The operation had been handled since the United States, but it is not possible to know if the government is behind it.
The clandestine operation made use of fake local media accounts and web pages.
Researchers have detected a clandestine social media campaign aimed at furthering US interests and fueling distrust of adversaries, according to a new report released Wednesday.
This underground campaign, active since 2017, aimed to influence social media users living in Central Asia, Iran, Afghanistan and the Middle East. Using fake accounts impersonating local media and locals, the campaign sought to stoke resentment toward Russia, Iran, and China. Nearly half of the accounts targeted the Iranian population.
Researchers, working for social media analytics firm Graphika, as well as Stanford University's Internet Observatory, call it the largest pro-Western influence operation on social networks ever analyzed by researchers working in open source intelligence (open source).
In all, the team has analyzed nearly 300,000 tweets from 146 fake Twitter accounts, as well as 39 fake accounts, 16 pages, 2 Facebook groups and 26 Instagram accounts. The researchers also found associated fake accounts on other Russian-language social networks. According to their analysis, all these fake accounts acted in a coordinated way.
Meta, the company that owns Facebook and Instagram, and Twitter have taken down the entire network and claim that these fake accounts were operated from the United States. Neither these companies nor the researchers can say for sure who is behind this campaign.
The researchers note, however, that an archived version of one of the fake accounts shows that it indicated in 2021 belong to CENTCOM, the United States Central Command, responsible for military operations in the Middle East and Central Asia, among others.
The network even used AI-generated portraits to create more realistic fake profiles. These accounts spread articles from fake local media websites, cartoons, as well as petitions with a pro-Western message.
Some fake profiles belonging to the network and targeting the Middle East. Profile pictures were created using artificial intelligence.
Soon after the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, several of these sought portray Russia as an aggressor and highlight alleged atrocities committed by Russian soldiers.
Until now, almost all research on influence operations has focused on activities related to authoritarian regimes. Our report offers one of the first looks at a clandestine pro-American social media operation, Judge Shelby Grossman, who is one of the report's authors and a researcher at Stanford's Internet Observatory.
She and her colleagues point out that the campaign was relatively low quality. Some texts were, for example, roughly translated from English to Russian. The publications of these fake accounts have generated little enthusiasm among the target populations. The average tweet associated with this campaign received 0.49 likes and 0.02 retweets, notes Ms. Grossman.
This campaign is reminiscent of foreign interference campaigns deployed in recent years by Russia or Iran, adds Ms. Grossman. The use of fake accounts to spread messages or to increase the reach of hashtags on social networks is reminiscent of influence operations emanating from these countries.
On the other hand, this pro-American campaign did not seek to exacerbate political and cultural divides [among target populations] or engage local or niche communities, unlike what we have seen with associated influence campaigns to Russia, explains the researcher.
Two anti-Russian posts published by the network of fake accounts in Central Asia.
It However, it is worrying that the actor behind these accounts appears to have created fake characters to propagate these opinions clandestinely, adds Ms. Grossman.
While it's impossible to know if the US government is behind this network, it's entirely possible that it is, says Alexis Rapin, researcher in residence at the Raoul Chair's Observatory of Multidimensional Conflicts. -Dandurand from UQAM.
Mr. Rapin points out that the US military conducted a similar social media campaign in 2011, dubbed Earnest Voice, in Iraq and Afghanistan. There too, the results had been mixed, he says.
Maybe it didn't come completely out of nowhere. There have been similar projects in recent years, he says. It's not out of the question that the US government is behind this.
Alexis Rapin notes, however, that it is possible that one or more interest groups in the United States have acted independently to lead this initiative.
If the US government is hiding behind this operation, Mr. Rapin considers that it is possible that it is in reaction to the campaigns of interference that have been carried out by the adversaries of the United States in recent years.
“Suggests that the United States may have come to the conclusion that it needs to be more proactive, occupy the informational ground constantly and somewhere trying to orient the narratives upstream so as not to leave too much freedom of action to their adversaries. »
— Alexis Rapin, researcher in residence at the Multidimensional Conflict Observatory of the Raoul-Dandurand Chair at UQAM
Mr. Rapin explains that information warfare sits along a spectrum. At the bottom of the ladder are public relations and diplomacy; in the middle, there is propaganda; and at the top there are more harmful activities, such as disinformation.
There, we seem to be somewhere between the middle and the high end of the spectrum. We are still careful not to disseminate information that is completely false, completely bogus news, but we are still trying to tarnish the opponent a little, concludes Mr. Rapin.