Meta says it has taken down the largest covert influence operation the tech company has seen to date. The campaign pushed pro-Chinese narratives and is connected to Chinese law enforcement.
According to Meta, the operation involved thousands of accounts on more than 50 platforms. It’s also connected to a cluster previously tracked as Spamouflage, and Meta says that clues link the campaign to individuals working in Chinese law enforcement.
"Our investigation found that the Spamouflage network is run by geographically dispersed operators across China who appear to be centrally provisioned with internet access and content directions,” Guy Rosen, Meta’s chief information security officer, said.
“We identified multiple distinct clusters of fake accounts that were run from many different parts of China. Their behavior suggested that they were operated by groups who may have worked from a shared location, such as an office.”
According to Meta, each cluster worked to a clear shift pattern, with bursts of activity in the mid-morning and early afternoon, Beijing time, with breaks for lunch and supper, and then a final burst of activity in the evening.
When Spamouflage was first uncovered in 2019, it typically focused on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. Over time, as platforms began detecting and blocking these spammy efforts, the operation began pivoting to prioritizing smaller platforms, including local forums in Asia and Africa.
With its campaign, China targeted more than 50 apps, including Facebook, Instagram, X (formerly Twitter), YouTube, TikTok, Reddit, Pinterest, Medium, Blogspot, LiveJournal, VKontakte, Vimeo, and dozens of smaller platforms and forums.
7,704 Facebook accounts, 954 Pages, 15 Groups and 15 Instagram accounts for violating Meta’s policy against coordinated inauthentic behavior. The network targeted many regions around the world, including Taiwan, the United States, Australia, the United Kingdom, Japan, and global Chinese-speaking audiences.
The targeted websites and forums are remarkable for their diversity, Meta said in its Q2 Adversarial Threat report.
For example, Spamouflage content criticizing Chinese virologist Yan Limeng – a frequent target of the operation – even appeared on TripAdvisor.
An unusual range of languages was also registered. The content came primarily in Chinese and English in addition to French, and smaller volumes in languages including Spanish, Russian, Japanese, Korean, Thai, Indonesian, Filipino, German, Finnish, Portuguese, and even Latin and Welsh.
However, despite the very large number of accounts and platforms it used, Spamouflage consistently struggled to reach beyond its own fake echo chamber. Only a few instances have been reported when Spamouflage content on Twitter and YouTube was amplified by real-world influencers.
In 2021, Graphika, a company exploring social media landscapes, reported that Spamouflage managed to break out and reach widespread audiences. Its content has been amplified by, among others, the Venezuelan Foreign Minister, a Pakistani politician, a senior figure at Huawei Europe, and UK commentator and former member of parliament George Galloway.
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