While countries like Russia and China have been making headlines for years with their disinformation and propaganda campaigns on platforms like Twitter and Facebook, it turns out that the US and other Western countries are playing the same game. A recent report (pdf) from social network analytics firm Graphika and the Stanford Internet Observatory have uncovered a series of operations, some covert and some less so, aimed at “promoting pro-Western narratives” in countries like Russia, China, Afghanistan and Iran (through Gizmodo).
According to the report, Twitter and Meta removed a group of accounts from their platforms earlier this month, citing their platform manipulation and coordinated inauthentic rules of conduct. Analyzing the accounts’ activities, researchers found that the accounts have campaigned for years to criticize or support foreign governments (sometimes the same governments, in what appears to be an attempt to divide) and make offers for culture and politics. . The report says this was sometimes done by sharing links to news sites supported by the US government and military.
The data analyzed came from 146 Twitter accounts (tweeting 299,566 times), 39 Facebook profiles and 26 Instagram accounts, along with 16 Facebook pages and two Facebook groups. Some accounts were meant to look like real people and used AI-generated profile pictures. Meta and Twitter did not name specific organizations or people behind the campaigns, but said their analysis led them to believe they were from the US and Britain.
For anyone who’s ever been within 15 feet of a history book, the news that the US is using covert action to advance its interests in other countries should come as no surprise. Interestingly, however, these operations were discovered just as social media companies are preparing to deal with a wave of foreign interference and misinformation in our own elections.
The report also comes on the heels of a whistleblower report from Peiter “Mudge” Zatko, the former head of Twitter’s security, accusing the company of lax security practices and misrepresenting the number of bots on its platform (something the U.S. government is investigating and that Twitter has strongly denied).
In particular, the report did not reveal advanced hacking techniques that exploited weak security. Speak with GizmodoInternet Observatory employee Shelby Grossman said that “there was nothing technically interesting about this network,” contrary to how we might imagine how the US works. “You’d think, ‘Oh, this influence operation originated in the US, it’s definitely going to be special,’ but it really wasn’t,” she said.
The full report is a fascinating read, if you have the time, breaking down how the accounts posted and going deep into what kind of content they shared. Spoiler alert: There were memes, hashtag campaigns, petitions and – what else – fake news.
It also reveals a somewhat damning tidbit when we talk about the reach and impact of these campaigns; according to the report, “the vast majority of posts and tweets we reviewed received no more than a handful of likes or retweets, and only 19% of the undisclosed assets we identified had more than 1,000 followers.” In addition, the two accounts with the most followers explicitly said they had ties to the US military. I’ll try not to think about how much all this will cost when I pay my taxes next year.