Meta disables Russian propaganda network spreading lies about invasion

Meta disables sprawling Russian propaganda network with hundreds of fake accounts and sham news websites across Europe spreading Kremlin lies about Ukraine invasion

  • A ‘sophisticated’ Russian disinformation campaign was shut down by Meta
  • More than 1,600 fake accounts and sham new websites spread Kremlin lies
  • Audiences in the UK, Germany, Italy, France and Ukraine were targeted

A huge Russian propaganda network with more than 1,600 fake accounts  has been shut down by Meta for spreading disinformation about the invasion of Ukraine.

The sophisticated operation, which reportedly spent around £100,000, also used dozens of sham news websites to spread Kremlin talking points.

More than 60 websites were created to mimic legitimate news sites including The Guardian and Germany’s Der Spiegel. The fake sites contained links to Russian propaganda and disinformation about Ukraine. 

The influence campaign operated across social platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube and Telegram. The target audiences were in Germany, Italy, France, the UK and Ukraine.

To spread its disinformation the ‘brute force’ campaign relied primarily on crude ads and fake accounts – the majority of which were detected and removed by automated systems. 

Meta, the company, which owns Facebook and Instagram, said it identified and disabled the operation before it gained a large audience – although posts were shared by foreign embassies.

The findings highlighted the promise of social media companies to police their sites and the peril that disinformation continues to pose.

Meta has disabled a sprawling Russian propaganda network that used fake accounts and sham news websites to spread Kremlin lies about the Ukraine invasion

The fake website (left) is a realistic looking version of a real article (right) from The Guardian’s website, but it is spreading Russian disinformation about the invasion of Ukraine

‘Video: False Staging in Bucha Revealed!’ claimed one of the fake news stories, which blamed Ukraine for the slaughter of hundreds of Ukrainians in a town occupied by the Russians.

‘On a few occasions, the operation’s content was amplified by the official Facebook pages of Russian embassies in Europe and Asia,’ said David Agranovich, Meta’s director of threat disruption.

‘I think this is probably the largest and most complex Russian-origin operation that we’ve disrupted since the beginning of the war in Ukraine earlier this year.’

The network’s activities were first noticed by investigative reporters in Germany.

When Meta began its investigation it found that many of the fake accounts had already been removed by Facebook’s automated systems. Thousands of people were following the network’s Facebook pages when they were deactivated earlier this year.

The campaign was described as the ‘largest and most complex Russian-origin operation’ since the beginning of the war in Ukraine

Researchers said they could not directly attribute the network to the Russian government, but Mr Agranovich noted the role played by Russian diplomats and said the operation relied on some sophisticated tactics, including the use of multiple languages and carefully constructed impostor websites.

Since the war began in February, the Kremlin has used online disinformation and conspiracy theories in an effort to weaken international support for Ukraine. 

Groups linked to the Russian government have accused Ukraine of staging attacks, blamed the war on baseless allegations of US bioweapon development and portrayed Ukrainian refugees as criminals and rapists.

Social media platforms and European governments have tried to stifle the Kremlin’s propaganda and disinformation, only to see Russia shift tactics.

Researchers at Meta also exposed a much smaller network that originated in China and attempted to spread divisive political content in the US.

The operation reached only a tiny US audience, with some posts receiving just a single engagement. The posts also made some amateurish moves that showed they were not American, including some clumsy English language mistakes and a habit of posting during Chinese working hours.

Despite its ineffectiveness, the network is notable because it is the first identified by Meta that targeted Americans with political messages ahead of this year’s mid-term elections.

The Chinese posts did not support one party or the other but seemed intent on stirring up polarisation.

‘While it failed, it’s important because it’s a new direction’ for Chinese disinformation operations, said Ben Nimmo, who directs global threat intelligence for Meta. 

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