Earlier this month Facebook proudly announced its latest victory over fake news. Ahead of an upcoming parliamentary vote in Moldova, the company had removed 168 Facebook accounts, 28 pages, and 8 Instagram accounts it believed to be "engaging in coordinated inauthentic behavior." It was an important policing action for the Eastern European country, which is considered among the poorest and most corrupt in Europe. But it was a long time coming.
Moldovan developers told BuzzFeed News that they spent three years reporting to Facebook misinformation and fake news before the company took any material action. Their struggle to get Facebook's attention is indicative of how hard it can be to get the massive platform to focus on smaller markets, despite its pledge to protect international election integrity in the aftermath of the political interference that has flourished on its platform over the past few years.
Election-related propaganda and misinformation on Facebook is an ongoing problem for the platform and its users. It has caused trouble in the Philippines, where it played a key role in the election of Rodrigo Duterte, a president whose controversial drug war has racked up thousands of state-sanctioned extrajudicial killings. It’s caused unrest in Mexico, where a fake news network operated for months ahead of the country's election, even as the network's founder openly bragged about his work in the New York Times. And misinformation broadcast via Facebook’s WhatsApp messaging platform caused a massive scandal during the Brazilian election last October.
In Moldova, Facebook's unhurried (or entirely absent) response to misinformation reported through its own false news tool inspired a trio of developers, Victor Spînu, Gheorghe Pisarenco, and Sergiu Mitreanu, to build a browser extension and associated database for policing that content. They called it Trolless and used it to amass a database of 700 fake accounts. But it was only when a local activist named Paşa Valeriu put them in touch with a Facebook employee he'd met in January that the violating accounts they'd reported for years were finally banned.
"I managed to talk with people from Facebook and explained that we have serious trouble with a local troll farm and with Russian interference," Valeriu said. "They gave me a contact. That is the most important — to have anyone 'alive' from Facebook to talk to."
Working with Valeriu, the three developers were finally able to start an email dialogue with the company; they sent over their database of accounts, many of which were eventually banned.
“In the context of upcoming parliamentary elections and the critical situation in our country, we want to ask you to help us,” the email read. “We would like to propose our help with this issue. Our team consists of three people and we are ready to provide any assistance in order to make things happen faster.”
Spînu explained that his team had been trying to use Facebook's “false news” reporting tool to flag misinformation since 2016 — to little avail.
"We told them that their current reporting system doesn't work so well," Spînu said.
Reached for comment, Facebook said it had been investigating Moldovan misinformation pages since early January, but noted that the tip from the Trolless team did inform its purge earlier this month.
The Trolless team’s frustrating and inefficient experiences with Facebook’s reporting system isn’t a uniquely Moldovan problem. Guillaume Brossard, the cofounder of Hoaxbuster, a French misinformation hub that’s been active since 2000, told BuzzFeed News he’s had the same issues.
“It's the same for all of us: Nothing ever happened,” he said. “Whenever it's from a basic source or from a single profile, nothing happens.”
Brossard said that if you’re trying to flag fake news or fake profiles and you aren’t one of Facebook’s official in-country partners, like France 24’s the Observers, Africa Check, or Chequeado in Argentina, it’s almost impossible to get the company’s attention. And even if you do, you sometimes get the runaround. “It’s like, ‘Of course I know Hoaxbuster, and I personally think that you're doing a tremendous work. But at this point I'm not the right person, maybe you should talk to…’ and so on,” he said.
Aleksi Knuutila, who currently works on a project called Vaalivahti, which collects reports from users about digital political ads in Finland, told BuzzFeed News the situation is more or less the same for him.
“I've never seen any results from using the flagging system,” Knuutila said. “For responding to hate speech and abuse, I've heard some journalists have informal networks, and they ask a number of people to flag content as inappropriate, to get a response from the platform.”
Knuutil said Finland currently has an issue with blogs that look like news sites flooding Facebook with anti-immigration content. The biggest one was banned from Facebook, but the issue persists. Like Trolless in Moldova, he’s taken matters into his own hands with Vaalivaht.
“In terms of local tools, we have over 500 people crowdsourcing political ads with Vaalivahti,” he said. “This has uncovered some electoral campaigning with falsehoods, such as the outsider party Liike Nyt targeting videos with questionable claims about union corruption to supporters of the Social Democratic party.”
For Trolless, Facebook’s false news reporting mechanism is pretty basic. In an email sent to the company and provided to BuzzFeed News, the team described five key issues it felt were important for Facebook to address.
It asked the platform to remove all profiles in Moldova using a stolen identity, lock the accounts listed in the Trolless database until they could confirm the users' identities, block Facebook pages that are used to spread fake news, analyze connections between trolls and fake profiles to build out misinformation network maps, and to devote more Facebook's employees' attention to the fake news problem in Moldova.
"From 2016 we've tried to get their attention by constantly reporting these profiles," Spînu said. "Their reporting system doesn't do its job."
According to Facebook's blog post, the accounts and pages the company removed were posting local news, sharing manipulated images, and, in some cases, impersonating a local fact-checking organization.
Spînu said that the most common forms of misinformation in Moldova are rumors about prominent journalists and social activists. Moldova, which has a close proximity to Russia, has long struggled with fake news. Independent Moldovan media have been locked in an information war with the Kremlin for years. Moldovan social media is regularly awash with rumors about the European Union sending thousands of Syrian refugees into the country, fake celebrity deaths, and rumors of the coming apocalypse.
A common tactic leading up to this year’s election was to push hoaxes about political figures secretly being gay. He provided BuzzFeed News with a post his team discovered, claiming that the leader of opposition party in Moldova is a lesbian.
"[Facebook] said that they were watching the situation here," Spînu said. "But no actions were taken until [a week before the election]."
Still, the Trolless team was eventually successful in prompting Facebook ahead of Moldova's election, and Spînu wants to be clear that he's happy with the outcome.
"I don't want to sound like people from Facebook are bad guys here, they responded quickly once we got in contact with them," he said. "We hope that they will do more steps into making the reporting more efficient."
"It shouldn't be that hard."