In the post-2016 US election world, covert online campaigns designed to influence global politics are nothing new. And while US adversaries like Russia, Iran and China have been linked to government propaganda on major social media sites, there is little evidence to date that the US and its allies are using the same techniques for shaping international opinion, although it is hard to imagine that they would. ‘t.
This week, for the first time, social media in partnership with social analytics research group Graphika and the Stanford Internet Observatory surfaced pro-American influence campaign, operating on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and other social media applications. Meta and Twitter refrained from attributing the activity to any specific government or organization, with Twitter listing the campaign’s “presumed countries of origin” as the United States and the United Kingdom, while Meta identified the United States as the “home country” of the activity.
The network of accounts sought to influence public opinion in Asia and the Middle East by promoting pro-Western views in those regions, including criticizing the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The accounts were sometimes linked to reports by US-funded media, Voice of America, Radio Free Europe and other websites with financial ties to the US military.
“We believe this activity represents the most extensive case of covert pro-Western [influence operations] on social media to be examined and analyzed by open source researchers to date,” wrote Graphika and the Stanford Internet Observatory in the paper analyze the activity.
Like online influencer campaigns with origins elsewhere, this operation also relied on fake personas sporting AI-generated faces made with a technique known as GANs (Generative Adversarial Networks). These artificially generated faces are used to evade detection, but since their visual signatures often end in small anomalies, GANs can sometimes be easily detected. Using the fake personas, the influencer campaign posed as independent journalists, using short videos, memes, hashtag campaigns and petitions to spread its messages.
Despite its multi-pronged approach, the campaign failed to achieve much success, with most posts and tweets garnering only a “handful” of likes or interactions. Less than a fifth of fake accounts have amassed more than 1,000 followers, although two of the most popular accounts linked to the campaign have explicitly claimed ties to the US military.
According to the researchers, most of the accounts began operating in 2019, although a small group targeting Afghanistan began posting on Twitter in late 2017. Among the fake accounts, some activity continued through July 2022 on Facebook and Instagram.
The Central Asia-focused influencer campaign wing ran on Facebook, Instagram, Telegram, YouTube and two Russia-specific social platforms. Accounts targeting Russian-speaking users in the region pushed stories that praised US aid and criticized Russian foreign policy and China’s domestic treatment of Muslim minority communities.
Another group of accounts and pages focused on spreading pro-Western ideas in the Persian language, sometimes promoting content related to the US military. Some of the content mocked the Iranian government, highlighted differences over women’s rights in the country, and criticized Iran’s foreign policy decisions. An adjacent set of accounts targeting social media users in Afghanistan also criticized Iran, as well as the Taliban and Islamic State.
“With few exceptions, the study of modernity [influence operations] has overwhelmingly focused on activities related to authoritarian regimes in countries like Russia, China, and Iran, with recent growth in research on the integral role played by private entities,” the researchers wrote. “This report illustrates the wider range of actors engaged in active operations to influence online audiences.”