Facebook and Twitter took down a network of social media accounts that “used deceptive tactics” to promote pro-Western narratives that supported the United States and its allies while opposing countries such as China, Russia, and Iran, according to an Aug. 24 report.
The joint investigation by the Stanford Internet Observatory and Graphika, a social media analytics firm, found that an “interconnected web of accounts” on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and five other social media platforms utilized “deceptive” strategies to back Western narratives in the Middle East and Central Asia.
“These campaigns consistently advanced narratives promoting the interests of the United States and its allies while opposing countries including Russia, China, and Iran,” the report reads.
The accounts heavily criticized Russia, in particular, for the deaths of innocent civilians amid the invasion of Ukraine, which began in February, according to the report. They also promoted the narrative that Russian President Vladimir Putin planned to induce a global food crisis that would impact less economically developed countries the hardest.
The accounts also praised U.S. aid to Central Asia and concentrated on the Chinese Communist Party’s treatment of Chinese Muslim minorities, particularly Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang.
Accounts in the Middle East also focused on issues in Yemen, primarily sharing content that was critical of Iranian and Houthi rebel activity in the country, including posts that accused Houthi rebel leaders of blocking humanitarian aid deliveries and acting as proxies for Iran and Hezbollah.
A portion of the activity also promoted anti-extremism messaging, according to the report.
‘Series of Covert Campaigns’
According to the report, Twitter and Meta, the parent company of Facebook, took down the accounts over a “series of covert campaigns” over a period of five years.
Twitter stated that the two overlapping sets of accounts violated its policies on “platform manipulation and spam,” while Meta stated that the accounts engaged in “coordinated inauthentic behavior,” according to the report.
Both Twitter and Meta, after taking down the accounts, provided portions of their activity to Graphika and the Stanford Internet Observatory, the report noted.
The Stanford Internet Observatory and Graphika stated that they believe the activity represents “the most extensive case” of covert pro-Western influence operations on social media to be reviewed and analyzed by open-source researchers to date.
“With few exceptions, the study of modern influence operations has overwhelmingly focused on activity linked to authoritarian regimes in countries such as Russia, China, and Iran, with recent growth in research on the integral role played by private entities,” the report reads. “This report illustrates the much wider range of actors engaged in active operations to influence online audiences.”
While neither Twitter nor Meta shared the technical details of their investigations and declined to publicly state who was behind the accounts, Twitter stated that the activity’s “presumptive countries of origin” were the United States and the UK, while Meta stated that the “country of origin” was the United States.
The Twitter dataset provided to Graphika and the Stanford Internet Observatory covered more than 299,000 posts by 146 accounts between March 2012 and this past February.
The covert campaigns were also represented in the Meta dataset of 39 Facebook profiles, 16 pages, two groups, and 26 Instagram accounts active from 2017 to this past July.
According to the report, the accounts used fake profile pictures that were taken from other sources, including one which used a photo of Puerto Rican actress Valeria Menendez or others that were computer-generated.
The accounts also “posed as independent media outlets, leveraged memes and short-form videos, attempted to start hashtag campaigns, and launched online petitions: all tactics observed in past operations by other actors.” Some of them shared news and links to websites sponsored by the U.S. military, according to the report.
However, their effectiveness was limited, according to the report, which states that the “vast majority of posts and tweets we reviewed received no more than a handful of likes or retweets, and only 19 percent of the covert assets we identified had more than 1,000 followers.”
“Tellingly, the two most-followed assets in the data provided by Twitter were overt accounts that publicly declared a connection to the U.S. military,” the report reads.
Pentagon spokesman Air Force Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder told The Wall Street Journal that it would “look into and assess any information that Facebook or Twitter provides.”
A Twitter spokeswoman told the media outlet that the report was independent of the company and that “data is shared with outside researchers to support external analysis to inform the public.”
A spokesperson for Meta said the company had no additional information to share regarding the report, instead referring to prior discussions from security executives referencing the difficulties in connecting fake accounts to specific groups or governments, according to The Wall Street Journal.
Representatives for Twitter and Meta didn’t respond to requests by The Epoch Times for comment by press time.