According to Meta, a massive disinformation network in Russia has sought to use hundreds and possibly thousands of sham social media accounts and dozens of fake news websites to spread Russian talking points about the unprovoked invasion of Ukraine recently revealed.
Meta, which owns Instagram and Facebook, said it first identified and then disabled the operation before it could gain traction or a larger audience. However, Facebook said it was the most complex and expansive Russian propaganda effort it has found since the February invasion.
The operation mimicked legitimate news sites and involved more than 60 websites, including Germany’s Der Spiegel and the United Kingdom’s The Guardian newspapers. Instead of reporting actual news reported by those news outlets, the fake sites contained links to Russian disinformation and propaganda about Ukraine. According to Meta, more than 1,600 fake Facebook accounts were being used to infiltrate audiences in Italy, France, Germany, Ukraine, and the United Kingdom.
The findings highlighted the threat disinformation continues to pose and the responsibility social media companies have to police their sites. One fake news story’s headline read, “Video: False Staging in Bucha Revealed!” and blamed Ukraine for slaughtering hundreds of Ukrainians in an area occupied and controlled by Russia.
The fake social media accounts were used to spread pro-Russian videos and posts and links to fake news stories, including on other platforms like Twitter and Telegram. The phony network was active over the summer before being shut down.
“On a few occasions, the operation’s content was amplified by the official Facebook pages of Russian embassies in Europe and Asia,” Meta’s director of threat disruption, David Agranovich, said. “I think this is probably the largest and most complex Russian-origin operation that we’ve disrupted since the beginning of the war in Ukraine earlier this year.”
Russian propaganda network first spotted in Germany
Investigative reporters first spotted the Russian propaganda network in Germany. When Meta started its investigation, it found Facebook’s automated systems had already eliminated several fake accounts. However, thousands of individuals were already following the network’s Facebook pages when they were deactivated.
While researchers said they could not directly attribute the Russian disinformation network to the Kremlin or the Russian government, Agranovich noted the operation relied on sophisticated tactics, carefully created imposter websites, and multiple languages, which could hint at a role being played by Russian diplomats.
Since Russia attacked Ukraine in February, Russia has used conspiracy theories and online disinformation to weaken international support for Ukraine. Russian-linked government groups have accused Ukraine of staging deadly attacks, portrayed Ukrainian refugees as rapists and criminals, and blamed the war on fraudulent allegations of bioweapon development by the U.S.
“Even though Russia is fully involved in Ukraine in the military conflict, they’re able to do more than one thing at a time,” former Department of Homeland Security intelligence chief Brian Murphy said. Murphy is now vice president of Logically, a counter-disinformation firm. “They have never stopped their sophisticated disinformation operations.”
European governments and social media platforms have tried to tamp down disinformation and propaganda from the Kremlin, only to see Russia shift its tactics. Meta researchers also exposed a smaller network originating in China, which attempted to spread divisive political information and content in the United States.
The Chinese operation reached a small audience in the U.S., with several posts only receiving a single engagement. Some posts were amateur-looking and easily identifiable as not American, including spottable errors like only posting during Chinese working hours and clumsy English language mistakes.
Despite being ineffective, the Chinese network is noteworthy because it was the first identified by Meta as targeting Americans ahead of the November midterms with political messages. While the posts didn’t specifically target one party or another, the intent appeared to be to stir up divisions.
“While it failed, it’s important because it’s a new direction” for disinformation operations originating in China, said Ben Nimmo, who is the director of global threat intelligence for Meta.