Facebook takedown exposes Russian-linked accounts sowing racial tension on other platforms
Despite intensive efforts to expunge Russian influence operations, social media companies are still struggling to identify fake accounts run by military and intelligence operatives
A takedown by Facebook on Thursday of previously overlooked Russian-linked accounts has uncovered similar disinformation campaigns on other social media platforms, intelligence firm Graphika has found.
Within the campaigns was evidence that Russian military operatives spent much of 2019 attempting to stoke anger over racial injustice among black Americans and bidding to influence a dispute between Russia and Japan over the Kuril Islands. They also published positive news coverage of Syrian and Russian operations in the war-torn country purportedly by two Syrian journalists who don’t exist.
The takedown suggests that, despite intensive efforts to expunge Russian influence operations, social media companies are still struggling to identify fake accounts run by military and intelligence operatives. It also demonstrates that even if one social media company eliminates disinformation from its service, those assets and any other accounts they are connected to can be redeployed in aid of established accounts on other platforms that may still remain undetected.
On Thursday, Facebook said it had removed three small Russian disinformation efforts using fake identities to manipulate public opinion in countries across the world. Some 300 assets attributed to Russian military and intelligence services were taken off the platform.
While none directly sought to influence the upcoming US elections, some pretending to be local journalists or citizens worked to incite alarm over Muslim migrants and the Antifa protest movement.
Facebook said the networks, which were connected to the Russian government, mainly worked to sway users outside the US — most notably in Turkey, Japan, Belarus, Armenia and Moldova.
Along with the WordPress blog, the campaign also included a Facebook page, a Twitter account, a Tumblr account and a Medium account
Graphika found that many of the same accounts shut down by Facebook lived elsewhere online and that, within those platforms, the same assets cross-posted one another.
“For example, Facebook and Twitter accounts from the cluster of assets that focused on the Middle East shared links to Medium articles that were posted by the operation,” Graphika said in its report. This linking serves as a signal boost, lending the appearance of popularity to the linked article.
Personas that appeared on Facebook and Instagram could be found on Tumblr, Pinterest, Blogspot and WordPress as well as Russian social media and blogging platforms.
“This peels back more layers of Russian information operations on social media, across the world and across the years,” Camille François, Graphika’s chief innovation officer, told Bloomberg News. “We’re slowly completing the picture of tactics and narratives in this space.”
The campaign touched a range of geopolitical themes, focusing on Russia’s interests in the Arctic; a territorial dispute with Japan; Moscow’s rivalry with Ankara; and Nato’s presence in Eastern Europe, among others, Graphika reported. The earliest Facebook activity dates back to 2011, while some posted as recently as September.
“None of the clusters built a viral following,” Graphika wrote, noting that the largest group on Facebook, which posted in English about the Syrian conflict, had about 6,500 members. The largest page posting in Russian, on the topics of politics and the military, had 3,100 followers.
Despite the relatively small size of the operations, the tone of the dialogue sought to instil division within the US as well as towards its allies abroad. Pro-Russian and pro-Syrian content, Graphika reported, was “paralleled by anti-American, anti-Western and anti-Nato content”.
The US, according to the campaigns, supported terrorists, was worsening the conflicts in the Middle East and committed war crimes.
The campaign on American politics centred on a WordPress blog titled “Black and Intelligent,” that used a quote attributed to jazz musician Miles Davis, “Knowledge is freedom, ignorance is slavery,” as its motto.
Along with the WordPress blog, the campaign also included a Facebook page, a Twitter account, a Tumblr account and a Medium account. It included a selection of 57 articles copied from news websites that showed a clear interest in racial tensions, Graphika found. Other posts related to presidential candidates and their attitude towards black people in the US. The blog stopped posting in January.
There were other blogs Graphika identified that focused on election-related topics with a conservative point of view. One blamed the protests against racial discrimination for worsening the economic woes brought on by Covid-19 and accused the Democrats of imposing social justice programmes that “destroyed traditional values”.
Additionally, in accounts where US politics was the focus overseas, it was in the context of American foreign policy actions, particularly in the Middle East. A Facebook page called “USA out of Syria” posted a mural of George Floyd — an African-American man killed during an arrest, touching off widespread protests — claiming to have been photographed in Idlib, Syria.
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