Meta disables Russia's network of propaganda aimed at Europe

Meta found out Tuesday that a large Russian network of fake news and social media accounts tried to spread Kremlin talking points about the invasion of Ukraine by using hundreds of fake social media accounts and dozens of fake news websites.

The company that owns Facebook and Instagram said it found the operation and shut it down before it could reach a large number of people. Still, Facebook said that it was the biggest and most complicated piece of Russian propaganda it had found since the invasion started.

More than 60 fake news sites, like the UK's The Guardian and Germany's Der Spiegel, were used in the operation. The fake sites, on the other hand, linked to Russian propaganda and false information about Ukraine instead of the real news that these outlets were supposed to report. More than 1,600 fake Facebook accounts were used to spread the propaganda to people in Germany, Italy, France, the UK, and Ukraine.

The results showed both how social media companies say they will keep their sites safe and how dangerous misinformation still is.

One of the fake news stories said, "Video: False Staging in Bucha Revealed!" It said that Ukraine was to blame for the deaths of hundreds of Ukrainians in a town occupied by the Russians.

Meta announced that it has disabled a Russian propaganda campaign that has targeted Europe.
Meta announced that it has disabled a Russian propaganda campaign that has targeted Europe.
AP Photo/Tony Avelar, File

Then, links to the fake news stories and other pro-Russian posts and videos were shared on Facebook, Instagram, Telegram, and Twitter using the fake social media accounts. During the summer, the network was busy.

"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, Meta's director of threat disruption. "I think this is the biggest and most complicated Russian operation we've stopped since the war in Ukraine started earlier this year."

German investigative reporters were the first to notice what the network was doing. When Meta started its investigation, it found that many of the fake accounts had already been deleted by Facebook's automated systems. When the network's Facebook pages were turned off earlier this year, there were thousands of people who were following them.

A mass funeral for Ukrainians who died in the occupation of Bucha on September 2, 2022. The Russian propaganda network was used to spread disinformation about the deaths in Bucha.
A mass funeral for Ukrainians who died in the occupation of Bucha on September 2, 2022. The Russian propaganda network was used to spread disinformation about the deaths in Bucha.
AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti

Researchers said they couldn't say for sure that the Russian government was behind the network. But Agranovich pointed out the role that Russian diplomats played and said that the operation used some sophisticated methods, such as using more than one language and carefully making fake websites.

Since the war started in February, the Kremlin has tried to weaken international support for Ukraine by spreading false information and conspiracy theories online. Groups with ties to the Russian government have said that Ukraine set up attacks, blamed the war on false claims that the U.S. was making bioweapons, and made Ukrainian refugees look like criminals and rapists.

"Even though Russia is fully involved in the military conflict in Ukraine, they can do more than one thing at a time," said Brian Murphy, who used to be the head of intelligence for the Department of Homeland Security and is now a vice president at the company Logically. "They have never stopped their well-planned efforts to spread false information."

Europe's governments and social media sites have tried to stop the Kremlin from spreading propaganda and false information, but Russia has changed its strategy.

A message was sent to the Russian Embassy in Washington, D.C., asking for a response to Meta's recent actions. The message was not immediately returned.

Researchers at Meta Platforms Inc., which is based in Menlo Park, California, also found a much smaller Chinese network that tried to spread political content in the U.S. that would cause division.

The operation only reached a small number of people in the U.S.; some posts only got one click. There were also some amateurish things in the posts that showed they weren't from the United States. For example, they made mistakes in English and often posted during Chinese work hours.

Even though it didn't work, the network is notable because it was the first one that Meta found that sent political messages to Americans before this year's midterm elections. The Chinese posts didn't support one side or the other, but they did seem to want to make people more divided.

"It failed, but it's important because it's a new direction" for Chinese disinformation operations, said Ben Nimmo, who runs global threat intelligence for Meta.

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