Western social media platforms and its users continue to be targets of disinformation operations aiming to manipulate public opinion.
In a Tuesday blog post, Facebook parent Meta announced that it has shut down ‘influence operations’ originating from Russia and China that masqueraded as western news organizations and posed as Americans across several social media platforms.
“Today, we’re sharing our findings into two covert influence operations—from China and Russia—that we took down for violating our policy against Coordinated Inauthentic Behavior (CIB),” Meta said in its report. The company describes CIB as “coordinated efforts to manipulate public debate for a strategic goal, in which fake accounts are central to the operation. People coordinate with one another and use fake accounts to mislead others about who they are and what they are doing.”
The two networks from China and Russia were unrelated, but both sought to influence Western public opinion on high-profile issues. “There’s a shooting war going on in Ukraine, there are elections coming up in the U.S. And we’re seeing influence operations that are talking about those things,” Meta’s global threat intelligence lead Ben Nimmo told NPR.
‘Largest of its kind’
The Russian network, which only began in May this year, was the “largest of its kind we’ve disrupted since the war in Ukraine began… [and] presented an unusual combination of sophistication and brute force,” Meta said. The Russian operations created a “sprawling network of over 60 websites… carefully impersonating legitimate news organizations in Europe,” primarily targeting people in Germany, France, Italy, the U.K. and Ukraine.
The fraudulent websites published original articles that aimed to shape people’s opinions about Russia’s war in Ukraine. The articles “praised Russia, criticized Ukraine and Ukrainian refugees… and argued that Western sanctions on Russia would backfire,” Meta said.
Meta noted that the fake websites were “built with particular care” and looked like the website it was trying to copy. One fake site mimicking British newspaper The Guardian published a story that said Ukraine staged the murder of civilians when Russia occupied Bucha in northern Ukraine. “The spoofed version used the photo of a real Guardian journalist and the same timestamp as an authentic Guardian article by that journalist, published on the same day that the fake news site was registered,” Meta said.
The Russian network also created original memes and promoted their memes and articles on platforms like YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Telegram, and petition websites like Change.org and Avaaz. Their social media amplification however, relied mostly on crude ads and fake accounts.
For instance, in May, the Russian operation launched a campaign on petition platform Change.org demanding that the German government halt its “unacceptable generosity” toward Ukrainian refugees.
When Meta began blocking the network’s websites, the operators of the fake sites tried to set-up new domains, “suggesting persistence and continuous investment in this activity,” the company said.
Around 4,000 accounts followed one or more of the network’s 700-plus fake pages across Facebook and Instagram, according to Meta.
‘Window into American conversations’
The Chinese operations that Meta intercepted was relatively small and less sophisticated. But it was the “first Chinese network we disrupted that focused on U.S. domestic politics ahead of the midterm elections, as well as Czechia’s foreign policy toward China and Ukraine,” Meta said.
The China-based network included four initiatives in the last 12 months that targeted U.S. and Czech citizens on platforms including Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. Fake accounts run by this operation posted comments that criticized both Democrat and Republican politicians for corruption and accused the U.S. government of operating bioweapons labs in Ukraine. These accounts also criticized the Czech government’s Ukraine support and called on Czech officials to avoid angering Beijing.
These efforts failed to attract a large following and engagement from users because of linguistic errors and infrequent content that was posted during China’s working hours, rather than when its target audience was awake. Approximately 20 accounts followed one or more of the eight fake pages from the China-originated network.
Meta in 2020 disrupted a China-based network that used fake accounts to post about the U.S. election that year. But this time, the Chinese operations directly injected themselves into American conversations on hot-button issues. Speaking with NPR, Nimmo said that “all the operations from China that we’ve seen before talk about America rather than talking to America. It looks like they were using these divisive issues, these hot political issues, as a window into American conversations.”
Sign up for the Fortune Features email list so you don’t miss our biggest features, exclusive interviews, and investigations.