Facebook Shuts Down Covert Political ‘Influence Operations’ from Russia and China

Meta Platforms on Tuesday disclosed it took steps to dismantle two covert influence operations originating from China and Russia for engaging in coordinated inauthentic behavior (CIB) so as to manipulate public debate.

While the Chinese operation sets its sights on the U.S. and the Czech Republic, the Russian network primarily targeted Germany, France, Italy, Ukraine and the U.K. with themes surrounding the ongoing war in Ukraine.

“The largest and most complex Russian operation we’ve disrupted since the war in Ukraine began, it ran a sprawling network of over 60 websites impersonating news organizations, as well as accounts on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Telegram, Twitter, Change.org and Avaaz, and even LiveJournal,” the social media behemoth said.

The sophisticated Russian activity, which commenced in May 2022, impersonated mainstream European news outlets like Der Spiegel, The Guardian, and Bild, not to mention build credibility by creating fake accounts across several platforms to amplify pro-Russian narratives.

The campaign demanded both technical and linguistic investment, as it entailed the use of spoofed websites that churned out content in over half-a-dozen languages, including English, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Russian, and Ukrainian. In some instances, the content was propagated by Russian embassy accounts.

Meta said a number of these fake accounts were flagged and removed by its automated systems, suggesting an “unusual combination of sophistication and brute force” that lacked the careful approach the actors took when designing the rogue websites to mimic the exact appearance of the real news portals.

As many as 1,633 accounts, 703 Pages, one Group on Facebook and 29 accounts on Instagram were put to use to spread the propaganda, with the actors spending roughly $105,000 in ads to promote the articles via the two social media services.

The Chinese influence operation targeting the U.S. and Czechia, in contrast, was a less expansive network and a largely failed effort that played out in the form of four separate and short-lived waves between November 2021 and mid-September 2022. It consisted of 81 Facebook accounts, eight Pages, one Group and two accounts on Instagram.

“In the United States, it targeted people on both sides of the political spectrum; in Czechia, this activity was primarily anti-government, criticizing the state’s support of Ukraine in the war with Russia and its impact on the Czech economy, using the criticism to caution against antagonizing China,” the company noted.

Meta did not disclose any evidence to attribute the fraudulent accounts to specific individuals or threat actors within the countries. But the removal of the two networks is the latest in a series of actions the company has taken in recent years to tackle misinformation.

The internet giant has also come under fire in the past for selectively acting on platform abuse and for taking an arbitrary method to combat coordinated campaigns affecting politics across the world, and at times even opting not to be transparent about its takedowns.

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