How FB network, banned for posts supporting Trump, was created and operated — investigation of AIN.UA and Popular Information
On September 23, an editor from Popular Information Judd Legum wrote about a network of ‘patriotic’ Facebook pages that are focused on the U.S. but are managed from Ukraine.
Network’s outreach exceeded that of The New York Times and Washington Post. The flagship page I love America received over 1 million likes. From the beginning of September, the public pages began publishing content supporting Donald Trump.
The story appeared in the headlines of the U.S. mainstream media: Washington Post, Huffington Post, Los Angeles Times wrote about it. In response to the public reaction, Facebook has blocked the pages. Initially, the social network claimed that they are in no violation of the standards, but when it was removing the pages it referred to the rule regarding fake content.
AIN.UA’s editor talked to the key figures in the story. Part of the interview recorded by AIN.UA’s editor was also published in Popular Information’s article.
The only person whom it was initially possible to connect to I Love America was an Odesa native Andriy Zyuzikov. A website specified in the page’s description was registered in his name. In his comment to AIN.UA, he explained his role in the project.
According to Zuzikov, he merely helped the network at the initial stage. Zuzikov has nothing to do with its further promotion.
I helped at the initial state to tackle technical details of operation and monetization in Facebook. All the work in terms of promotion has been done by my colleague alone. He is a marketer that moved from brick and mortar to online.
And why does he publish posts about Trump? It is only because of their virality. He tested multiple topics: animals, humor, citations, patriotism, and politics. Users from the U.S. best reacted to politics, so he began publishing content in this direction.
Zyuzikov noted that he is not familiar with the political narrative. Later he said that his ‘colleague’ is a Ukrainian national Andreii Tkachenko. In his conversation with the editor from Popular Information Zyuzikov said that he and his partner developed different views because of the political nature of the content.
I realized that sooner or later an editor like you would show up who would write about the Facebook page in a negative light. And I was right. And you are also right. Such pages should not exist on the Internet.
AIN.UA talked to Andreii Tkachenko. He admitted that he was behind the network of public pages and called it an ‘American farm.’ Below are quotations from a conversation with Tkachenko, which are slightly edited for clarity of narrative and explanation of AIN.UA’s editor.
Who is behind the farm
Tkachenko said that the farm is one of incidental projects of his company IQFormat OÜ. The business is run by three persons remotely.
Our company is called IQFormat OÜ and is registered in the European Union. It has no representation in Ukraine. We help administrators to run businesses in social media and monetize their communities.
AIN.UA found the company. IQFormat OÜ LLC was registered in Estonia back in 2016. Its registered capital is 2,550 Euro. Its registered activity is information technology and computers. Currently, its members of the board include Andriy Zyuzikov and Anatoliy Zaitsev. Until April 2019 the same role had Simran Niftaliev. AIN.UA editors were not able to establish a legal connection between Andreii Tkachenko and QFormat OÜ or any other Estonian company.
Andriy Zyuzikov’s curriculum vitae also says that he has been CEO at IQFormat OU since October 2016. His page in LinkedIn says that the company creates networks of Facebook pages for promotion of clients. Currently, they boast over 5 million subscribers. Also, IQFormat OU does video branding and creates web-services for SMM.
Here is their complete list:
Andreii Tkachenko’s profile is available in LinkedIn. He is specified as a co-founder of IQ Format since April 2015.
In his conversation with the editor from AIN.UA Tkachenko mentioned two social services that bring him main revenue:
Our key business is traffic monetization services for Facebook administrators. Not everyone wants to configure their websites to direct the traffic there.
For instance, Content Money allows administrators to publish articles with unique UTM markers and get up to 70% of funds earned on advertisement. We take the remaining amount and share it with authors. The content is exclusively from entertainment domain, not a political one.
Our other project, Facebook Page post Exchange website, allows administrators promote pages without using advertisement. They can find partners in social media and exchange posts. This way one can efficiently increase engagement and grow audience.
This is where we get our primary income from and this is where we apply our most effort. All this is legal, and we do not deal with the ‘black’ content out of principle.
How the content segment emerged
Farms are incidental business of the company. Tkachenko initially organized a network of public pages targeting Russian-speaking audience, which attracted about 6 million subscribers. Then he realized that it is a promising niche, which is well worth investing into.
That was the beginning of a network of American public pages:
The second farm is an American farm. Foreign direction appeared in 2017 and was rather a hobby, out of curiosity. I became interested in a new, high market. So we tested out our offer. Of course, we invested a little for the start and bought some traffic.
But we are not millionaires, our investments were humble. Far from a million dollars, like with Znaj.ua. Moreover, I know the extent of how Facebook is geared to get the money. If you overdo with monetization, you will not get organic growth.
Tkachenko explained the selection of topics by the absence of negativity and relatability. He mentioned a few times that he does not work with problematic content:
We would select a simple and understandable to us content that we used in our work. All the topics were relatable. Jesus because I am a religious person myself; funny animals because my daughter loves them; patriotism because I relate to it.
Tkachenko refuted claims about coordinated information attack or attempts to influence American elections. He said that he was not trying to deceive the audience:
We have never pretended to be Americans. In the page description, everybody could check from where are its administrators. No political party or lobbyist hired us to do it.
Our principle is as follows: “We do not analyze tastes, we analyze numbers.”
American farm grew fast and soon the number of public pages exceeded one hundred. It is because of the diligent work with the content and audience, the entrepreneur explained:
This social network really values the indictor of the originality of the content. Complete copying is not welcome, while partially tweaked content is admissible. Usually, you need to edit 15%-20% of the material. That is what we did. For instance, we would slightly change an image or think up an inscription.
How the farm worked
Tkachenko shared the details of the farm’s operation. The entire American direction was managed by a mere 3 administrators. They would update 20-30 pages daily and worked virtually in an automatic mode. The content itself was of a secondary concern, the first place was always the virality of it.
We had internal services that would collect viral content from all over the social network and provide relevant tips. For instance, it would demonstrate the most popular comment along with the post. This way we were able to understand what tone should be given to the post.
The content would go into the database. From there the farm administrators would pick it and slightly change it. For example, they would think up inscriptions. There was also a database of freelancers who would check the basic legibility of inscriptions for a nominal fee to avoid clearly laughable mistakes.
The administrators did not even know English. Usually, they would simply take images, for example, about veterans, and write a slogan like “God bless America!”
One of the administrators was a 13-year-old daughter of Tkachenko. The child was in charge of public pages featuring cute animals. The entrepreneur is confident that this experience would help her in adult life and he sees the future in social media. He says that he would be happy to organize an educational project for youth to learn how to work with Facebook.
The notorious page I Love America had another administrator:
The other administrator was a senior disabled lady, Ludmila. I taught her everything from the beginning. I hired her based on the recommendation of my wife: in her childhood, Ludmila treated her well and helped her in difficult life situations. And now Ludmila is very sick. She has serious problems with legs, her relatives gave up on her and she found herself helpless. That was Ludmila who primarily handled I Love America. Believe me, when the public page was blocked she was very anxious. She thought that she made some kind of a mistake or missed something.
How and why political content emerged
We became interested in political content a few months ago. Algorithms began to suggest that users actively interact with such publications. In parallel, the team began to be bombarded with suspicious offers:
They wanted to bribe us – both the Democrats and the Republicans. They wrote from fake accounts, offered significant amounts. I am sure that a professional team was behind this campaign.
Testimony of Tkachenko and Zyuzikov concur on the matter of Trump — he was elected because he is popular.
We chose to write about Trump based exclusively on numbers. It was stupid not to publish anything as it is a hot topic in the U.S. We saw that and decided not to ignore that.
There is also the Trump 2020 direction. But is that really bad? Isn’t the U.S. president an objective reality? We started publishing because the algorithm showed a hot niche. That’s the whole story.
Publications that included Trump were extremely popular, collecting 100,000 reactions per post. We also tried to monetize the topic, first through the placement of affiliate links, which redirected to merchandize in his support.
The main focus was not on political content, says Tkachenko. We tried to pick posts about his family, grandchildren, or simply patriotic slogans.
How the monetization was done
Tkachenko repeatedly indicated that they monetized the American network a wee bit and only in test mode.
We just checked from time to time what works and what doesn’t. For example, we engaged our American partner and connected video ads.
But no one was after the money. I considered the farm as an asset and the profit was measured by the growth of subscribers. Without an emphasis on earnings, it was significantly larger. After all, American users are very valuable. They are estimated at $ 100-150 per 1,000 people on the black market. Of course, we do not resell users.
According to him, if the team would actively begin to redirect the traffic to external resources and monetize the public pages, the organic outreach would collapse. This was not part of the plan.
I estimate my loss due to blocking at $ 1 million. In general, if we monetized everything in the maximum mode, we would earn up to $500,000 per month.
On accusations of disinformation
Tkachenko admitted that the quality of the content was not particularly monitored. The numbers were the key to everything.
I will not be economical with the truth. Perhaps somewhere there were erroneous materials. But we deleted them. Each news outlet publishes false content. This is completely normal. We deleted our mistakes. Likewise, the mass media corrects their texts. If 1-2 posts were objectively incorrect, then keep in mind that a total of about 12,000 posts were posted.
Examples of publications provided by the Popular Information outlet and verified by the editor from AIN.UA do indeed often contain false statements. Among these, for example, posts about Hillary Clinton. There were also posts that were used by the “Russian trolls” in the past.
Tkachenko says that there was no desire to offend someone’s feelings or instructions to follow orders. However, with the beginning of a political activity, they began facing problems anyway.
About a month ago, an American farm began to face issues. Facebook support began verifications. And those were not really verifications. At first, they blocked public pages, and then we would prove our own innocence. Honestly, we grew tired of taking photos of our passports and send them to moderators.
In the end, the verification went well. Tkachenko is confident that this is why the first reaction of Facebook to the request for blocking was negative. Then the social network told reporters that it did not find signs of misconduct:
I think that’s why Facebook reacted to the first request that way because before that they really didn’t find any violations.
Tkachenko is not going to abandon his assets. He will contact the moderators of Facebook and plans to defend the public pages. Although he recognizes that there is little chance of returning the assets:
I assess my chances of regaining access as zero to none. I buried this asset for myself. I understand that Facebook was forced to do it amid a public outcry. But it’s funny that after the publication of the whole story the number of subscribers to I Love America didn’t drop – people even continued to sign up and some sent greetings to Ukraine.
Three administrators are currently unemployed. The company’s work continues as before, with an emphasis on social services.
What was before and how much it was possible to earn from that
On the eve of the 2016 U.S. elections, a similar story developed in Macedonia. Hundreds of viral public pages with manipulative content were managed from the local town of Veles, campaigning in favor of Donald Trump. They would redirect the traffic to websites that earned from ads.
At first, it was believed that the Macedonians only want to earn on attention to the elections. This version was published by Deutsche Welle in 2016. Here is a quote from one of the participants:
I needed something viral that people like to read, something of great interest in America. I’ve been following politics in the U.S. for 6 years and I saw an opportunity to make money.
Later, BuzzFeed News and international investigators pointed out other options. They established a connection between the Russian “troll factory” and Macedonian networks.
In 2015, shortly before the registration of the first Balkan sites, Russian Anna Bogacheva visited Macedonia. She is on the list of 13 Russians whom Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller accused of interfering in the 2016 U.S. elections.
The report, prepared by Global Disinformation, estimated the annual revenue from advertising on extremist and disinformation sites at $235 million.