Meta's security team has formally confirmed the involvement of the United States military in a pro-Western influence operation in its quarterly adversarial threat report. The social network took it down this summer.
The company said it removed 39 Facebook accounts, 16 Facebook pages, and 26 Instagram accounts that tried to pose as locals in various countries and violated Meta’s policy against coordinated inauthentic behavior.
Meta now confirms this network originated in the US and was active in Afghanistan, Algeria, Iran, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Somalia, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Yemen.
The accounts posted content in different languages and across several countries as part of an influence operation meant to praise the anti-terrorism efforts of the US military and criticize China, Russia, and the Taliban.
Meta called the campaign an example of coordinated inauthentic behavior – efforts to manipulate public debate for a strategic goal in which fake accounts are central to the operation.
Researchers now formally say these fake accounts were linked to individuals associated with the US military. They posed as locals in the countries they targeted.
"The network posted primarily during US business hours (EST) rather than during work hours in the countries they targeted,"Meta's security team
"The people behind this activity posted primarily in Arabic, Farsi and Russian about news and current events, including terrorism concerns and praise of the US military, as well as content about the COVID-19 pandemic — some of which we removed for violating our misinformation policy,” Meta said.
“This operation also shared posts criticizing Iran, China and Russia, including Russia's invasion of Ukraine, China's treatment of the Uyghur people, Iran's influence in the Middle East, and the support of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan by Russia and China."
Erin Gallagher, a disinformation researcher with the Technology and Social Change Project at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center, suspects the US military might have been posting COVID-19 misinformation.
Meta didn’t specify the individuals in the US military linked to this operation. But it is the same campaign that was first described at the end of August in a joint report from Graphika, a social media analytics firm, and the Stanford Internet Observatory.
In the paper, the operation was linked to the Trans-Regional Web Initiative, an obscure US Department of Defense project that was launched 15 years ago under the framework of “strategic communication” but officially closed at the beginning of 2014.
The operation was then widely ridiculed for gaining almost zero engagement, and Meta doesn’t disagree. In the report, it says that “the majority of this operation’s posts had little to no engagement with authentic communities.”
Meta also noted that the people behind the network tried to conceal their identities and coordination. For example, some accounts used profile photos likely generated using machine learning techniques.
Yet the concealment didn’t work, and Meta shares the likely reason. “This network posted primarily during US business hours (EST) rather than during work hours in the countries they targeted," the report said.
Meta confirmed it had broken up two more suspicious campaigns. One originated in China and targeted the US, the Czech Republic, and, to a lesser extent, Chinese- and French-speaking audiences around the world in 2021-2022.
Another operation was shut down in September and back then was called the largest Russian propaganda campaign since the invasion of Ukraine in February.
1,633 Facebook accounts, 703 pages, one group, and 29 accounts on Instagram were taken down. According to Meta, the network targeted primarily Germany, also France, Italy, Ukraine, and the United Kingdom with criticism of Ukraine and praise of Russia.
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