Meta, Facebook's parent company, on Tuesday said it removed accounts linked to two unconnected covert operations in China and Russia seeking to influence political narratives in the United States ahead of the midterms in November.
In addition to seeking to influence U.S. domestic politics ahead of the midterms, the Chinese operation targeted the Czech Republic's foreign policy toward China and Ukraine, and to a lesser extent, Chinese- and French-speaking people around the world, according to Meta.
Ben Nimmo, Meta's global threat intelligence lead, said at a press briefing that, unlike previous Chinese operations which bad-mouthed the United States in South Asia, the new efforts targeted messages to "Americans themselves," pushing narratives aimed at divisive U.S. domestic issues like abortion and gun rights.
When asked about the issue, U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland said his office is "very concerned" about reports of foreign election interference both new and old, Reuters reported.
Meta said the Russian network was the "largest of its kind" disrupted by the company since the war in Ukraine began. That operation primarily focused on Germany, France, Italy, Ukraine, and the United Kingdom with "narratives focused on the war and its impact."
The Russia-based operation included a sprawling network of over 60 websites impersonating legitimate news organizations, according to Meta.
The company said it shared information related to its investigation with tech companies, security researchers, governments, and law enforcement, so that "they too can take appropriate action."
Twitter has also taken down accounts connected to the operations, Reuters reported.
Chinese OperationThe Chinese operation was active across multiple social media sites, including Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and two Czech petition platforms.
Meta noted that it was the first time the company disrupted a Chinese operation ahead of the U.S. midterms, as well as one targeting the Czech Republic's foreign policy toward China and Ukraine.
The Chinese influence operation produced a low volume of posts, mostly during the hours of China's work day, which helped to identify the activity as coordinated inauthentic behavior; a violation of Meta's policy.
The operation comprised of four "largely separate," short-lived efforts over the last 12 months, each focused on a particular audience, and at different times some of the accounts cheer while others criticize both sides of a U.S. domestic political issue.
The Biden meme, posted on April 18, featured an image of the president with the words: "One year in. Nothing is built. Nothing is back. Nothing is better."
The Rubio meme, posted Aug. 2, featured an image of the senator with accusations of corruption. Both of these posts received one engagement each, and most of the network's U.S.-focused operations gained almost no traction overall, according to the report.
Some posts included linguistic errors, such as, “I can't live in an America on regression!”
Its activities in the Czech Republic were mainly anti-government and criticized the state's support of Ukraine in the war with Russia and its impact on the Czech economy.
Meta noted that the Chinese network tried to influence people to be cautious against antagonizing the Chinese regime.
"Each cluster of accounts—around half a dozen each—posted content at low volumes during working hours in China rather than when their target audiences would typically be awake," the company said.
Russian OperationMeta described the network originating in Russia as far larger than the Chinese effort, saying it was "the largest and most complex" Russian operation the company disrupted since the beginning of the war in Ukraine.
"It presented an unusual combination of sophistication and brute force," Meta said.
The Russian operation created fake websites with careful impersonations of legitimate news websites in Europe, including Der Spiegel, The Guardian, and Bild.
Further, the sites, which featured fake original articles criticizing Ukraine, were available in multiple languages, including English, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Russian, and Ukrainian.
"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.
Since May, the network, which featured over 60 websites, sought to influence opinions about the Ukraine–Russia war mainly in Germany but included France, Italy, Ukraine, and the United Kingdom.
The Russian operation promoted the original articles as well as original memes and YouTube videos on a number of platforms, including Facebook, Instagram, Telegram, Twitter, petitions websites Change.org and Avaaz, and LiveJournal.
"Throughout our investigation, as we blocked this operation’s domains, they attempted to set up new websites, suggesting persistence and continuous investment in this activity across the internet," Meta said.