while other videos feature the official logo of the Shor party.

Reset identified 108 Facebook pages that were part of the advertising campaign, all of which were anonymous accounts that had posted no other content prior to the ads being bought. The pages were renamed and rebranded just days before they deployed the ads, to make them look as if they were Moldovan media outlets. Only 14 of the pages involved were deactivated by Meta before Reset published its report.

“This campaign was pretty easy, straightforward to spot, if you care to do anything about political advertising in Eastern Europe, which is not the case,” the Reset researcher says.

Sandwiched between western Ukraine and Romania, Moldova is Europe’s poorest country, with a population of just 2.6 million people. While it is in the process of applying for EU membership, Moscow has long sought to regain control of what was once part of the USSR.

Shor’s Facebook ad campaign was part of a much broader destabilization effort conducted by the Kremlin in the lead-up to Moldova’s local elections, with the Moldovan security chief putting the estimated cost of the entire campaign at over $55 million, which reportedly included large bribes to buy votes.

Since Moldova is not in the EU, it is not covered by the Digital Services Act (DSA), a law introduced by the EU to force tech companies to be more transparent about how they moderate their platforms.

In late October 2023, Facebook published its first transparency report since the DSA was enacted in July 2022. It shows that countries in Eastern Europe had very few moderators dedicated to monitoring content in their language. The company revealed that it has 35 moderators who speak Romanian, which is the national language of Moldova and is spoken by around 60 percent of the population. It is also, of course, spoken by the 20 million people who live in Romania.

In Slovakia, for example, which has a population of 5.5 million and held elections beset by disinformation last year, Facebook employs just 11 moderators who speak Slovak. Elsewhere, it has just six moderators who speak Lithuanian, a county of almost 3 million people, and only two moderators who speak Latvian, covering a population of around 2 million.

In contrast, Facebook’s transparency report shows that in Ireland, where Meta’s international headquarters is based, it employs 42 moderators who speak Irish, a language that less than 2 percent of the population speaks regularly.

“It’s Moldova, it’s Romanian and Russian languages, so it’s regions that Facebook has continuously proven not to care about,” the Reset research claims. “Eastern Europe is totally under the radar of any kind of content moderation or scrutinizing of how political advertising is done in those regions.”

Source : Wired