Facebook ends covert influence campaigns it says were carried out from China and Russia

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CNN Business

Facebook’s parent company Meta said on Tuesday it had detected and shut down two separate networks of fake accounts engaged in covert influence operations from China and Russia.

The Chinese network was small and received little attention, but it did include some accounts that posed as Americans on both sides of the political spectrum, according to a Meta report released on Tuesday. Meta publicly detailed the pullout as it remains on high alert for foreign interference in the U.S. midterm elections, a Meta spokesperson told CNN. Ben Nimmo, Meta’s global head of threat intelligence, told CNN this is the first time the company has seen Chinese accounts target Americans in this way. « They were running fake accounts that were posing as Americans and trying to sound like Americans and they were talking about really divisive national issues like abortion and gun control, » he said.

The company has shared Chinese account details with the FBI, a Meta spokesperson said.

The Russian campaign, on the other hand, was extensive. He pushed pro-Kremlin narratives about the war in Ukraine, included thousands of accounts and pages on multiple social media platforms, and spent more than $100,000 on ads on Facebook and Instagram.

Meta did not attribute any of the campaigns to specific entities in China or Russia, or to the Chinese and Russian governments, instead saying that only accounts that were part of the campaigns were exhausted in the respective countries.

Meta said the network of Russian accounts it took down was « the largest and most complex Russian operation we’ve shut down since the start of the war in Ukraine, it ran a sprawling network of more than 60 sites. impersonating news outlets, as well as accounts on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Telegram, Twitter,” and other sites, according to the report.

More than 2,000 Facebook accounts and pages were part of the effort to spread pro-Kremlin narratives about the war in Ukraine, Meta said. More than $100,000 was spent on ads on Facebook and Instagram as part of the campaign, Meta said.

The operation included websites designed to imitate genuine Western media, including The Guardian. According to a list of website addresses included in the Meta report, the Russian campaign also registered fake sites designed to look like the Daily Mail and German media outlets Bild and Der Spiegel.

The sophistication of the effort was demonstrated in its attempts to promote misinformation about the Bucha massacre.

Meta noted on Tuesday, “The website mimicking The Guardian published an article accusing Ukraine of masterminding the killing of civilians during the Russian occupation of Bucha,” according to the report.

« The mimicry wasn’t perfect, » Meta noted, « but it showed an investment in making the site look authentic so it could withstand at least occasional scrutiny. »

The Chinese effort consisted of only about 80 Facebook accounts and had virtually no following. Meta said the accounts primarily target audiences in the United States and the Czech Republic, but are posted during working hours in Beijing.

Meta said: « These accounts largely stuck to a work pattern that coincided with a nine to five hour work schedule Monday through Friday during China business hours – 12 hours before Florida and six hours before Prague, » according to the report.

Some of the accounts posed as conservative Americans, while others posed as liberals living in Florida, Texas and California, according to Meta.

The accounts posted comments on some US news stories that appear to be designed to fuel debate online.

Although he had little success online, Meta noted the importance of the network in his report. « It was the first Chinese network we shut down that focused on US domestic politics ahead of the midterm elections, » Meta said. « The Chinese influence operations we’ve halted before have typically focused on criticizing the United States to international audiences, rather than primarily targeting domestic audiences in the United States. »

Meta’s Ben Nimmo told CNN: « It was a small operation and it didn’t seem to have a significant audience, but this is the first time we’ve seen a Chinese operation like this really focus on targeting. American political debates and we are all on high alert before the midterms.

“We know that even small operations are running on many different social media platforms today. So the more information we can share about it, the more we can tell people how it’s going, the more we can all strengthen our defenses,” he said in an interview with CNN Monday night.

A Twitter spokesperson told CNN, « We have been investigating the information referenced in this report for some time, and will take enforcement action against accounts that violate Twitter’s rules. »

CNN has contacted the FBI, Telegram and YouTube for comment.

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