Facebook said on Wednesday it would reduce the distribution of a New York Post story that published unverified claims about former vice president Joe Biden and his son, Hunter, pending a review by the site’s fact-checking partners.
But for more than a year, the social network has given a platform to a shady group of Ukrainian operatives — including one the US Treasury sanctioned and deemed an “active Russian agent” trying to interfere in the 2020 election — to spread unsubstantiated or debunked conspiracy theories about the Biden family.
These Ukrainians have been key to helping Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani with his efforts to smear the Bidens and help President Donald Trump win reelection. Along the way, they have garnered more than 200,000 followers and friends on Facebook, in part because of their popularity among supporters of the US president who look to them as sources of Biden-related allegations.
And when the New York Post story was published, the group celebrated on Facebook by spreading unconfirmed information about the Bidens yet again.
Facebook did not immediately respond to questions about the Ukrainians’ posts.
Front and center on the personal Facebook pages of three men — Andriy Telizhenko, Oleksandr Onyshchenko, and Andriy Derkach — were posts about the New York Post story. While they did not share the link directly to the story, they shared links to reports about it or images of it.
Telizhenko, a former Ukrainian diplomat and longtime Giuliani associate who has been a key source of purported dirt on the Bidens, published what appeared to be a photoshopped image of Trump holding up a copy of Wednesday’s edition of the New York Post with the headline, “Biden Secret E-Mails.”
Two hours later, Telizhenko posted a link to an article in a pro-Trump blog about a different New York Post story, writing in English, “Senate committee to investigate newly discovered Hunter Biden emails.” And overnight, he published a third post with yet another link to an article related to the Post’s report.
The posts were shared 5, 14, and 2 times, with 36, 13, and 7 likes, respectively, at the time of publishing, amounts of engagement that are in line with previous posts from Telizhenko.
Onyshchenko, another Giuliani associate and a former Ukrainian lawmaker in the now-defunct pro-Russia Party of Regions who is now a fugitive for allegedly embezzling more than $120 million from a Ukrainian gas company, also posted about the story.
Summarizing the report in Russian, Onyshchenko’s post was shared 22 times and received more than 145 likes, amounts of engagement that are in line with — if not slightly higher — than his usual posts.
Derkach, a member of the Ukrainian Parliament, whom the US Treasury sanctioned last month and termed “an active Russian agent for over a decade, maintaining close connections with the Russian Intelligence Services,” posted in Russian about unverified allegations he made previously about the Bidens after the New York Post story was published.
He told BuzzFeed News from Kyiv on Wednesday that he had nothing to do with the New York Post story but was pleased to read it. He said he believed the report bolstered his own unsubstantiated allegations against the Bidens. He also directed BuzzFeed News to a recent video he shared across his social media platforms, including Facebook.
Derkach has met Giuliani on at least three occasions, including in Kyiv last December, when he passed the former New York City mayor documents the two men have claimed to show corruption on the part of the Bidens. A Facebook post from that meeting, which included three photographs of the two men together at a Kyiv hotel has been shared 118 times, commented on 38 times, and liked 550 times.
Facebook has been Derkach’s main platform for sharing content about leaked and edited audio recordings purported to be from conversations that Biden had while serving as vice president with former Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko. US officials have labeled the recordings disinformation and the Biden campaign has said they are part of a Russian campaign to interfere in the election and help Trump.
The recordings, which have never been authenticated, provide no evidence to back up accusations that Biden abused his power to help his son’s business interests in Ukraine.
Seven of the last nine videos posted by Derkach to his Facebook page in the last five weeks have been about the Biden-Poroshenko recordings and related documents. Collectively, they have been viewed more than 83,000 times. Four of them show his appearances on pro-Russia Ukrainian television channels linked to Viktor Medvedchuk, a fellow Ukrainian lawmaker who is a close friend of President Vladimir Putin.
Nina Jankowicz, a disinformation fellow at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, told BuzzFeed News she thought Facebook may have moved to limit the spread of the New York Post story out of concern that the information included in it was illicitly obtained.
“It would be harder for them to take similar action with some of the other narratives that have been spun as part of the Biden-Ukraine conspiracy, as they don’t deal directly with illicit material or other direct violations of terms of service,” she said.
But the Derkach recordings might. A Ukrainian investigation into their origin was launched earlier this year. Prosecutor General Iryna Venediktova said in September that her office was also looking at whether they had been edited, the Interfax-Ukraine news agency reported.