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Facebook takes down thousands of Chinese accounts targeting U.S. elections and politics

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Social media giant Facebook has deactivated thousands of what it says are fraudulent accounts created in China to influence U.S. politics and bilateral relations, according to an investigative report by Facebook parent company Meta.

The company said it had shut down one network of 4,789 bogus Facebook accounts in China that targeted U.S. politics and another network of 13 accounts and seven groups that targeted India, Tibet and the United States, according to a threat report made public Thursday. A third network of fake Russian Facebook accounts also was shut down.

Many of the fraudulent Facebook activities also were observed using identical account information on X, the social messaging app formerly known as Twitter, and on Instagram, the report said.

Meta said it has removed the 4,789 suspect Facebook accounts, where Chinese posters pretended to be Americans, as part of an investigation of coordinated “inauthentic behavior.” Some of the covert Chinese accounts shared links to articles from mainstream U.S. media such as HuffPost, Breitbart, The Wall Street Journal and Fox News.

The report did not indicate whether the activity was linked to the Chinese government but said they should be treated seriously despite their current limited reach.

“Overall, these networks still struggle to build audiences, but they continue their efforts around the world, and our teams remain vigilant, and we’ll keep sharing our insights,” said Nathaniel Gleicher, head of Meta’s security policy and lead author of the report.

Mr. Gleicher said the deactivations made China “now the third most common geographic source of foreign coordinated inauthentic behavior campaigns we’ve disrupted,” behind Russia and Iran.

A report by the State Department Global Engagement Center made public in September said China spends “billions of dollars” annually to shape global public opinion.

“Beijing uses false or biased information to promote positive views of the [People’s Republic of China] and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP),” the Global Engagement Center report said. “Beijing employs manipulative social media tactics such as use of bots and trolls to amplify pro-PRC content and drown out critical voices.”

Chinese propagandists use social media influencers to reach foreign audiences directly, and the effort is often more persuasive than official disinformation efforts.

According to the Meta report, the suspect Chinese Facebook pages used profile pictures and names gathered from the internet to reach and befriend people worldwide. The main goal: to influence politics and perceptions of U.S.-China relations.

“The same accounts would criticize both sides of the U.S. political spectrum by using what appears to be copy-pasted partisan content from people on X,” the report said. “Notably, some posts included X-specific language, such as ‘RT’ (i.e., retweet) or ‘@[particular X handles]’, suggesting that this operation had copied and pasted content from X to Facebook without editing it.”

The fake accounts copied posts from U.S. politicians, including former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat; Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat; South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, a Republican; and the “war room” of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a candidate for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination.

Other Chinese operations used statements by Sens. Mark Kelly, Arizona Democrat, and Marsha Blackburn, Tennessee Republican, as well as Democratic Reps. Sylvia Garcia of Texas and Terri Sewell of Alabama and Republican Reps. Matt Gaetz of Florida and Jim Jordan of Ohio.

“It’s unclear whether this approach was designed to amplify partisan tensions, build audiences among these politicians’ supporters, or to make the fake accounts sharing authentic content appear more genuine,” the report said.

Links to news articles from U.S. media were also posted and reshared on Facebook posts by real people, likely in an attempt to make the bogus sites appear more authentic, the report said. The content was often political but also dealt with such topics as gaming, history, fashion models and pets.

In an unusual move, a small portion of the China-origin fake accounts swapped names and profile pictures that appeared to be coming from the U.S. by the middle of the year and began pretending to be based in India. Some of this network’s accounts “suddenly began liking and commenting on posts by the other China-origin network focused on India and Tibet.”

The second deactivated Chinese network focused its Facebook content on India’s border region known as Arunachal Pradesh, posting negative content about specific individuals, the report said. On Tibet, the Chinese influencer accounts, supposedly set up by pro-independence activists, falsely accused Tibetan Buddhist leader the Dalai Lama of corruption and pedophilia, the report stated.

Another Chinese disinformation theme detected by Meta investigators accused the Indian government of corruption and supporting ethnic violence in the Indian state of Manipur. The Facebook accounts and groups on these issues gathered about 1,400 accounts that joined the page.

In an attempt to avoid detection by investigators, the Chinese people hid behind the fake accounts and used other digital deceptions.

“The operation’s fake accounts on Facebook copy-pasted the texts of tweets from real Americans, including politicians,” the report said. It noted that proxy internet protocol addresses were used in the United States to hide the foreign origin. “This small network operated fictitious personas on Facebook and X (formerly Twitter) posing as journalists, lawyers and human-rights activists.”

Russian disinformation

The fraudulent Russian network reportedly included six Facebook accounts, one page and three Instagram accounts. Meta also owns Instagram.

“This network originated in Russia and targeted global English-speaking audiences,” the report said, noting that the network was linked to RT, the state-run Russian outlet.

The Russian network sought to circumvent Facebook’s actions to demote and label Russian-origin posts after the invasion of Ukraine. Russian posters tried to create two seemingly independent grassroots media projects on Facebook, Twitter, TikTok and YouTube and tried to build an audience using generic hashtags such as #news and #world.

The primarily English-language content promoted official Kremlin themes, such as that Ukraine was guilty of war crimes and that the U.S. and other Western nations were guilty of “Russophobia.”

The Russian activity also posted criticism of the promotion of transgender rights and human rights in Western countries, especially the United States and France. President Biden and French President Emmanuel Macron were also targets of the Russian criticism.

The report warned that foreign threat actors are expected to target the 2024 U.S. elections with activities emanating from Russia, Iran and China.

Meta investigators regard China as the No. 3 social media threat after Russia and Iran.

The Meta report said “foreign threat actors” were trying to reach U.S. voters ahead of next year’s various elections, including in the U.S. and Europe. “We need to remain alert to their evolving tactics and targeting across the internet,” the company warned.

The report said the covert Russian influence sites used names such as Election Watch, Lies of Wall Street, Spicy Conspiracy, Truthgate and 50 States of Lie, offering content that questioned the health of American democracy and promoted conspiracy theories. Other Russian websites focused on divisive issues such as migration and border security.

The Russian sites have kept up with current events. They used Hamas’ murderous attack on America’s ally Israel on Oct. 7 to promote the theme of U.S. decline. One site even claimed that Ukraine supplied the Palestinian militant group with weapons.

Iran networks often pose as conservative news outlets in the United States, the report said.

Facebook’s removal of the two Chinese networks from the site is part of a campaign that has removed five actors so far this year, the report said. The excised sites included content praising China’s government and defending Beijing’s widely criticized human rights records in Tibet and Xinjiang. Others attacked critics of the Chinese government around the world and posted about China’s strategic rivalry with the United States in Africa and Central Asia.

The report said China can be expected to increase its influence operations if U.S.-China relations emerge as a major theme in the 2024 U.S. election campaigns. Similarly, an election-year focus on U.S. support for Ukraine is expected to trigger stepped-up efforts by Russian sites to shape U.S. popular opinion on the war.

Meta expects foreign influence operations to engage in “perception hacking” — creating online impressions that “they are everywhere” and promoting fears of widespread deception.

“Perception hacking aims to sow doubt in democratic processes or in the very concept of ‘facts’ without the threat actors actually having to impact the process itself,” the report said.

The use of artificial intelligence in foreign influence “has soared” this year, the report said, but the efforts so far have not been effective. Although it is a new challenge, Meta investigators “have not seen evidence that [AI] will upend our industry’s efforts to counter covert influence operations,” the report said.

The company said it is using AI to detect and contain the spread of harmful content.

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