Facebook parent Meta says it has disrupted a large Russian network of fake accounts impersonating European news outlets to push a pro-Kremlin view of the war in Ukraine.
Separately, the social media giant says it also took down a network originating in China targeting the U.S. midterm elections and criticizing the Czech government.
While the campaigns were not connected, the dual takedowns underscore how social media platforms continue to be ripe targets for efforts to shape the narratives around high-profile events, said Ben Nimmo, Meta’s global threat intelligence lead.
“There’s a shooting war going on in Ukraine, there are elections coming up in the U.S.,” he said. “And we’re seeing influence operations that are talking about those things.”
Russia campaign targeted European support for Ukraine
Meta said the Russian operation was the largest and most complex it has disrupted since President Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine in February.
“You can actually sum up everything it was saying in ten words: ‘Ukraine’s bad. Russia’s good. Stop the sanctions. Stop supplying weapons,'” Nimmo said.
The spoofed websites were built with care, Nimmo said, under the apparent theory that imitating a big brand would draw a big audience. They copied the layouts of outlets’ real sites and imitated their web addresses. In some cases they used bylines and photos of real journalists and included working links to other news articles.
But Nimmo said that level of detail is what doomed the operation. Meta began investigating the fake sites after journalists, researchers and members of the public flagged them this summer.
“They overreached themselves,” he said. “If you pretend to be Spiegel in Germany in front of an audience where Spiegel is one of the best-known brands in the country, then what you’re doing is increasing the risk that somebody is actually going to look at you and say, ‘Wait a minute, this is not the real thing.'”
The various fake sites ran articles in multiple languages with pro-Kremlin narratives, including accusing the Ukrainian government and military of corruption and warning of dire consequences from European sanctions on Russia.
The bulk of the spoofed news sites were German, but others imitated outlets in the U.K., Italy, France, Ukraine, and Latvia. In earlier phases, the operation created its own brands posing as news outlets, some of which were shared by official Facebook pages of Russian embassies.