Meta has shut down a network of Chinese fake accounts that were targeting the United States with memes and posts about “hot button” political issues in the run-up to the midterm elections.
The fake accounts were discovered before they gained a large following or meaningful engagement, according to the company, but the operation was significant due to its timing and the topics the accounts posted about.
There were 81 Facebook accounts, eight Facebook Pages, two Instagram accounts, and a single Facebook Group in the network. According to Meta, only 20 accounts followed at least one of the Pages, and the group had about 250 members.
According to Meta, the fake accounts posted in four distinct “clusters” of activity, beginning with Chinese-language content “about geopolitical issues, criticizing the US.”
The following cluster progressed to English memes and posts, while subsequent clusters created Facebook Pages and hashtags that were also shared on Twitter. Aside from the United States, some clusters targeted posts to people in the Czech Republic.
During a conference call with reporters, Meta’s Global Threat Intelligence Lead Ben Nimmo said the people behind the accounts “made a number of mistakes” that made it easier for Meta to catch them, such as only posting during working hours in China.
Simultaneously, Nimmo described the network as a “new direction for Chinese influence operations” because the accounts posed as both liberals and conservatives, advocating for both sides on issues such as gun control and abortion rights.
“It’s like they were using these hot button issues to try and find an entry point into American discourse,” Nimmo said.
“It is an important new direction to be aware of.” The accounts also shared memes about President Joe Biden, Florida Senator Marco Rubio, Utah Senator Mitt Romney and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, according to Meta.
Meta also revealed information about a much larger network of Russian-origin fake accounts, which it described as the “most complex Russian-origin operation that we’ve disrupted since the start of the war in Ukraine.” More than 1,600 Facebook accounts and 700 Facebook Pages were identified as being associated with the effort, which drew over 5,000 followers.
The accounts were used to boost a series of fake websites impersonating legitimate news outlets and European organizations. They posted in several languages and targeted people in Germany, France, Italy, Ukraine, and the United Kingdom.
“They would post original articles that criticized Ukraine and Ukrainian refugees, praised Russia and argued that Western sanctions on Russia would backfire,” Meta writes in its report.
“They would then promote these articles and also original memes and YouTube videos across many internet services, including Facebook, Instagram, Telegram, Twitter, petitions websites Change[.]org and Avaaz[.]com, and even LiveJournal.”
The posts from these fake accounts were “amplified by Russian embassies in Europe and Asia on a few occasions,” according to Meta, though no direct links between the embassy accounts and the network were found.
Meta stated that it was unable to attribute the fake accounts to specific individuals or groups within the Russia and China-based networks.
The takedowns come as Meta and its peers ramp up security and anti-misinformation efforts in preparation for the fall midterm elections.
For Meta, this means largely repeating the strategy it used in the 2020 presidential election: highlighting authoritative information and resources while relying on labels and third-party fact checkers to tamp down false and unverified information.