- The Washington Times - Friday, August 26, 2022

Twitter and Meta cracked down on a major pro-U.S. influence operation aimed at the Middle East and Central Asia, according to a new report from the Stanford Internet Observatory. 

The social media companies removed a network of accounts for coordinated inauthentic behavior and platform manipulation that supported America in July and August, according to the new “Unheard Voice” report from Stanford and social media analytics firm Graphika. 

“Our joint investigation found an interconnected web of accounts on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and five other social media platforms that used deceptive tactics to promote pro-Western narratives in the Middle East and Central Asia,” the report said. “The platforms’ datasets appear to cover a series of covert campaigns over a period of almost five years rather than one homogeneous operation.”

The actor responsible for the influence campaign was not identified, but Meta said the campaign originated in the U.S., and Twitter believes its presumptive countries of origin are the U.S. and Great Britain. Meta confirmed it removed the network and that it was the first foreign-focused and pro-U.S. coordinated inauthentic behavior effort it has taken action against. 

Stanford Internet Observatory research manager Renee DiResta told The Washington Times that her team did not have the information necessary to attribute the activity to a single country or organization.

“This was the most extensive covert pro-Western social media information operation that independent researchers have had the opportunity to examine,” Ms. DiResta said in an email. “A novel technique worth noting is that some accounts used AI-generated profile pictures, which is now common, but they overlaid them on top of real images to mask the sort of defects where the face meets the background that are often ‘tells’ with AI-generated images.”

Twitter and Facebook provided portions of data about the activity to the researchers. The researchers said the data included nearly 300,000 tweets and almost 150 accounts during 10 years ending in February 2022 and 39 Facebook profiles and 26 Instagram accounts active for five years ending in July 2022.

Researchers then looked for connections between the content and the accounts, including by studying their behavior and audiences. The influence campaign promoting U.S. interests slammed American adversaries China, Iran and Russia. 

“The accounts heavily criticized Russia in particular for the deaths of innocent civilians and other atrocities its soldiers committed in pursuit of the Kremlin’s ‘imperial ambitions’ following its invasion of Ukraine in February this year,” the report said. “To promote this and other narratives, the accounts sometimes shared news articles from U.S. government-funded media outlets, such as Voice of America and Radio Free Europe, and links to websites sponsored by the U.S. military.”

The report also said the vast majority of tweets and posts received “no more than a handful of likes or retweets” and just 19% of the covert assets had more than 1,000 followers. 

The lack of more followers was not for want of trying. 

Ms. DiResta said the accounts displayed indications they wanted followers and solicited engagement making it unlikely that it was modeled after low-and-slow cyberattacks that are harder to detect. 

• Ryan Lovelace can be reached at rlovelace@washingtontimes.com.

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