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Pro-Western, anti-China influence ops taken down by Facebook and Twitter

Pro-Western, anti-China influence ops taken down by Facebook and Twitter

A person using a mobile phone and computer. (Photo: iStock/Milan_Jovic)

  • Covert campaigns on social media promoted the interests of the US and its allies while opposing countries including Russia, China and Iran, a report reveals
  • These "deceptive" tactics were targeted at the Middle East and Central Africa, with the campaigns' countries of origin listed as the US and Britain
  • Data provided by social media giants also show the "limited" range of tactics used by actors in influence operations, including fake personas, memes, and online petitions

SINGAPORE: Tech giants Twitter and Meta in recent weeks removed social media accounts promoting pro-Western narratives that supported the United States and its allies while opposing countries like China and Russia, according to a report released on Wednesday (Aug 24). 

The joint study by the Stanford Internet Observatory - a programme at Stanford University studying the abuse of the Internet - and social media analytics firm Graphika points to the first time covert pro-Western influence operations have been identified and taken down on social media.

"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 stated. 

Data provided by Twitter and Facebook parent firm Meta to the researchers showed a series of covert campaigns that ran over a period of almost five years on various social media platforms, including Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. 

An "interconnected web" of accounts on those platforms used deceptive tactics to promote pro-Western narratives in the Middle East and Central Asia. 

Twitter listed the campaigns' "presumptive countries of origin" as the US and Great Britain, while Meta said the "country of origin" was the US. 

Both firms did not share technical details of their investigations, and did not publicly attribute the activity to any entity or organisation. 


In July and August, Twitter and Meta removed two "overlapping" sets of accounts for violating their platforms' terms of service. 

Twitter said the accounts violated their policies on "platform manipulation and spam", while Meta said the accounts engaged in "coordinated inauthentic behaviour". 

After the accounts were taken down, both companies provided "portions of the activities" to Graphika and the Stanford Internet Observatory for further analysis.

Twitter provided data which covered more than 299,000 tweets by 146 accounts between March 2012 and February this year, showing activity linked to covert campaigns of unclear origins.

These covert campaigns were also represented in a Meta dataset of 39 Facebook profiles, 16 pages and two groups; as well as 26 Instagram accounts active from 2017 to July this year. 

Researchers found that the campaigns consistently advanced narratives that promoted the interests of the US and its allies while opposing countries including Russia, China and Iran. 

According to their joint report, the accounts "heavily criticised" Russia for the deaths of innocent civilians and other atrocities its soldiers committed in pursuit of the Kremlin's "imperial ambition", following the Ukraine invasion in February. 

To promote such narratives, the social media accounts sometimes shared news articles from US government-funded media outlets such as Voice of America and Radio Free Europe, or links to websites sponsored by the US military. 

Other narratives included Russian military interventions in the Middle East and Africa as well as China's alleged treatment of Muslim minorities in "re-education camps" in the Xinjiang region. 


Data provided by the social media giants also revealed the "limited" range of tactics used by actors in influence operations, said the researchers. 

One tactic was the use of fake personas posing as independent media journalists and with faces generated through machine learning or generative adversarial networks (GAN).

These faces are typically easy to identify due to consistent central eye alignment, blurred backgrounds and telltale glitches around the teeth, eyes and ears.

Other tactics included memes and short-form videos, attempts to start hashtag campaigns, and online petitions - all tactics observed in past operations by other actors, said researchers. 

"Importantly, the data also shows the limitations of using inauthentic tactics to generate engagement and build influence online," they added. 

The vast majority of posts and tweets reviewed received no more than a handful of likes or retweets, with only 19 per cent of the covert assets amassing 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 US military," said the report. 

Source: CNA/lk(jo)


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