Meta says it has disrupted a sophisticated Russian influence operation that operated across its own social platforms, Facebook and Instagram, as well as Twitter, YouTube, Telegram, and even LiveJournal.
In a new report on removing coordinated inauthentic behavior, Meta says that the influence campaign originated in Russia and involved a “sprawling” network of more than 60 fake websites. In a bid for borrowed credibility, some of those sites impersonated mainstream European news outlets like Der Spiegel, The Guardian and Bild.
Social media accounts within the network shared spoofed articles from these news outlets, mostly criticizing Ukraine and Ukrainian refugees or arguing against sanctions placed on Russia. Content in the spoofed articles was produced in English, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Russian, and Ukrainian, among other languages.
“This is the largest and most complex Russian-origin operation that we’ve disrupted since the beginning of the war in Ukraine,” Meta’s global threat intelligence lead Ben Nimmo and security engineer Mike Torrey write in the report. “It presented an unusual combination of sophistication and brute force. The spoofed websites and the use of many languages demanded both technical and linguistic investment. The amplification on social media, on the other hand, relied primarily on crude ads and fake accounts.”
The report’s authors write that networks of these fake accounts “built mini-brands” across the internet by using the same names across multiple platforms, and collectively, pages within the fake account network spent around $105,000 promoting articles and memes through Facebook and Instagram ads. On some occasions, the Facebook pages of Russian embassies in Europe and Asia even amplified content from the influence campaign.
Meta says that the campaign also used original memes created to promote pro-Russian and anti-Ukraine narratives and even included petitions launched on Change.org and Avaaz. (In one example, a Change.org petition demanded that the German government end “unacceptable generosity” toward Ukrainian refugees.)
While some aspects of the campaign were technically sophisticated, Meta says that the repetitive construction and posting patterns of the fake accounts meant that many were removed by automated systems before an in-depth investigation had even begun.
More precise details of the campaign have been shared with misinformation researchers to facilitate a better understanding of the campaign, Meta said.
Though Meta does not attribute the campaign directly to the Russian government, the Kremlin is adept at using digital influence operations as a way to project global power. Even before the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Ukrainian officials were sounding the alarm over Russian disinformation campaigns being conducted in the country via social media.
Russia has also used similar tactics to influence discussion on other global topics of significance: as coronavirus vaccines began to roll out in early 2021, online publications linked to Russian intelligence services were caught spreading false or misleading information about vaccines.