by Max Bernhard
A network of fake accounts on Facebook is agitating against Ukraine and has been sharing fake pro-Russian articles and websites for months. Politicians of the far-right party Alternative für Deutschland seem to also benefit: the network ran ads to promote content by the party’s politicians.
This pro-Russian disinformation campaign was not supposed to exist anymore. But an investigation by CORRECTIV’s fact-checking newsroom found a network of accounts spreading targeted propaganda and false information is back on Facebook. The network’s trail leads to Russia, as we reported in detail here.
Facebook’s parent company Meta said last year that it “disrupted” the network – calling it the largest and most complex Russian operation since the beginning of the war in Ukraine. Our investigation shows: It has been active again since February 2023 at the latest.
The objective of the campaign: To influence public opinion in various countries, above all in Germany, in a way that matches pro-Russian narratives. Those responsible for the influence operation are willing to spend money and significant efforts towards that goal. According to our calculations, at least thousands of euros have been spent on Facebook ads alone.
Fake Facebook accounts post ads and share links to fake news sites, fake government documents, and propaganda sites. And to content by AfD politicians.
CORRECTIV.Faktencheck found more than a dozen paid Facebook ads promoting various – authentic – content from AfD members and parliamentarians. That these ads are connected to the rest of the campaign can be proven, for example, through shared URLs: the same domains that redirected to content from AfD politicians were also used by other Facebook pages belonging to the campaign to share fake articles and propaganda.
We found no evidence that the organizations and persons being promoted are connected to the actors behind the campaign – it is possible their content is promoted without their knowledge. Moreover, the ads reviewed by us may only represent a fraction of the total. The full extent of the campaign and whether other content from these or other politicians or organizations was advertised is unclear.
Network promoted video with AfD-MP Harald Weyel, who says, he didn’t know
On May 5 and 6 a Facebook page published a total of six paid ads to promote a video with Harald Weyel, who sits in the Bundestag for AfD and is the party’s deputy treasurer. The video was published by Deutschland Kurier, a publication with close ties to the far-right party. In it, Weyel claims that Russian-Orthodox churches are being “attacked” in western Ukraine. Kiew has accused the orthodox church in Ukraine of maintaining ties to Russia.
The promoted topic doesn’t appear coincidental. Several of the pro-Russian Facebook ads belonging to the campaign also broached the tense relationship between Kyiv and the church, as Le Monde reported. “What cruelty! Do we want to accept people into the European Union who burn churches and kill priests?” read one ad, for example. Some weeks before the ads went up, a video spread online with the false claim that it showed “radicals” in Ukraine burning down a church. As it turned out, the footage was taken in Russia and is a decade old.
AfD politician Weyel says that he had not been aware of the campaign before our inquiry. He says he does not know and cannot influence “who picks up or even ‘advertises’ my publications arising in direct or indirect connection with my Bundestag and Council of Europe mandates.”
A pro-Russian association – founded by AfD members – also benefits from the propaganda campaign
In June 2022, Weyel, together with other party members, founded the association “Vereinigung zur Abwehr der Diskriminierung und der Ausgrenzung Russlanddeutscher sowie russischsprachiger Mitbürger in Deutschland” (“Union for the defense against the discrimination and the exclusion of Russian-Germans as well as Russian-speaking fellow citizens in Germany” in English) – Vadar for short. The association’s content was also promoted by the propaganda campaign.
Vadar diagnoses Germany with an “anti-Russian sentiment” and wants to offer legal assistance to “Russian-Germans and Russian-speaking fellow citizens” who allegedly have been discriminated against or marginalized as a result of Russia’s war of aggression. The association shares a bank account with an institute that is majority owned by Russians, according to a report by regional newspaper Sächsische Zeitung. Public broadcaster ARD said last year that German security services are reviewing Vadar’s ties to Russia.
One of the association’s first actions was to pledge support to Alina Lipp. Lipp is a pro-Russian influencer and under investigation in Germany for allegedly endorsing Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine on several occasions.
At the beginning of June, Facebook ads, which we were able to attribute to the pro-Russian network, promoted links to Telegram posts by Vadar. One post claimed that a German bank was discriminating against Russian clients. Another about the bankruptcy of a sweets manufacturer aimed at stoking fears about Germany’s economic situation. One Facebook ad that promoted the Vadar text said: “These Greens have already killed almost all small and medium-sized businesses in the country. […] This is being used especially by the United States. They are in the process of taking over our industry.” Other ads by the campaign were also directed against the Greens, targeting for instance Robert Habeck and Annalena Baerbock. They led to articles by RRN, a pro-Russian propaganda platform, among others.
Chairman of Vadar is the AfD member and former member of the German Bundestag, Ulrich Oehme. In 2018 he traveled to occupied Crimea as an “election observer” – a trip paid for by the Russian parliament.
Facebook ads also promoted a former AfD parliamentarian’s project
Shortly before Vadar was founded, Oehme started another project in the summer of 2022: “Achse der Wahrheit” (“axis of truth” in English) is a Telegram channel that purports to make the positions of “conservative parties” in Europe more accessible. This project, too, was promoted by the propaganda network on Facebook. In one video, AfD MP Edgar Naujok says that he is against weapons deliveries to Ukraine, claiming it is “not our war.” That same phrase also appears as a hashtag in more than a dozen Facebook ads that are part of the disinfo campaign: #nichtunserKrieg (#notourwar).
Le Monde also reported that the campaign had deliberately spread this slogan. The hashtag circulated in February, a few days before pro-Russian demonstrations broke out across Germany, the newspaper said.
Edgar Naujok did not respond to our requests for comment. The press office of the AfD says that the party was not previously aware of the campaign. Party members and deputies are not responsible “for links or advertisements from external sources to their respective channels.” The association Vadar and ‘Axis of Truth’ have “nothing to do with the federal association of the AfD,” it says. Vadar chairman Oehme writes: “As a channel operator, I cannot influence who picks up our contributions.”
Editing: Sophie Timmermann, Gabriele Scherndl
Transparency note: CORRECTIV has been in a cooperation with Facebook since 2017 to combat disinformation on the social network. More information about the cooperation is available here.