A Pro-U.S. Disinfo Campaign Has Been Targeting Russia, China, and Iran on Facebook and Twitter, Researchers Say

Researchers have discovered what appears to be one of the only known examples of an online U.S. influence operation.

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We’ve all grown accustomed to hearing about foreign-seeded disinformation campaigns, but we seldom hear about America’s own covert influence operations. On Wednesday, however, social media researchers revealed details about what appears to have been a long-running U.S. disinformation effort aimed at web users in Russia, China, and Iran.

In July and August, Twitter and Meta announced that they had uncovered two overlapping sets of fraudulent accounts that were spreading inauthentic content on their platforms. The companies took the networks down but later shared portions of the data with academic researchers. On Wednesday, the Stanford Internet Observatory and social media analytics firm Graphika published a joint study on the data, revealing that the campaigns had all the markings of a U.S. influence network.

Shelby Grossman, a staffer at the Internet Observatory and a member of the research team that published the paper, told Gizmodo that the study is one of the most intensive analyses yet of a “covert, pro-U.S. influence operation.” She also noted that the campaigns were very similar in form to the influence campaigns launched by America’s foes.

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“The sock puppet accounts were kind of funny to look at because we are so used to analyzing pro-Kremlin sock puppets, so it was weird to see accounts pushing the opposite narrative,” she said. “The narratives [in pro-Kremlin influence ops] are often like ‘the Americans are killing civilians in Syria’ but here the narrative was ‘Russia is killing civilians in Syria.’ It was the same narrative but just switching the proper nouns around.”

The propaganda, which spread “pro-U.S.” narratives in online communities in Russia, China, and Iran, leveraged droves of fake profiles and may have persisted in its activities for the better part of a decade. Twitter says that some 299,566 tweets were sent by 146 fake accounts between March 2012 and February 2022. Meanwhile, the Meta dataset shared with researchers included “39 Facebook profiles, 16 pages, two groups, and 26 Instagram accounts active from 2017 to July 2022,” the report says.

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While specific attribution for the campaigns isn’t available (we don’t know the names of the people or organizations who set up these fake accounts), Twitter has said that the activity’s “presumptive countries of origin” are the U.S. and Great Britain, and Meta claims that the “country of origin” is the U.S., the report says.

As for the contents of the campaigns, they’re about what you’d expect. The Stanford/Graphika report notes that:

These campaigns consistently advanced narratives promoting the interests of the United States and its allies while opposing countries including Russia, China, and Iran. The accounts heavily criticized Russia in particular for the deaths of innocent civilians and other atrocities its soldiers committed in pursuit of the Kremlin’s “imperial ambitions” following its invasion of Ukraine in February this year. To promote this and other narratives, the accounts sometimes shared news articles from U.S. government-funded media outlets, such as Voice of America and Radio Free Europe, and links to websites sponsored by the U.S. military.

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Grossman also noted that there was nothing particularly unique about the methods that were used to distribute the propaganda. “You’d think, ‘Oh, this influence operation originated in the U.S., surely it’s going to be special,’ but that really wasn’t the case,” she said. “The operation used the same tactics that we see over and over and over again, like AI-generated profile photos, memes, political cartoons—there was not anything technically interesting about this network.”

You can read the full report on the researchers’ findings by heading here.