A campaign of pro-American foreign interference dismantled on Twitter and Facebook

This underground campaign, active since 2017, aimed to influence social media users living in Central Asia, Iran, Afghanistan and the Middle East. Using fake accounts impersonating local media and locals, the campaign sought to stoke resentment toward Russia, Iran, and China. Nearly half of the accounts targeted the Iranian population.

Researchers, working for social media analytics firm Graphika, as well as Stanford University’s Internet Observatory, believe it’s largest pro-Western social media influence operation ever analyzed by open source intelligence researchers (open-source).

In all, the team analyzed nearly 300,000 tweets from 146 fake Twitter accounts, as well as 39 fake accounts, 16 pages, 2 Facebook groups and 26 Instagram accounts. The researchers also found associated fake accounts on other Russian-language social networks. According to their analysis, all these fake accounts acted in a coordinated way.

Meta, the company that owns Facebook and Instagram, and Twitter have taken down the entire network and claim that these fake accounts were operated from the United States. Neither these companies nor the researchers can say for sure who is behind this campaign.

The researchers note, however, that an archived version of one of the fake accounts shows that it indicated in 2021 to belong to CENTCOM, the United States Central Command, responsible for military operations in the Middle East and Central Asia, among others. .

The network even used AI-generated portraits to create more realistic fake profiles. These accounts spread articles from fake local media websites, cartoons, as well as petitions with a pro-Western message.

Some fake profiles belonging to the network and targeting the Middle East. Profile pictures were created using artificial intelligence.

Photo: Graphika/Stanford University

Soon after the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, many of these sought to portray Russia as an aggressor and to highlight alleged atrocities committed by Russian soldiers.

Until now, almost all research on influence operations has focused on activities related to authoritarian regimes. Our report offers one of the first looks at a pro-American clandestine social media operationJudge Shelby Grossman, who is one of the report’s authors and a researcher at Stanford’s Internet Observatory.

She and her colleagues point out that the campaign was relatively low quality. Some texts were for example translated from English to Russian in an approximate way. The publications of these fake accounts have generated little enthusiasm among the target populations. The average tweet associated with this campaign received 0.49 likes and 0.02 retweets, notes Ms. Grossman.

This campaign is reminiscent of foreign interference campaigns deployed in recent years by Russia or Iran, adds Ms. Grossman. The use of fake accounts to spread messages or to increase the reach of hashtags on social networks is reminiscent of influence operations emanating from these countries.

However, this pro-American campaign did not seek to exacerbate political and cultural divisions [au sein des populations visées] nor to generate engagement within local or nested communities, contrary to what we have seen with influence campaigns associated with Russiaexplains the researcher.

These are maps showing the Russian invasion of Ukraine.  The text is in Russian.

Two anti-Russian publications published by the network of fake accounts in Central Asia.

Photo: Graphika/Stanford University

It is nevertheless worrying that the actor behind these accounts seems to have created fake characters to propagate these opinions in a clandestine way.adds Ms. Grossman.

A tactic already used

Although it is impossible to know if the American government is hiding behind this network, it is quite possible that it is the case, estimates Alexis Rapin, researcher in residence at the Observatory of multidimensional conflicts of the Raoul-Dandurand Chair. from UQAM.

Mr. Rapin points out that the American army carried out a similar campaign in 2011, dubbed Earnest Voice, on social networks in Iraq and Afghanistan. There too, the results had been mixed, he says.

Maybe it didn’t come completely out of nowhere. There have been similar projects in recent years, he says. It’s not out of the question that the US government is behind this.

Alexis Rapin notes, however, that it is possible that one or more interest groups in the United States acted independently to lead this initiative.

If the American government is hiding behind this operation, Mr. Rapin considers that it is possible that it is in reaction to the campaigns of interference which have been carried out by adversaries of the United States in recent years.

This suggests that the United States may have come to the conclusion that they should be more proactive, occupy the informational terrain permanently and somehow try to orient the narratives upstream so as not to leave too much freedom to action to their opponents. »

A quote from Alexis Rapin, researcher in residence at the Multidimensional Conflicts Observatory of the Raoul-Dandurand Chair at UQAM

Mr. Rapin explains that information warfare is situated along a spectrum. At the bottom of the scale are public relations and diplomacy; in the middle, there is propaganda; and at the top there are more harmful activities, such as disinformation.

There, we seem to be somewhere between the middle and the high end of the spectrum. We are still careful not to disseminate information that is completely false, completely bogus news, but we are still trying to tarnish the opponent a little.concludes Mr. Rapin.

Decryptors.  Marie-Pier Elie, Jeff Yates, Nicholas De Rosa and Alexis De Lancer.
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