Meta Takes Down Russian “Smash-and-Grab” Disinformation Campaign

  • Meta has revealed how it closed down two significant but unconnected disinformation operations originating in China and Russia, which attempted to influence public opinion in Western countries.

    The first was the “largest and most complex” Russian campaign seen since the start of the country’s war against Ukraine, according to the social media giant.

    Beginning in May 2022, the “coordinated inauthentic behavior” targeted media consumers in Germany, France, Italy, Ukraine and the UK with narratives critical of Ukraine.

    It centered on 60 websites designed to spoof legitimate news sites such as The Guardian in the UK and Germany’s Bild and Der Spiegel.

    “There, they would post original articles that criticized Ukraine and Ukrainian refugees, supported Russia and argued that Western sanctions on Russia would backfire,” Meta wrote in a blog post.

    “They would then promote these articles and also original memes and YouTube videos across many internet services, including Facebook, Instagram, Telegram, Twitter, petitions websites Change.org and Avaaz, and even LiveJournal.”

    The multi-language campaign likely demanded a significant investment of resources and demonstrated a high level of persistence, with actors attempting to set up new websites after domains were blocked by Meta.

    However, the overall approach was designed more as a “smash-and-grab” operation than one which could influence public opinion in the long term, Meta claimed.

    “It presented an unusual combination of sophistication and brute force. The spoofed websites and the use of many languages demanded both technical and linguistic investment,” it said.

    “The amplification on social media, on the other hand, relied primarily on crude ads and fake accounts. In fact, the majority of accounts, Pages and ads on our platforms were detected and removed by our automated systems before we even began our investigation.”

    The social media company was also forced to shutter a Chinese influence operation – its first focusing on US domestic politics, rather than criticizing Washington to an international audience.

    Also focusing on Czech Republic foreign policy, the campaign posted content at low volumes during the Chinese working day, rather than when its intended audience was awake. As a result, engagement was low and Facebook’s automated systems took down several pages.

    “It included four largely separate and short-lived efforts, each focused on a particular audience at different times between the fall of 2021 and mid-September 2022,” Meta explained.

    “In the US, it targeted people on both sides of the political spectrum; in Czechia, this activity was primarily anti-government, criticizing the state’s support of Ukraine in the war with Russia and its impact on the Czech economy, using the criticism to caution against antagonizing China.”