- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 27, 2022

Meta said Tuesday that it took down a China-based influence operation featuring fake accounts impersonating conservatives criticizing President Biden and liberals ripping Republicans in states like Florida, Texas and California.

The influence operation was relatively small in size and received low engagement online, but could be a harbinger of activity to come as the U.S. midterm elections approach and foreign actors aim to inflame tensions online.

The China-based actors used 81 Facebook accounts, and two Instagram accounts, and targeted an American audience, Chinese- and French-speaking audiences, and people in the Czech Republic.

Near the end of this past March, Meta’s report said the influence network created a handful of accounts that posted around dozens of times over a few weeks before going silent in April.

“Accounts posed as conservative Americans and posted memes in English that accused President Biden and other politicians — both Democrats and Republicans, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Climate Envoy John Kerry and Senator Mitt Romney — of corruption,” the report said.

The accounts also advocated for protecting gun rights, and restricting abortion and supported politicians who backed those policies.

SEE ALSO: Meta disables Russian propaganda network targeting Europe

Then in April, another cluster of accounts began posting and this time they impersonated American liberals before going dark in August. One account flipped from making anti-Biden posts to pro-abortion rights content, the company said.

“They posed as liberal Americans living in Florida, Texas and California and posted criticism of the Republican Party for its stance on abortion access and gun rights,” Meta said. “Other posts focused on individual politicians, particularly Senator [Marco] Rubio, but also Senators Rick Scott and Ted Cruz, and Governor Ron DeSantis.”

Meta published memes shared by the clusters of China-based actors, including one ripping Mr. Biden that said, “One year in: nothing is built, nothing is back, nothing is better.” A meme chiding Mr. Rubio claimed he took money from Russia and the National Rifle Association next to the caption “Democracy for sale.”

The memes received one engagement each, and Meta said the overall operation appeared largely ineffectual at gaining a legitimate following as it struggled to use proper grammar and syntax.

“None of the operation’s U.S.-facing Pages had more than a handful of followers,” Meta’s report said. “Of the U.S.-focused hashtags, only two were ever shared by operation accounts, and the third was shared by a small handful of real people, independent of this campaign.”

Meta’s Ben Nimmo and David Agranovich wrote on the company’s website that it was its first takedown of a Chinese network aimed at domestic politics ahead of the U.S. midterms. The China-based network began operating last November and posted until this month.

Alongside the disruption of the small China-based network, Meta said it also took down a larger network originating in Russia that posed as news outlets and targeted European audiences, primarily in Germany, but also in France, Italy, Ukraine, and the U.K. The Russia-based operation was fixated on the war in Ukraine.

“The operation began in May of this year and centered around a sprawling network of over 60 websites carefully impersonating legitimate websites of news organizations in Europe, including Spiegel, The Guardian and Bild,” Mr. Nimmo and Mr. Agranovich wrote. “There, they would post original articles that criticized Ukraine and Ukrainian refugees, supported Russia and argued that Western sanctions on Russia would backfire.”

The Russia network then promoted the articles and posted memes and YouTube videos across tech platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, Telegram, and Twitter.

Meta’s report said the influence operation was the “largest and most complex” from Russia it has disrupted since the start of the war in Ukraine and it functioned as an “attempted smash-and-grab against the information environment, rather than a serious effort to occupy it long-term.”

U.S. officials have expressed growing concerns about foreign influence efforts, particularly ahead of the November elections. Geoff Hale, director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency’s Election Security Initiative, said earlier this month he expects more adversaries than ever to look for ways to undermine Americans’ confidence in upcoming elections.

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

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