A research paper written by the intelligence company Graphika and Stanford Internet Observatory documented a network of hundreds of accounts across several different social media networks, including Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, Telegram, YouTube, and more. These accounts targeted U.S. adversaries, mainly Russia, China, and Iran, creating fake personas and organizations to spread narratives against them in contested areas such as Central Asia and the Middle East.
Twitter and Meta didn’t speculate as to who or what was behind the network, only saying that it likely originated in the U.S. or United Kingdom.
The campaign, waged mostly after 2017 up until its termination in August 2022, was found to be mostly ineffective, with the majority of the posts only generating limited interaction. However, a few posts gained significant traction. A video produced and posted by a sham news account from the network on Facebook regarding Kyrgyzstan’s government banning the pro-Russian “Z” symbol garnered over 600,000 views. The data set studied by Graphika and Stanford documented 60,798 active Twitter accounts that followed at least one account of the network.
The network provided an “axis of evil” style narrative, frequently finding ways to link Russia, China, Iran, and the Taliban or criticizing several of them at once. For example, China was accused of causing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine by some accounts, while Russia was accused of helping the Taliban at the expense of Central Asian nations. Russian and Chinese “imperialism” were frequently decried. Meanwhile, U.S. diplomatic and humanitarian efforts were praised and magnified.
One tactic was to create sham media outlets, primarily filled with content directly ripped off from other pro-Western outlets such as Meduza, BBC’s Russian service, U.S. government-funded Radio Free Europe, or the Voice of America. Some words would be changed in a likely attempt to avoid copyright infringement claims, or texts were directly translated using unsophisticated methods.
Accounts would frequently utilize misinformation, or highly contentious claims.
“Some of the group’s media outlets also claimed that Russia sent Wagner Group mercenaries to seize Almaty airport and that Russia was using claims of foreign interference as a pretext to send Russian troops as CSTO peacekeepers to occupy Kazakhstan,” the report said. Wagner was an especially popular topic among the accounts, mentioning the mercenary group 193 times on Twitter and 312 times on Facebook.
Unproven stories that Afghani bodies were returned from Iran with organs missing were heavily promoted. Accounts targeting Iraq claimed that Iran was flooding the country with crystal meth.
Accounts that weren’t representing sham media outlets would create fake personas, often using artificial intelligence-generated faces. Others stole pictures from dating websites or used doctored pictures of actors or actresses.
Some findings by Graphika and Stanford leave clues as to whom the culprits were connected. The group targeting Iran frequently shared links to a website that researchers assessed “with high confidence” was the latest rebranding of a website part of an open U.S. government propaganda campaign called the Trans-Regional Web Initiative.
At least one account openly claimed that it previously operated on behalf of U.S. Central Command. Another finding that the U.S. Agency for International Development was mentioned 94 times on Twitter and 384 times on Facebook in Graphika and Stanford’s data set further suggests some government connections.
This is the first time Twitter and Meta have cracked down on pro-U.S. propaganda accounts. In the past, it has moved to clamp down on misinformation accounts originating from the likes of Russia and China.
In an interview with podcast host Joe Rogan on Thursday, Meta owner Mark Zuckerberg said he regretted Facebook’s throttling of a New York Post story about Hunter Biden’s laptop that it initially penalized as Russian disinformation.