A sprawling disinformation network originating in Russia sought to use hundreds of fake social media accounts and dozens of fake news websites to spread Kremlin talking points about the Ukraine invasion, Meta revealed on Tuesday.
The company, which owns Facebook and Instagram, said it identified and disabled the operation before it could gain a large audience. Nonetheless, Facebook said it was the largest and most complex Russian propaganda effort it has encountered since the invasion began.
The operation involved more than 60 websites set up to mimic legitimate news sites, including the UK’s The Guardian newspaper and Germany’s Der Spiegel. However, instead of the real news reported by those outlets, the fake sites contained links to Russian propaganda and disinformation about Ukraine. More than 1,600 fake Facebook accounts were used to spread the propaganda to audiences in Germany, Italy, France, the UK and Ukraine.
The findings highlighted both the promise of social media companies to police their sites and the danger that misinformation continues to pose.
“Video: Fake Staging Revealed in Bucha!” claimed one of the fake news stories, blaming Ukraine for the massacre of hundreds of Ukrainians in a Russian-occupied city.
The fake social media accounts were then used to spread links to the fake news and other pro-Russian posts and videos on Facebook and Instagram, as well as on platforms like Telegram and Twitter. The network was active throughout the summer.
“On some occasions, the content of the operation was amplified by the official Facebook pages of Russian embassies in Europe and Asia,” said David Agranovich, director of threat disruption at Meta. “I think this is probably the largest and most complex Russian-origin operation that we’ve disrupted since the start of the war in Ukraine earlier this year.”
The network’s activities were first noticed by investigative reporters in Germany. When Meta began investigating her, she discovered that Facebook’s automated systems had already removed many of the fake accounts. Thousands of people were following the network’s Facebook pages when they were deactivated earlier this year.
Investigators said they could not directly attribute the network to the Russian government. But Agranovich highlighted the role played by Russian diplomats, saying the operation relied on some sophisticated tactics, including the use of multiple languages and carefully constructed imposter websites.
Since the war began in February, the Kremlin has used online disinformation and conspiracy theories in an effort to weaken international support for Ukraine. Groups linked to the Russian government accused Ukraine of staging attacks, blamed the war on unfounded accusations of US biological weapons development, and portrayed Ukrainian refugees as criminals and rapists.
Social media platforms and European governments have tried to quell propaganda and disinformation from the Kremlin, only to see Russia change tactics.
A message sent to the Russian Embassy in Washington, DC, requesting a response to Meta’s recent actions was not immediately returned.
Researchers from Menlo Park, California-based Meta Platforms Inc. also exposed a much smaller network that originated in China and attempted to spread divisive political content in the US.
The operation reached only a small US audience, with some publications receiving only one share. The posts also made some amateurish moves that proved they weren’t American, including some clumsy mistakes in the English language and a habit of posting during Chinese business hours.
Despite its ineffectiveness, the network stands out because it is the first identified by Meta to have targeted Americans with political messages ahead of this year’s midterm elections. The Chinese messages did not support one party or the other, but seemed determined to provoke polarization.
“While it failed, it’s important because it’s a new direction” for Chinese disinformation operations, said Ben Nimmo, who heads global threat intelligence for Meta.