Meta Shuts Down Chinese, Russian Bot Networks Targeting Midterms, War Views

The Facebook parent said the Chinese network aimed at U.S. but reached few people; Russians mainly focused on Europe opinions on Ukraine war

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Facebook and Instagram parent Meta Platforms said Tuesday it shut down “covert influence operations from China and Russia” that targeted users on its platforms and on competitors like Twitter in the aim to sway American views on the upcoming midterms and European opinions on the war in Ukraine.

“This was the first Chinese network we disrupted that focused on U.S. domestic politics ahead of the midterm elections,” Meta said in a statement. “Chinese influence operations that we’ve disrupted before typically focused on criticizing the United States to international audiences, rather than primarily targeting domestic audiences in the U.S.”

The Russian network was the largest and most complex Meta has disrupted since the President Vladimir Putin-directed invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, it said.

The two bot networks violated the social media platforms policy against “coordinated inauthentic behavior,” Meta said in a statement.

“This is the largest and most complex Russian-origin operation that we’ve disrupted since the beginning of the war in Ukraine. It presented an unusual combination of sophistication and brute force.”

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While it targeted the U.S., the Chinese network was the smaller of the two. It also aimed to influence the Czech Republic and to a lesser extent Chinese- and French-speaking audiences around the world, Meta said. There were four “largely separate and short-lived efforts” over the past year.

“In the United States, it aimed at people on both sides of the political spectrum,” Meta said.

The network also posted anti-government activity criticizing the Czech government’s support of Ukraine and its impact on the Czech economy, “using the criticism to caution against antagonizing China” via clusters of about a half dozen accounts.

The social media giant noted that the posts tended to happen during the workday in China, “rather than when their target audiences would typically be awake.”

“Few people engaged with it and some of those who did called it out as fake,” the statement continued.

The operation ran across Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and two Czech petition platforms, Meta said.

Ben Nimmo, Meta’s global threat intelligence lead, told CNN it was the first time the company had seen Chinese accounts targeting Americans in this way. “They were running fake accounts that pretended to be Americans and try to talk like Americans, and they were talking about really divisive domestic issues like abortion and gun control,” he said.

The Russian network was the larger operation, and it aimed its war-related posts in multiple languages at people in Germany, France, Italy, Ukraine and the U.K.

The operation began in May and centered around what Meta called “a sprawling network of over 60 websites carefully impersonating legitimate websites of news organizations in Europe, including Spiegel, The Guardian and Bild” — some of the most prominent news outlets in Europe.

“There, they would post original articles that criticized Ukraine and Ukrainian refugees, supported Russia and argued that Western sanctions on Russia would backfire,” Meta’s statement said. “They would then promote these articles and also original memes and YouTube videos across many internet services, including Facebook, Instagram, Telegram, Twitter, petitions websites and Avaaz, and even LiveJournal.

“Throughout our investigation, as we blocked this operation’s domains, they attempted to set up new websites, suggesting persistence and continuous investment in this activity across the internet.” Meta said.

“This is the largest and most complex Russian-origin operation that we’ve disrupted since the beginning of the war in Ukraine. It presented an unusual combination of sophistication and brute force,” Meta said. Combining the spoofed websites and amplification on social media worked “as an attempted smash-and-grab against the information environment, rather than a serious effort to occupy it long-term.”

Meta credited investigative journalists in Germany with calling its attention to the Russian activity, along with researchers at Digital Forensics Research Lab.