The Kremlin has banned ordinary people in Russia from using Facebook under its new ‘extremism law’, but that hasn’t stopped the Kremlin itself continuing to use the platform to spread misinformation beyond its borders.
Meta, the parent company of Facebook, has recently stepped up efforts to curtail the Kremlin’s most overt influence activities on the platform, such as by restricting access to RT, Sputnik and other Russian state-controlled accounts.
However, Facebook groups administered by Kremlin-aligned individuals remain a key tool for spreading hostile misinformation and hate to encourage social division and radicalisation.
According to KAPO, Estonia’s Internal Security Service, online groups are increasingly used by those with hateful and extreme ideologies to generate echo chambers in which a one-sided worldview is affirmed and external information is kept at bay. This tactic intensified during the pandemic as people spent more time online during a period of greater uncertainty when we were all more susceptible to easy explanations of the world based on unchallenged misinformation.
Those who develop an interest in these groups are sometimes then invited to closed groups in which extreme ideas are further amplified. The most dangerous signs of involvement in an echo chamber include justifying violence against a social group, disregard for democratic values, and the use of extremist symbols. At its worst, this process of radicalisation can lead to harmful activities offline too, such as the use of violence as a perceived necessity for solving problems.
In Estonia, threats of violence such as these should be promptly reported to KAPO.
Before it reaches that stage, however, we can shine a light on the groups and tactics involved in spreading hate and misinformation.
Pro-Kremlin Facebook groups targeting Estonia’s population
While these tactics can be used by a wide variety of extremist groups with different motives and alignments, the Kremlin remains the most prolific external threat to Estonia encouraging extremist and hateful views in this way.
Propastop has identified 17 Facebook groups of concern with a significant number of users in Estonia and Kremlin-connected administrators, which contain rampant misinformation and hate speech to support the war in Ukraine and promote social division on other topics.
These groups may seem positive and constructive at first glance with neutral names such as ‘Tallinners’ or ‘Our Estonia’. In some groups, misinformation is actively shared by the administrators. In others, it is more covert. The administrators may remain silent but oversee a stream of misinformation and hate speech by members of the group. Hatred of Ukrainians, including those arriving in Estonia as refugees, has been a key theme promoted in these groups recently.
Here’s an overview of those groups on Facebook.
Oleg Bessedin is a content creator and businessman who has previously featured in KAPO’s annual yearbook for the dissemination of propaganda, both on his own media sites and by working with Russian media. His ‘journalistic’ style produces misleading stories often presented without sources. In one case, as previously reported here (in Estonian) by Propastop, even the subject of the story he was claiming to defend disputed his account. Bessedin is the administrator of five Facebook groups:
Surveillance Activist Network Groups
The creators of these groups are Mstislav Russakov and Alisa Blintsova who are key figures in the Surveillance Activists Network, which has appeared in KAPO’s yearbook for its campaign to represent Estonia internationally, including on Russian propaganda channels, while sharing false information about the status of Russian speakers in Estonia. Oleg Nazmutdinov and Alexander Kornilov, a former owner of the recently closed Kremlin propaganda portal Baltnews, are also key administrators of the groups. Both have also provided false information about Estonia in Russian propaganda channels. They run six Facebook groups:
Protester Network Groups
Allan Hantsom and Sergei Chulin have both been featured in KAPO’s yearbook for distributing propaganda against Estonia. Hantsom is also a key figure in the Kremlin propaganda portal Baltnews. They run four Facebook groups:
‘Our Estonia’ is run by Leonid Tsingisser and Denis Pastuhhov. The group’s promotion of hatred against Ukrainians was recently covered by Propastop (in Estonian).
Golos russkoi Baltic
This group is run by several pro-Kremlin individuals across Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Last year, Propastop covered how the group had been spreading Lukashenko’s propaganda during the 2021 protests in Belarus.
How you can stop hate and propaganda in Facebook groups
Facebook has its own community standards that include the prohibition of hate speech, misinformation, incitement of violence, and promotion of dangerous individuals and organisations. So the first step is to report this content to Facebook itself.
On your desktop, you can report a group by pressing the three dot button at the bottom right of the header and selecting “Report Group”. You must then give a reason for your report. This can be done for multiple posts that violate Facebook’s rules. In the mobile version, you can report a group by clicking the arrow in the bottom right corner of the cover image then selecting “Report Group”.
More information from Facebook about reporting abuse can be found here.
As Estonian web constable Maarja Punak explains (link in Estonian), at least ten or more messages are needed for Facebook to take reporting seriously. Therefore, get your friends involved by sharing posts with them through Messenger or email. Avoid sharing the post on your feed in order to not amplify hateful content.
The Estonian Police and Border Guard employs web constables to help combat online abuse and hatred. They operate in English, as well as Estonian and Russian. You can send them a message here:
Propastop is run by volunteers at the Estonian Defence League who monitor and fact check propaganda against the Republic of Estonia.
You can send us a message at [email protected] if there is anything we should cover, including additional pro-Kremlin groups not listed above.
We do not police anything, but we can help educate the public and raise awareness of harmful activities, as well as work behind the scenes to escalate reports to Facebook when there is a significant violation of its own community standards and to the Estonian police when there is a violation of Estonian law. The attention alone has already been successful in helping disrupt and shut down propaganda. The press also takes a keen interest in this, such as at Delfi’s Trollimonitor initiative.
Thanks for reading
If you are interested in following Propastop in English, make sure you follow our Propastop Twitter account here.