This summer, for the first time, Facebook and Twitter removed a network of fake user accounts promoting pro-Western policy positions to foreign audiences and critical of Russia, China and Iran, according to a new report.
The accounts, which violated the companies' terms of service, "used deceptive tactics to promote pro-Western narratives in the Middle East and Central Asia" and were likely a series of covert campaigns spanning five years, according to the report from Stanford University and Graphika, a social media analytics firm.
Twitter and Facebook, which shared their data about the accounts with the researchers, haven't publicly identified what entities or organizations were behind the campaigns, the researchers said. Twitter identified the U.S. and Britain as the campaigns' "presumptive countries of origin," and Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, identified the U.S. as the country of origin, according to the report.
In recent years, internet firms have shut down online influence operations stemming from authoritarian regimes in China, Russia and Iran. The discovery of a U.S.-based online influence operation using many of the same techniques, such as fake people and fake followers to push a narrative, raises questions about who is behind the effort, its goals and whether the operation is effective.
When asked Thursday by VOA whether the U.S. military had created the fake accounts, Air Force Brigadier General Pat Ryder, the Pentagon's press secretary, said officials would need to look at the data provided by Facebook or Twitter. He said that the U.S. military does conduct "military information support operations around the world."
"Obviously, I'm not going to talk about ongoing operations or particular tactics, techniques and procedures, other than to say that we operate within prescribed policies," he said.
Linking to media, other sites
The researchers noted that the fake social media accounts often posted links to sham media sites as well as "sources linked to the U.S. military," such as websites in Central Asia that name U.S. Central Command as their sponsor.
In addition, these inauthentic accounts linked to articles from Voice of America, the federally funded international broadcaster, and its sister organization, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, the report said. Sham media sites copied stories from BBC Russia, VOA and other sources.
Several suspended social media accounts were linked to sham media accounts operating in Persian, such as Dariche News, which claimed to be an independent media outlet and had some original content. But, the report added, "many of their articles were explicit reposts from U.S.-funded Persian-language media, including Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty's Radio Farda and VOA Farsi."
On Thursday, the United States Agency for Global Media, the agency that oversees VOA and RFE/RL, said it didn't have knowledge of these accounts.
"USAGM maintains only its own official social media accounts and websites, using the highest standards to ensure that official accounts are fact-based, accessible and verifiable," said Lesley Jackson, a spokesperson, in an email.
USAGM doesn't work with other U.S. government agencies or other groups to promote news content through fake social media accounts, Jackson confirmed.
"With its mission to inform, engage and connect people around the world in support of freedom and democracy, USAGM will always promote the free flow of credible information to those in need and stand against misinformation, disinformation and censorship," Jackson said.
The online influence campaigns' tactics were similar to those of other such campaigns and included doctoring photos to create fake accounts and using hashtags and petitions to attempt to build support.
One set of accounts in Central Asia focused on Russia's military activities in the Middle East and Africa, but shifted in February to the war in Ukraine, "presenting the conflict as a threat to people in Central Asia," the report said.
The accounts linked to a petition, whose authorship was unclear, "calling for the Kazakh government to ban Russian TV channels," the report said.
The researchers said that the tactics of the inauthentic accounts didn't really work to generate engagement. Most of the posts and tweets received only a handful of likes or retweets. A majority of the accounts had fewer than 1,000 followers.
Pentagon correspondent Carla Babb contributed to this report.