(NEW YORK) — Social media accounts with ties to users in China and Russia posed as Western media outlets in an attempt to manipulate users and spread “inauthentic” content related to high-profile, politically charged issues including the invasion of Ukraine, Meta employees told reporters on Monday.
Meta, the parent company of Facebook and other services, said that the accounts tied to both countries were taken down manually, though for more in-depth investigations and bigger networks an automated feature for takedowns is also used.
The accounts, as a whole, did not reach nearly the same scale as past documented efforts on social media to spread politically related messages to U.S. users and others.
But the operations, as described by Meta, are some of the latest examples of what both the company’s officials and top U.S. lawmakers have said is a concern: how countries use social media to secretly sway public opinion. (The American government has reportedly employed a similar digital strategy abroad — to influence opinion of the U.S.)
In response to this scrutiny about foreign actors on their platforms, Meta and other leading internet companies have taken steps, they say, to curb the spread of suspicious and misleading information.
The coordinated Chinese operation that Meta revealed on Monday targeted users primarily in the U.S. and Czech Republic, Meta said, and it was running fake accounts and websites across Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and two petition platforms in the Czech Republic.
According to the company, the accounts impersonated Americans by sharing online messages in both Chinese and English about issues including Second Amendment rights and abortion. Accounts in this network spanned both sides of the political aisle, supporting both conservative and liberal causes.
Messages were also directed to a more global French and Chinese-speaking audience, Meta said. The group operated between November 2021 and September 2022. This was the first Chinese-based effort that Meta disrupted that focused on U.S. political issues and major topics ahead of the midterms, a distinct shift in Chinese-based interference, according to Meta.
However, the operation was relatively short-lived and did not receive much engagement from real users, Meta said, with 81 Facebook accounts with 20 collective followers, one Facebook group with 250 members and two Instagram accounts with less than 10 followers between them.
On a number of occasions, Chinese-originated entities would post various Russian state-linked content, Meta said. While the two countries overlapped in their goals and mutually reinforced each other, there was no visible coordination between the two. Meta officials also noted a notable time lag between the two operations.
The Russian operation in May was the largest and most complex since the war on Ukraine started, spanning over 60 websites, using multiple different languages, impersonating credible and legitimate Western websites and news organizations, according to Meta. Its presence spanned Facebook, Instagram, Telegram, Twitter, YouTube and other European sites.
The network mainly targeted users in Europe, including France, Germany, Italy, Ukraine and the U.K, Meta said. The narratives focused on the war on Ukraine and its impact in Europe. The messages criticized Ukraine and Ukrainian refugees and pushed the narrative that U.S. sanctions would backfire.
Meta said it disrupted misinformation campaigns that targeted Ukrainians and exploited Ukraine’s tensions with Russia in February. The company’s security team removed about 40 users they found “inauthentic,” officials said Monday.
The Russian operation had 1,633 Facebook accounts with 1,500 collective followers, 29 Instagram accounts with 1,500 followers between them and generated around $105,000 in ad sales, Meta said. The company will not return the ad revenue and will use it to build their security teams.
Meta previously removed a Russian network of users in 2020 for violating their policy of foreign interference. The users were connected to an online trolling group that attempted to interfere with the 2016 election, the company has said.
Meta has also emphasized that fake sites will continue to pop up.
The company stressed on Monday that its view is that its security work is on deception rather than the content itself and that it did not punish Russian government platforms that had content from either of the operations because they were not directly contributing.
Meta officials said the company remains on alert for more threats, including monitoring potential actors as the election season progresses. They will not be implementing any new tactics ahead of the midterms, officials said Monday.
Meta said it has also shared its findings and threat indicators with the media and other platforms, law enforcement and the government.
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