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November 23, 2022updated 24 Nov 2022 9:58am

Meta says Facebook propaganda campaign targeting Middle East was linked to US military

Pro-Western messages were spread by fake accounts in contravention of Facebook's terms of use, an investigation found.

By Claudia Glover

Facebook’s parent company Meta has taken down a coordinated inauthentic behaviour (CIB) campaign designed to promote pro-Western narratives while denouncing Russia, China and Iran. The network is linked to individuals associated with the US military, Meta says, and was targeting countries in the Middle East and Central Asia. It follows similar campaigns perpetrated by Russia and China being removed from the platform as geopolitical tensions ramp up.

Meta AI
Meta removes pro-Western CIB campaign from Instagram and Facebook. (Photo by Let’s Design Studio/Shutterstock)

As part of its Third Quarter Adversarial Threat Report, the company announced it had taken down the network, based in the US, designed to spread pro-Western messages to Afghanistan, Algeria, Iran, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Somalia, Syria, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Yemen. 

The campaign appeared to contravene Meta’s guidelines on CIB. “We’re constantly working to find and stop coordinated campaigns that seek to manipulate public debate across our apps,” the company says on its website.

The social media giant removed 39 Facebook accounts, 16 Facebook pages, two groups and 26 Instagram accounts for violating its policy on CIB. “The operation ran across many internet services including Twitter, YouTube, Telegram and [Russian social media platforms] VKontakte and Odnoklassniki,” reads the report. Several clusters of fake accounts across all these platforms.

The campaign was designed to portray the actions of the US and its allies in a positive light while denouncing countries including China, Russia and Iran.

Despite its size, the CIB campaign did not appear to be successful. “The majority of this operation’s posts had little to no engagement from authentic communities,” reads the report. The people behind this operation had attempted to conceal their identities but Meta’s investigation “found links to individuals associated with the US military,” it states.

Meta shared its research with Stanford digital repository, which also released a reportono the CIB campaign. “These campaigns consistently advanced narratives promoting the interests of the United States and its allies while opposing countries including Russia, China and Iran. The accounts heavily criticised Russia in particular for the deaths of innocent civilians and other atrocities its soldiers committed in pursuit of the Kremlin’s ‘imperial ambitions’ following its invasion of Ukraine in February this year,” states the Stanford report.

The accounts shared news articles from US government-funded websites like Voice of America and Radio Free Europe, as well as links to the US military. “A portion of the activity also promoted anti-extremist messaging,” reads the report. 

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Chinese and Russian CIB operations

The US is far from the only country pumping out this kind of misinformation online, as Meta also took down similar campaigns emanating from Russia and China in the last quarter.

The Russian operation, exposed in September, targeted Germany primarily,  followed by the UK,  France, Italy and Ukraine, focussing on spreading a pro-Russian message about its war with Ukraine. Beginning in May of this year, the campaign centred around impersonating over 60 legitimate news sites in Europe, including The Guardian and Germain titles Der Spiegel and Bild

“There, they would post original articles that criticised Ukraine and Ukrainian refugees, supported Russia and argued that Western sanctions on Russia would backfire,” Meta said.

The Chinese campaign targeted the US, Czech Republic and, to a lesser extent, Chinese and French-speaking audiences around the world. It operated through Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and two Czech petition platforms. 

The campaign appeared to target people in the US on both sides of the political spectrum ahead of America’s mid-term elections. “This was the first Chinese network we disrupted that focussed on US domestic politics ahead of the mid-term elections,” reads the second Meta report. The activity in the Czech Republic was primarily anti-government, criticising the state’s support of Ukraine in the war with Russia and its impact on the Czech economy, “using the criticism to caution against antagonising China”.

Read more: GCHQ plans to use AI to fight disinformation

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