Twitter and Facebook were among the social networks to suspend a series of pro-U.S. accounts that targeted Asian and Middle Eastern users, an action believed to be the first time the social media companies have blocked accounts for promoting pro-Western interests.
The joint study by Graphika and the Stanford Internet Observatory found that, over the past five years, the suspected accounts — which were active on eight different social media platforms — heavily criticized the authoritarian regimes in Russia, China, and Iran to social media users in those countries.
“Our joint investigation found an interconnected web of accounts on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and five other social media platforms that used deceptive tactics to promote pro-Western narratives in the Middle East and Central Asia,” the study stated. “The platforms’ datasets appear to cover a series of covert campaigns over a period of almost five years rather than one homogeneous operation.”
Graphika and the Stanford Internet Observatory continued, “These campaigns consistently advanced narratives promoting the interests of the United States and its allies while opposing countries including Russia, China, and Iran. The accounts heavily criticized Russia, in particular, for the deaths of innocent civilians and other atrocities its soldiers committed in pursuit of the Kremlin’s ‘imperial ambitions’ following its invasion of Ukraine in February this year. To promote this and other narratives, the accounts sometimes shared news articles from U.S. government-funded media outlets, such as Voice of America and Radio Free Europe, and links to websites sponsored by the U.S. military. A portion of the activity also promoted anti-extremism messaging.”
According to the study, the network of accounts created fake personas with “generative adversarial networks”-generated faces — in one case, the headshot for Puerto Rican-born actress Valeria Menendez was algorithmically blended with a photo of someone else to create a new persona — as well as pretended to be independent media outlets and used memes, hashtags, and online petitions to seed discord among users.
“We believe this activity represents the most extensive case of covert pro-Western influence operations on social media to be reviewed and analyzed by open-source researchers to date,” the study said.
Twitter suspended the suspected accounts over what they viewed as “platform manipulation and spam,” while Meta — the parent company of Facebook and Instagram — accused the accounts of engaging in “coordinated inauthentic behavior.”