Facebook on Wednesday said it took down disinformation networks tied to a broad swath of political actors and events around the world.
Organizations targeted in the purge included militant group Hamas, Chinese state groups and the immigration crisis along the Belarus-Poland border. The company also removed accounts run by anti-vaccine groups that were using evolving tactics to attack doctors in Europe.
Together, the cat-and-mouse game described in the company’s latest threat report continues to demonstrate how social media is an active battlefield where governments and motivated parties attempt to manipulate public opinion. It also shows the might of the global platform, which has recently come under renewed fire for its role in spreading societal harms.
Facebook, which recently changed its corporate name to Meta, began to develop strategies to fight disinformation campaigns after Russian actors exploited its service during the 2016 election to influence the outcome. Since then, the company has engaged in hundreds of takedowns involving shadowy political organizations, marketing firms, governments and profit-motivated groups. Russia, the company said in a report last year, was still the biggest player in foreign disinformation.
Meanwhile, the threat landscape has evolved significantly. Governments now outsource their disinformation efforts to a growing number of private disinformation-for-hire firms, who sometimes pay unwitting legitimate journalists and influencers to write about topics of interest. Fake profiles can now be generated by artificial intelligence. And a Facebook whistleblower and other critics have accused the company of turning a blind eye to domestic actors that seek to exploit public opinion in their own countries — particularly if those countries are strategic for Facebook’s business interests.
Facebook does not disclose the reach of the disinformation campaigns, making it difficult for outsiders to gauge their actual influence. It discloses accounts removed and the followers of those accounts, but not the views that the posts received.
The China operation was discovered, the company said, after a mysterious account claiming to be a Swiss biologist posted that the United States was pressuring and intimidating World Health Organization scientists studying the origins of the coronavirus in an attempt to blame China for the virus. The false persona was named Wilson Edwards and made the posts on Twitter and Facebook in July.
Almost immediately after the fake biologist’s account, which was created only the day before, began posting its messages, Chinese state-controlled media organizations Global Times and People’s Daily began covering the fake scientist’s story. Facebook initially received reports about the fake account, and began to tie it and a network of hundreds of other fake personas amplifying it to actors in China, including a state-owned infrastructure company.
While Facebook fell short of saying that the operation — which it said was quickly rooted out — was tied directly to the Chinese government, experts say such unusual timing often suggests a coordinated effort.
Facebook also removed dozens of accounts that posed as Middle Eastern migrants to Belarus and Poland, as well as journalists discussing the migrant crisis. The accounts, which were created between September and November and hosted content in English and Arabic, appeared to be attempting to generate criticism of Poland for causing a humanitarian crisis at the border and being hostile to migrants. For example, some of the fake accounts talked about anti-migrant neo-Nazi activity in Poland and the difficulty of border crossings.
Some of these accounts, Facebook said, were tied to the Belarusian KGB, which is the country’s national intelligence agency. European leaders have blamed Belarus for provoking the humanitarian conflict because the country’s strongman leader has openly encouraged Iraqis to use its borders to cross into Europe. European leaders say this is retaliation for sanctions imposed against the country by the European Union.
In Israel’s occupied Gaza Strip, Hamas — the militant organization that is also the political leader of the territory –—ran a disinformation operation intended to generate support for Hamas and criticism of Israel and of Hamas’s political rivals.
Accounts pretending to be local news organizations and young women living in the West Bank were disabled by Facebook this fall, the company said. The company has previously taken down disinformation operations associated with other political groups in Israel’s occupied territories, showing how social media is a highly active battleground for political viewpoints there.
In addition, the company said it was trying to get ahead of evolving tactics by adversarial groups, and pointed to examples of recent enforcement actions in Europe and in Vietnam as examples of those tactics.
In Italy and France, an anti-vaccination group known as V_V developed coordinated harassment campaigns against doctors and journalists on Facebook. In some examples, they would call doctors and journalists Nazis for promoting coronavirus vaccines and claim that the vaccines would lead to a “health-care dictatorship.” The groups would coordinate on other channels, such as Telegram, to organize the harassment.
Facebook said that such coordinated campaigns, known as brigading, are a new area that the company is starting to police. In addition, it said it had begun policing other types of harassment campaigns, including campaigns to report people’s posts as breaking the rules to get them taken down.