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Opinion

Opinion: Trump was getting help from Ukraine long before he ever asked for it

President Trump
President Trump leaves the stage after addressing a plenary session at the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, January 2018.
(Associated Press)

What is it with President Trump and Ukraine? And vice versa?

Washington has been riveted by reports that Trump may have leaned on Ukraine’s newly elected president earlier this year to conduct a corruption probe into former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) and other top House Democrats are pressing the administration to release a report from a whistleblower within the U.S. intelligence community about Trump’s conversation with Volodymyr Zelensky on July 25; Trump has defended his actions repeatedly, while also admitting that he raised Biden and corruption with Zelensky in that call.

The newsletter Popular Information reported Monday morning that the highly trafficked “I Love America” Facebook page, which has grown increasingly political and pro-Trump, is actually the work of Ukrainians. According to Facebook’s transparency tools, the site is managed by 10 people in that country, as well as one each in Kazakhstan, France and the United States.

Furthermore, Popular Information noted, the page “regularly recycles” memes used by the Russian Internet Research Agency, the Kremlin-linked hacking group that special counsel Robert S. Mueller III accused of meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign. Created two months after Trump was inaugurated, the page has devoted more and more of its output in recent months to praising Trump and Republicans and blasting Democrats.

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But that’s just part of the story. Per Popular Information:

“These pro-Trump memes were cross-posted from several explicitly pro-Trump pages, with names like ‘God bless Donald and Melanie Trump, and God bless America.’ All of these pages, which were created in the last few months, are managed exclusively by people based out of Ukraine.

“But the ‘I Love America’ page is only the tip of the iceberg. There is a complex network of Facebook pages, all managed by people in Ukraine, that collect large audiences by posting memes about patriotism, Jesus and cute dogs. These pages are now being used to funnel large audiences to pro-Trump propaganda. The pages have also joined political Facebook groups and are active on Instagram, which is owned by Facebook.”

The attention to the site’s roots had a quick effect: Facebook deleted the various pages within hours of Popular Information’s reporting (and shortly after the initial version of this post went live). Explained Facebook spokesman Joe Osborne, “We are removing these Pages for violating our policies against spam and fake accounts, and are continuing to investigate for any further violations.”

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According to the company, the pages were stricken for violating Facebook’s rules against spam and fake accounts. No evidence has been turned up yet linking the pages to any governments, although the investigation is continuing into that and into possible “coordinated inauthentic behavior” — the sort of thing Russian entities engaged in during the 2016 campaign.

Here are four examples of memes on the page that were removed Monday. One warned of a battle of “good vs. evil” at the polls, urging readers to vote for Trump and Republicans. Even if you believe that politics is a battle of good vs. evil, you can’t think it’s a good thing to have this sort of provocation coming from a foreign country. And this example is mild compared with some of the others cited by the newsletter. Another gave a shout out to an unnamed school in Florida that supposedly required students to stand during the national anthem. The third was a photo of a soldier in uniform rolling up his left pant leg to reveal a prosthetic leg below the knee. It was captioned something along the lines of, “This is what it means to take a knee for your country.” A fourth suggested that states shouldn’t remove their Confederate Army memorials and flags. Although these last three weren’t inherently pro-Trump, they all engaged in the sort of values signaling on political issues that typified the memes on the page.

Regardless, the 1.1 million Facebook users who follow the page and the millions of others who have been engaging with its content weren’t being told up front who was responsible for the content or where it was coming from. You had to peer under the hood to find out that information, something few, if any, of Facebook’s users do.

It’s conceivable that this sort of stuff doesn’t change any minds, that people who gravitate to cute pet pictures and online demonstrations of discipleship simply tune out political endorsements. But even if that’s the case, the goal of these pages isn’t to make America great again; it’s to amplify the divisions that are rendering us incapable of solving some of our most pressing problems.

Updates:
2:08 PM, Sep. 23, 2019: This post was updated to report that Facebook had removed the pages highlighted by Popular Information.

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