Inauthentic Facebook ad campaign spreads anti-EU messages

Facebook pages disguised as neutral news sources sponsored ads to promote anti-EU narratives ahead of Moldova’s referendum on EU integration

Inauthentic Facebook ad campaign spreads anti-EU messages

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BANNER: Screenshots from a Facebook ad displaying Ilan Shor’s allegations that “the collective West aims to seize Moldova” and “the West means war and fear.” (Source: DFRLab via Ad Library, Moldova cu Viață Plus)

In the lead-up to the Moldovan presidential election, a network of inauthentic Facebook pages promoting the Shor Party is spearheading an anti-European Union (EU) campaign. This digital manipulation is taking place amid high stakes for Moldova’s political future, as the small Eastern European nation stands at a crossroads between further integrating with Western Europe or aligning more closely with Russia. The upcoming presidential election in Moldova is a decisive moment that could determine the country’s future trajectory.

At the heart of this election is a referendum on EU integration, a pivotal issue exploited by pro-Russian political forces to polarize Moldovan society. EU integration represents not just economic and political alignment but a commitment to the values of democracy, the rule of law, and human rights. For Moldova, with a history of political instability, closer ties with the EU could bring much-needed reforms, investment, stability, and, most importantly, security.

Conversely, a push against EU integration signals a desire to maintain or strengthen ties with Russia, which has historically exerted significant influence over Moldova. This dynamic is starkly illustrated by the recent launch of Victory, Ilan Shor’s political bloc, in Moscow. Shor, a controversial figure with a history of legal issues, represents a faction of Moldovan politics that is openly supported by the Kremlin. Recently, Moscow granted Shor Russian citizenship. Further, launching the Victory electoral block from inside Russia’s capital is not just a political maneuver but a clear indicator of Moscow’s ongoing efforts to interfere in Moldova’s electoral process.

Suspicious network

The DFRLab identified a network of at least thirty-six inauthentic Facebook pages disguised as neutral news sources. These pages promoted Shor Party messages and spread anti-EU narratives ahead of the referendum on EU integration.

Throughout the course of the DFRLab’s investigation, some of the pages were deleted or de-platformed. In response to our investigation, Meta removed all of the identified assets.

Last year, the DFRLab reported on inauthentic Facebook campaigns promoting pro-Russian Shor Party messaging in Moldova. However, the strategy behind these operations has evolved. In the past, these pages were visibly inauthentic, lacking proper engagement on Facebook, making them easily detectable. Those orchestrating these pages are now employing more sophisticated methods to disguise their activities.

All of the pages were created under Facebook’s “News & media website” category and present themselves as news sources. The content published is predominantly neutral, consisting of general news from Moldova, ranging from economic updates and social issues to sports and cultural events. At first glance, the activity of these pages does not raise suspicion. Despite the appearance of neutrality, a closer examination of the pages’ transparency sections reveals a series of similarities, suggesting that they are interconnected and possibly centrally managed. Transparency data shows consistent patterns in these pages’ creation dates, names, and Ad Library activity.

A significant number of the pages were created in a short span of time, primarily in April 2023. This clustering suggests a possibly coordinated effort to establish multiple pages simultaneously.

Chart showing the creation dates of the Facebook pages. (Source: DFRLab via Facebook)

The pages were initially created under different names but followed a similar pattern. The original names indicate a variety of themes, often combining entertainment, lifestyle, and community interests. This could be a tactic to attract a diverse audience before shifting to coordinated messaging. Later, the page names changed to include thematic elements, often related to Moldova, and positive or neutral terms (e.g., “Modern Moldova,” “Undefeated Moldova,” “Shining Moldova”).

(Source: DFRLab via Facebook Page Transparency)

The dates when these pages changed their names were also synchronized, further indicating coordinated activity. This finding suggests a deliberate effort to rebrand the pages.

Chart shows the name change dates for the Facebook pages. (Source: DFRLab via Facebook)

According to the information indicated in the disclaimer submitted by the advertisers, most pages used similar email providers, like ProtonMail, which provides end-to-end encryption and allows users to create accounts without providing personal information, adding an extra layer of anonymity. This suggests a coordinated effort to mask identities when creating the network of pages.

Screenshots showing the email addresses for the Facebook pages used to run advertisements. (Source: DFRlab via Meta Ad Library, Moldova vie și frumusețe, left; Conștiința Îmbunătățită a Moldovei, center; Moldova Modernă, right) 

Promoting paid anti-EU messages

Although the public posts on these pages are mostly neutral and do not indicate any political affiliation, the Meta Ad Library shows that these pages are engaged in coordinated sponsored ad campaigns. The ads either promote Shor and his projects in regions like Gagauzia and Orhei or attack Moldova’s pro-European government. A significant portion of the sponsored posts pushed anti-EU and anti-West narratives, aiming to discredit Moldova’s European integration process. According to the DFRLab’s analysis of the Meta Ad Library, the network spent over €33,000 on sponsored posts between February 26 and May 25, 2024.

Some sponsored posts contain video segments of Shor’s appearances on the Russian talk show “Own Truth,” broadcast on NTV, or interviews with Russian journalists and bloggers. In these videos, Shor launches scathing attacks on the Moldovan government, discrediting the idea of European integration. These videos are carefully crafted to cast doubt on the benefits of aligning with the EU and to promote a pro-Russian agenda.

Multiple pages shared and sponsored these videos. This synchronized effort ensured the broad and rapid dissemination of the content, significantly amplifying its reach and impact. As a result, each of the pages managed to attract an audience of more than one million.

Screenshots of similar sponsored posts featuring Ilan Shor’s appearances on the Russian talk show “Own Truth.” (Source: DFRLab via Meta Ad Library, Moldova Modernă, top; Moldova Actuală, center; Solidaritate cu Moldova Nouă , bottom) 

Starting in February 2024, Shor’s anti-Europe discourse has become increasingly visible. Another example of a sponsored post promotes the Shor comment, “Choosing the EU is a mistake.” In his statement, Shor criticized Moldovan authorities for ignoring the alleged benefits of the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), a Russian-led alternative to the European Union, consisting of five member states: Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Armenia. Shor claimed that the GDP of EAEU member countries has grown and argued that Moldova’s orientation towards the EU results in missed opportunities and economic difficulties for its citizens.

Screenshots of similar ads promoting the benefits of the EAEU over the EU. (Source: DFRLab via Meta Ad Library, Moldova Strălucitoare, left;  Moldova Fără Bariere, right)

The anti-EU rhetoric from Shor that is being promoted on Facebook has become more radicalized compared to last year. Shor often invokes arguments focusing on alleged security risks to Moldova. For instance, in a sponsored post by the page “Moldova cu Viață Plus,” Shor is quoted, “Today, the collective West aims to seize Moldova.” In the video, he claims that “the West means war and fear” for Moldova, stating that if pro-European forces win the referendum on European integration, Moldova will become militarized and will lose its sovereignty. In the post, Shor declared, “If Maia Sandu wins the referendum, Moldova can disappear from the world map.“

Screenshot of a Facebook ad displaying Ilan Shor’s allegations that “the collective West aims to seize Moldova” and “the West means war and fear.” (Source: DFRLab via Ad Library, Moldova cu Viață Plus)

In general, narratives promoted by this network of Facebook pages suggest that the EU views Moldova merely as a geopolitical pawn rather than a partner with equal standing. This is evident in sponsored posts by the pages “Vis și Realitate” and “Moldova Unită,” where Shor is quoted saying that “for the EU, Moldova is perceived more as an area of influence rather than an equal ally,” emphasizing that “Moldova risks being exploited” by the EU.

Screenshots of similar ad posts quoting Ilan Shor saying that “for the EU, Moldova is perceived more as an area of influence rather than an equal ally.” (Source: DFRLab via Meta Ad Library; Vis și Realitate, left; Moldova Unită, right)

This narrative complements another previously promoted narrative that suggests the West controls Moldova through foreign citizens occupying top positions in the Moldovan government. The Facebook pages involved in disseminating these narratives have made identical posts on nearly the same day, insinuating that opportunities for Moldovans are only open if they have “Western experience” or ties to NATO.

Screenshots of identical posts claiming that the West controls Moldova through foreign citizens occupying top positions in the Moldovan government. (Source: Facebook; Moldova mea, Moldova ta, left;  Moldova Strălucitoare, center; Moldova Fără Bariere, right)

This campaign underscores the critical need for vigilance and transparency in Moldova’s democratic processes. Russia’s interference in Moldova’s election is multifaceted, involving financial support, strategic guidance, and propaganda dissemination. By backing movements like Shor’s Victory and orchestrating anti-EU campaigns through networks of fake social media accounts, Russia, through its local proxies, aims to sway public opinion and election outcomes in Moldova. This interference is part of a broader strategy to prevent Moldova from integrating with Western Europe and to keep it within Russia’s geopolitical orbit. Understanding these tactics is crucial to protecting the integrity of Moldova’s democratic processes.

Cite this case study:

Victoria Olari, “Coordinated Facebook ads campaign spreads anti-EU messages,” Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab), July 8, 2024,