Meta disables Russian propaganda network targeting Europe

A sprawling disinformation network originating in Russia sought to use hundreds of fake social media accounts and dozens of fake news sites to spread Kremlin talking points about the invasion of Ukraine, Meta revealed on Tuesday. .

The company, which owns Facebook and Instagram, said it identified and deactivated the operation before it could gain a large following. Nonetheless, Facebook said it was the largest and most complex Russian propaganda effort it had found since the invasion began.

The operation involved more than 60 websites set up to imitate legitimate news sites, including The Guardian newspaper in the UK and Der Spiegel in Germany. Instead of the actual news reported by these outlets, however, the fake sites contained links to Russian propaganda and disinformation about Ukraine. Over 1,600 fake Facebook accounts were used to spread the propaganda to audiences in Germany, Italy, France, the UK and Ukraine.

The results highlighted both the promise of social media companies to monitor their sites and the danger misinformation continues to pose.

“Video: Fake Bucha Staging Revealed!” claimed one of the fake news stories, which blamed Ukraine for the massacre of hundreds of Ukrainians in a Russian-occupied town.

The fake social media accounts were then used to spread links to fake news and other pro-Russian posts and videos on Facebook and Instagram, as well as platforms such as Telegram and Twitter. The network has been active all summer.

“On a few occasions, the content of the operation was amplified by the official Facebook pages of Russian embassies in Europe and Asia,” said David Agranovich, director of threat disruption at Meta. “I think this is probably the largest and most complex Russian-origin operation that we have interrupted since the start of the war in Ukraine earlier this year.”

The network’s activities were first noticed by investigative journalists in Germany. When Meta began its investigation, it discovered that many fake accounts had already been deleted by Facebook’s automated systems. Thousands of people followed the network’s Facebook pages when they were deactivated earlier this year.

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

Since the start of the war 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 claims of US bioweapons development and portrayed Ukrainian refugees as criminals and rapists.

“Even though Russia is fully involved in Ukraine in the military conflict, it is capable of doing more than one thing at a time,” said Brian Murphy, a former intelligence chief for the Department of Homeland Security who is now vice -president at the counter. -disinformation firm Logically. “They never stopped their sophisticated disinformation operations.”

Social media platforms and European governments have tried to stifle Kremlin propaganda and disinformation, only to see Russia change tack.

A message sent to the Russian Embassy in Washington, DC, requesting a response to Meta’s recent actions was not immediately returned.

Researchers from Meta Platforms Inc., based in Menlo Park, Calif., also exposed a much smaller network originating in China and attempted to spread divisive political content in the United States.

The operation only reached a small US audience, with some posts only receiving one engagement. The posts also made some amateur moves that showed they weren’t American, including awkward mistakes in English and a habit of posting during Chinese working hours.

Despite its ineffectiveness, the network is notable for being the first identified by Meta to target Americans with political messaging ahead of this year’s midterm elections. China Post supported neither party, but seemed determined to stoke the polarization.

“Although it failed, it’s important because it’s a new direction” for Chinese disinformation operations, said Ben Nimmo, who leads global threat intelligence for Meta.

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Associated Press writer Nomaan Merchant contributed to this report from Washington.

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