Meta Platforms has said it disrupted the first known China-based influence operation focused on targeting users in the United States with political content in advance of the midterm elections in November.
The network maintained fake accounts across Meta’s social media platforms Facebook and Instagram, as well as competitor service Twitter, but was small and did not attract much of a following, Meta said on Tuesday in a report summarising its findings.
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Still, the report noted, the discovery was significant because it suggested a shift towards more direct interference in US domestic politics compared with previous known Chinese propaganda efforts.
“The Chinese operations we’ve taken down before talked primarily about America to the world, primarily in South Asia, not to Americans about themselves,” Meta global threat intelligence lead Ben Nimmo told a press briefing.
“Essentially the message was ‘America bad, China good,'” he said of those operations, while the new operation pushed messages aimed at Americans on both sides of divisive issues like abortion and gun rights.
Another Meta executive at the briefing said the company did not have enough evidence to say who in China was behind the activity.
The fake accounts posed as liberal and conservative Americans in different states, posting memes and lurking in the comments of public figures’ posts since November 2021, according to the report.
A sample screenshot showed one account commenting on a Facebook post by Republican Senator Marco Rubio, asking him to stop gun violence and using the hashtag #RubioChildrenKiller.
The same network also set up fake accounts that posed as people in the Czech Republic criticising the Czech government for its approach to China, according to the report.
Separately, the report said Meta intercepted the largest and most complex Russian-based operation since the war in Ukraine began, describing it as a sprawling network of more than 60 websites, social media accounts and petitions on sites like Avaaz that aimed to spread Kremlin talking points about the invasion of Ukraine.
The websites were created to mimic legitimate news sites including The Guardian newspaper in the United Kingdom and Germany’s Der Spiegel. Instead of the actual news reported by those outlets, however, the fake sites contained links to Russian propaganda and disinformation about Ukraine. More than 1,600 fake Facebook accounts were used to spread the propaganda to audiences in Germany, Italy, France, the UK and Ukraine.