A group of Facebook accounts targeted Latvian Facebook users, calling for a boycott of the May 25 European Parliament elections
A small group of Facebook pages consisting of both private accounts and public groups encouraged the site’s users to boycott the European Parliament (EP) elections in Latvia next month.
The anti-election content produced by the group in mid-March was shared 46,166 times on Facebook. Although most of the traction looked organic, the case highlights digital strategies — sharing via groups, coordinating live videos, as well as other tactics — on Facebook that may be used to depress real-world political engagement as well as undermine the integrity of the electoral process.
The Facebook pages promoted a number of themes, in addition to calling for a boycott. Other topics that drove engagement included protests against the State Revenue Service and the Latvian government, Latvians emigrating to other countries, and general calls to oppose the ruling political elite.
A Viral Post
On February 3, 2019, Latvian political activist Valentins Jeremejevs posted an image on Facebook with the hashtag #velesanuboikots (“#electionboycott”). As of the time of this report, the post had garnered 678 reactions, 184 comments, and 43,749 shares. While the shares outnumbered other engagement by a factor of over 50:1, preliminary DFRLab analysis indicates that the engagement was likely organic.
The number of shares was very high for Facebook in Latvia, a nation of just under 2 million people. For comparison, a false story about a collapse of a shopping center in Riga that sparked mass hysteria received 7,800 shares on Facebook.
A reverse image search revealed that the text in the post was translated from a similar image uploaded on the meme discovery site me.me on January 20, 2019. The Australian flag in the bottom left corner of the original image indicates that this post was initially created to target the Australian public.
While no signs of inauthentic activity were detected and all of the accounts that shared Jeremejevs’ post publicly were from Latvia, the DFRLab identified a degree of coordination among the Latvian Facebook pages, groups, and personal accounts that amplified similar content calling for a boycott of the EP elections.
A Centralized Facebook Page for Multimedia Content
Jeremejevs is a political activist and a former head of the Latvian Green Party’s regional office in Riga. He was also a leader of a social-media campaign to boycott high fuel prices at Circle-K gas stations. The campaign’s Facebook group garnered 18,701 members by April 9, 2019. In this cohort of accounts, Jeremejevs served as an administrator of six public Facebook groups that were linked to a single Facebook page: Tautas Varas fronte (“The Nation’s Power Front,” translated from Latvian).
The page also had nine video streams of Jeremejevs addressing viewers that had been broadcast via Facebook Live.
Tautas Varas fronte, a nongovernmental organization established on December 11, 2018, has a stated mission of informing the public about the “nation’s rights,” while its webpage calls for the public to “join the frontlines” of the fight against LGBT pride demonstrations and the “arbitrariness” of private banks. The webpage also champions lower fuel prices and advocates for the conversion of the state electricity company into a publicly traded company.
At the time of this analysis, the pinned post on the Tautas Varas fronte Facebook page called for an election boycott. The post used an image of the European Parliament as well as the #velesanuboikots hashtag and garnered 1,354 shares.
The page had a Russian-language counterpart as well, but the content in Russian garnered less traction than it did in Latvian.
The page was created on January 30, 2019. By April 3, 2019, it had 2,092 followers and was engaging 748 Facebook users with four posts daily on average, according to an analysis conducted using CrowdTangle, a Facebook analytics tool that measures engagement. If each post engaged 187 users on average, this statistic would translate to a 11.2 percent engagement rate per follower. Given that anything above one percent is considered good, this is a significant engagement rate.
Cross-posting Between Groups, Pages, and Accounts
One of the most common amplification strategies was cross-posting: sharing the same posts to multiple groups, pages, and accounts. On March 6, Jeremejevs posted a live video explaining why people should not participate in the EP elections. At the time of this analysis, the video had garnered 3,200 views, 58 reactions, and 117 shares. A proportion of this traffic was amassed after Jeremejevs shared the video on seven of the Facebook groups he manages, six of which target members of the Latvian diaspora community and six others that target those living in Latvia.
Jeremejevs was not the only Facebook influencer who promoted idea of boycotting EP elections. Two other Facebook user accounts, Arvis Abramovics and Roberts Klimovics, also administered the largest Tautas Varas fronte group, Bojkots, and a Facebook Page, Acgarni.com, that also promoted EP election boycott.
On March 24, 2019, Abramovics posted a live video with the accompanying text: “An example how voters are fooled in Latvia! #BOYCOTT #EUROPEAN #PARLIAMENT #ELECTIONS. I will broadcast in two languages! Press LIKE and share as much as we can!!!” The video garnered 1,800 views, 34 reactions, and 53 shares. The DFRLab identified three cases in which Abramovics shared his live video to a public group. The fourth share was made by another Facebook user.
The DFRLab also identified cases in which the Facebook accounts for acgarni.com and Jeremejevs, together with Abramovics, co-hosted live videos.
Similarly, on March 29, 2019, Klimovics posted a live video in which he said that the EP elections are part of a corrupt system, because the candidates have been in the “system” for a long time.
Klimovics did not share his own video, however. The DFRLab identified four cases in which Jeremejevs shared his video in public groups and two cases in which pages shared the video. One of the pages was the Tautas Varas fronte page and another was acgarni.com (“upside-down,” translated from Latvian). The idea behind the name, as described in the page’s “About” section, was to turn mainstream news “upside-down” to reveal an alternate reality.
Acgarni.com publicly disclosed its connection with Tautas Varas fronte and Klimovics after posting a schedule of Tautas Varas fronte’s live videos from a new studio.
The coordinators of this campaign used Facebook pages, individual Facebook accounts, and public Facebook groups in tandem to encourage the Latvian public to boycott the EP elections.
The Facebook page Tautas Varas fronte functioned as a central hub for multimedia content, such as photos as well as livestreams, disseminated by at least four private Facebook accounts and one Facebook page.
The private Facebook accounts used public groups that they managed or to which they belonged in order to spread content that promoted the EP election boycott.
Read more DFRLab #ElectionWatch posts here.
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