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Facebook parent company Meta said it took down two unconnected networks of accounts based in China and Russia for seeking to influence political narratives in the U.S. and Europe.
The platform regularly searches for and removes accounts it believes to have violated its policy against coordinated inauthentic behavior. Such activity became a flashpoint in the U.S. after the 2016 presidential election when intelligence agencies found Russian groups had used social media platforms to push divisive narratives in the U.S.
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The Russia-based influence campaign mainly targeted Germany as well as France, Italy, Ukraine and the U.K. Starting in May, a network of more than 60 websites impersonating legitimate news organizations in Europe posted original articles criticizing Ukraine and arguing against Western sanctions on Russia, Meta said. The group would promote the articles and original memes and YouTube videos across platforms including Facebook, Instagram, Telegram, Twitter and Change.org, it added.
Meta called the operation “the largest and most complex Russian-origin operation that we’ve disrupted since the beginning of the war in Ukraine.”
“It presented an unusual combination of sophistication and brute force,” Meta said. “The spoofed websites and the use of many languages demanded both technical and linguistic investment. The amplification on social media, on the other hand, relied primarily on crude ads and fake accounts.”
Meta said the group would create new websites even as it blocked its original domains throughout the investigation. The pages operated across several different languages and their posts were occasionally amplified by Russian embassy Facebook pages in Europe and Asia.
Still, Meta said most of the accounts were detected and removed by its automated system before it even began its investigation.
Separately, Meta said a “small network” started in China that it removed targeted the U.S., Czech Republic and some Chinese- and French-speaking audiences in other places. The campaign “included four largely separate and short-lived efforts, each focused on a particular audience at different times between the Fall of 2021 and mid-September 2022,” Meta said.
In the U.S., the China-based operation “targeted people on both sides of the political spectrum,” Meta said, and was the first Chinese network focused on U.S. domestic politics that it disrupted ahead of the 2022 midterm elections. In the past, the company said, Chinese influence campaigns it disrupted would usually focus on criticizing the U.S. to audiences in other countries.
The campaign in the Czech Republic pushed anti-government narratives, Meta said, targeting the state’s support of Ukraine. Meta said each campaign included about half a dozen accounts and posted “during working hours in China” and few people actually engaged with the posts.
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