Facebook has since removed the ads paid by the exiled oligarch Ilan Shor but experts believe they've managed to have an impact on Moldovan society
Facebook is again under fire for allowing a pro-Russian oligarch to run paid ads on their platform -- even after he had been sanctioned -- with the aim of destabilising the government of Moldova.
Ilan Shor, an opposition politician has been put on the US government’s sanctions list for trying to undermine Moldova on behalf of Russia back in October 2022.
Currently living in exile in Israel, he is implicated in a $1 billion theft from Moldovan banks in 2014.
In his paid ads on Facebook, Ilan Shor is frequently attempting to round up support for anti-government protests and accusing Maia Sandu, the pro-Western President of Moldova of corruption.
"This campaign goal's includes denigrating the European Union, the European integration plans of Moldova, and diminishing the role of this war started by Putin in the economic and social crisis in Moldova," explained Valeriu Pașa, the president of Watchdog Moldova.
But in 2021, Moldovans elected a pro-European government after years of Russia-friendly ruling politicians. In June 2022, Moldova was granted EU candidate status, the same day as Ukraine.
As a person under sanctions, Shor is not allowed to engage in any financial transactions with Facebook or any other US company.
But his team have found a loophole by buying Facebook pages from other countries such as Vietnam and then running ads through them for example.
An effective influence campaign
Last autumn, Moldova was rocked by a series of anti-government protests initiated by the Shor Party. Thousands took to the streets of the capital to protest against rising energy prices.
Most of the ads were ultimately removed by Facebook but not before they were watched millions of times in a small country with a population of about 2.6 million people.
According to Valeriu Pașa, Meta's (Facebook's parent company) slow response has had a detrimental impact on public opinion.
"We see some actions from Meta but the reactions are very slow and absolutely inefficient because the impact is done and all of these pages and people behind them, are still violating Facebook's own rules," he told Euronews.
"Meta is not doing enough to fight all this disinformation, which is very impactful in Moldova," he explained.
Meta promised to crack down on these influence campaigns in response to the war in Ukraine.
"We’ve established a special operations center staffed by experts from across the company, including native Russian and Ukrainian speakers, who are monitoring the platform around the clock, allowing us to respond to issues in real time," wrote the company in a statement.
But nothing in their policy update mentions Moldova. The Cube has reached out to Meta, a spokesperson emailed us back with a comment.
"We took away this sanctioned individual’s ability to advertise on our apps when he was added to the US sanctions list," said a Meta spokesperson via email.
"In response, we detected efforts to use other Pages and accounts in an attempt to amplify his content. We took them down as a result of our own internal detection and also tip-offs by civil society in Moldova. We know that malicious actors like this are persistent and we’re continuing to monitor and take action."
Meanwhile, Moldovan NGOs like Watchdog.Md are pleading with Meta for more resources and staff to better monitor the situation.
Like many big tech firms based in the US, Meta has sometimes struggled to moderate content in languages other than English.
"What we are really asking for is at least one person to be in contact with independent NGOs in Moldova speaks Romanian and Russian, and who preferably knows a little bit about the regional context to help us improve the informational environment on Facebook," said Pașa.
"Meta is not the poorest company in the world, so I don't see why they can't hire one person to monitor content in Moldova."