Meta says it took down an extensive network of Facebook and Instagram accounts pushing disinformation published on more than 60 websites that spoofed multiple legitimate news sites across Europe.
This influence network mainly targeted Germany, France, Italy, Ukraine, and the U.K., with original articles arguing that Western sanctions on Russia would backfire and criticizing Ukraine and Ukrainian refugees.
“The operation began in May of this year and centered around a sprawling network of over 60 websites carefully impersonating legitimate websites of news organizations in Europe,” said Meta’s Global Threat Intelligence Lead Ben Nimmo and Threat Disruption Director David Agranovich.
“There, they would post original articles that criticized Ukraine and Ukrainian refugees, supported Russia and argued that Western sanctions on Russia would backfire.”
News outlets impersonated by this massive disinformation network included, but are not limited to, la Repubblica (repubblica[.]life), Der Spiegel (e.g., spiegel[.]ltd, spiegel[.]today, spiegeli[.]live, spiegel[.]pro), The Guardian (theguardian[.]co[.]com), and Bild (bild[.]eu[.]com, bild[.]LLC), and Italian news agency ANSA (ansa[.]ltd).
They would promote links to the article, as well as memes and YouTube videos across many online services, including Facebook, Instagram, Telegram, Twitter, and LiveJournal. The articles were also pushed via petitions on websites like Change.org and Avaaz.
“This is the largest and most complex Russian-origin operation that we’ve disrupted since the beginning of the war in Ukraine. It presented an unusual combination of sophistication and brute force,” they added.
In all, Meta said it took down thousands of Facebook and Instagram accounts and shared the following stats regarding this sprawling operation:
- Presence on Facebook and Instagram: 1,633 accounts, 703 Pages, one Group, and 29 accounts on Instagram.
- Followers: About 4,000 accounts followed one or more of these Pages, less than ten accounts joined this Group, and about 1,500 accounts followed one or more of these Instagram accounts.
- Advertising: Around $105,000 in spending on Facebook and Instagram ads, paid primarily in U.S. dollars and euros.
The company also disrupted a Chinese network focused on U.S. domestic politics and various issues, including gun control and abortion, ahead of the midterms.
As Nimmo added, they posed as both conservatives and liberals, playing both sides of the political spectrum against each other by either calling for gun rights and abortion restrictions or asking for gun restrictions and abortion rights.
“These clusters were really small and didn’t build an audience. e.g. their 8 Pages had a combined following of 20 accounts,” Nimmo tweeted.
“But it looks like they were trying to find a window into U.S. debate. While small/failed, it’s important to report and remain vigilant ahead of the midterms.”