At the 20th second A TikTok video of two men fighting inside a store that looks like laptops and iPhone cases. One of them appears drunk and shouts “Glory to Ukraine!”, demanding that the other man say the same. Together they stagger around the room. The video was published on Facebook on March 4 with the caption: “How Ukrainian emigrants behave in Moldova.”
The authenticity of the TikTok videos, which are rapidly circulating on Facebook, is beyond doubt, although there is uncertainty as to where the two men were filmed in this particular clip because the “share video” message obscures a sign that could hint at a store. location. But the way videos like this are shared across platforms points to a coordinated campaign, according to Valeriu Pasha, president and chairman of Watchdog.MD, a Moldovan think tank that monitors disinformation and influence campaigns online. Pasha shared 100 examples of Facebook posts, mostly videos, which he described as “fabricated content about the war in Ukraine,” although 28 of them have been taken down by Facebook as of April 7. Of the 72 links that were still viewable on the platform, 20 were reposts of TikTok videos.
Moldova, a small former Soviet state sandwiched between Ukraine and Romania, has been suffering from what researchers are calling an “explosion” of disinformation since the war broke out in Ukraine. The researchers say that as part of a smear campaign against Ukrainian refugees, real videos are artificially distributed on Facebook and TikTok that express anti-refugee messages. Around 400 000 people arrived in Moldova from Ukraine, according to the UN refugee agency, UNHCR. About 100,000 people remained in the country, which means that it is now the European country with the highest number of refugees per capita.
People in Moldova say the reality in the country is very different from the version promoted by this online influence campaign. Huge efforts have been made to support Ukrainian refugees arriving in Moldova and help them gain access to food and shelter, says Iulian Groza, executive director of the pro-European think tank Institute for European Policy and Reform. “The disinformation activity is actually targeting this unity and solidarity and trying to create tension.”
The country is suffering from what its president, Maia Sandu, calls “an agreed upon and organized effort divide society over the issue of refugees.” On April 7, Facebook’s parent company Meta posted report it stated that government-linked entities from Russia and Belarus had been identified as engaging in cyber-espionage and clandestine Internet influence campaigns. Although the report does not mention Moldova, experts are concerned that the country is also conducting influence campaigns aimed at destabilizing one of Europe’s poorest countries in the run-up to a possible invasion.
“Russia is really trying to keep Moldova in its sphere of influence,” says Peter Stano, spokesman for foreign affairs and security policy at the European Commission, which runs the Web site dedicated to debunking pro-Kremlin messages. “They also use disinformation to create confusion in the public domain and, of course, to promote Russian identity, Russian narratives and the Russian model of governing the country in order to deprive the European direction of the country of support.”
The video of the two men wrestling has been shared 41,000 times on Facebook, though the post was taken down on April 7 after WIRED brought it to the platform’s attention. The TikTok account that originally posted this was removed on the night of April 6th. The posts, which have been shared more than 10,000 times, are very unusual in Moldova, a country of just 2.6 million people, Pasha says. Of the 2.1 million adults living in government-controlled Moldovan territory, Watchdog.MD estimates that only 1.4 million regularly use Facebook, while 315,000 use TikTok.
“I would say that Moldova is in the midst of an information war,” says Vadim Pistrinciuc, executive director of the Chisinau-based think tank Institute for Strategic Initiatives.
Most of all, the people behind this campaign are looking for authentic content that suits their needs, Pasha says. Once that content is identified, usually on TikTok, it is uploaded to Facebook, where fake profiles spread the video across the platform, he adds.
“They are [use] tens of thousands of fake profiles and share this content with different groups or just on the timeline of these fake accounts,” says Pasha. Not only does this make the video more visible on Facebook, but it also tricks the TikTok algorithm into showing more on that platform. “So they artificially make this content, which is usually a video, viral.”
Meta declined to provide a statement relating to named representative in time for publication.
“We are currently evaluating the situation for possible violations of our community guidelines that prohibit inauthentic behavior,” said TikTok spokeswoman Sarah Mosawi.
On March 4, TikTok user @hozyayka1997, a young woman who turned out to be a Ukrainian refugee, made a new video. Looking directly into the camera, she launches a stream of complaints about how Ukrainian refugees are being treated in Germany. She speaks Russian, and her face is framed by a black fur hood. At one point in the minute-long video, she rotates the camera to show where she is sitting – in an off-white tent filled with long benches. She talks about how the German authorities forced Ukrainians to wait for hours in the cold, without food or water. “Are we humans or cattle?” she asks.
The video, which has been viewed 650,000 times on TikTok, was reposted on Facebook by an account that posts a huge amount of pro-Russian content and has 3,700 connections. Between comments on a Facebook video criticizing a woman for makeup and fur, one user says, “Look at the profile of the person who posted the video, it’s a provocation.”
In another TikTok video, a woman claiming to be from the south of Moldova says that the refugees demand “luxury” – they don’t like their accommodation or their food, which they “throw on the floor.” She tells them to return to their country if they don’t like Moldova.
When the video was posted on Facebook on March 10, the Moldovan flag was put up to hide the TikTok username of the person who originally posted it. Before Facebook removed it on April 7, it had been shared 15,000 times.
TikTok and Facebook are not the only platforms where misinformation is being circulated. Pistrinchuk points to a Telegram channel called major and general, which has 439,000 subscribers. “They post every five minutes, so it’s clear there’s a whole team behind it,” he says. On April 6, the channel published 51 times. Telegram did not respond to a request for comment.
The small country of Moldova may seem like an odd target for a disinformation campaign. This is one of the poorest countries in Europe. It is landlocked and therefore has no strategic ports or trade routes. But if Putin were to venture deeper into Europe, experts say, this small strip of land would likely be his next target. Like Ukraine, Moldova also has its own breakaway region, Transnistria, where 1500 Russian soldiers are standing.
“It looks like the Russians are politically setting the stage for a takeover of Moldova,” says Michael Clarke, former director general of the defense think tank at the Royal Combined Arms Institute. “They use the same type [disinformation] campaigns in Moldova as they have been taking place in Donbass in southeastern Ukraine since 2014.”
However, Clark believes an imminent invasion of Moldova is unlikely as the war continues and Russian forces turn their attention to eastern Ukraine. “Personally, I don’t think that they will now achieve [a takeover of Moldova]but I think it was part of their original design.”
Instead, there is a feeling that the fate of Moldova depends on the Ukrainian port city Odessa, just 30 miles from Transnistria. “If a [the Russians] took Odessa relatively easily, as they expected, they could just keep moving and move into Moldova, or their troops in Moldova could move east to actually link up with the Russian forces in Odessa,” says Clark, adding that these two scenarios two or three weeks ago looked believable. “The capture of Odessa now does not look like a top priority for them. It may come back as a priority, but not now.”
Despite the shift in emphasis in Ukraine, attempts to destabilize Moldova online continue.
However, attempts to turn people in Moldova against Ukrainian refugees did not work. Many Moldovans welcomed Ukrainians into their homes in response to the conflict. International donors have been pumping money to the country to help them cope with integration efforts. The government is trying to better regulate disinformation on online platforms by offering new law April 6th.
But people are not waiting for these rules to solve the problem of disinformation in Moldova. “Just think about the Moldovan government; he doesn’t have much leverage to put pressure on or impose rules on the platforms,” says Pasha. “Let’s be honest, this should be a joint action by big countries.”
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