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Meta busts first Chinese campaign prodding US midterms

Meta says it has disrupted a misinformation network targeting US political discourse ahead of the 2022 midterm elections – and one that sought to influence public opinion in Europe about the conflict in Ukraine.

The internet giant says this is the first instance it has found of a Chinese-based source using its platforms for such purposes, although it was careful to point out that while the posts came from China, the acts are not necessarily part of a government-led program.

According to Meta’s report (PDF) of the takedowns, the Chinese operation targeting US audiences attempted to reach both sides of the political spectrum, but was largely unsuccessful. Across 81 Facebook accounts, eight Pages, one Group, and two Instagram accounts, the operation garnered less than 300 followers/group members.

The operation doesn’t appear to have been sophisticated, or have had much in the way of resources for its operators, Meta’s findings suggest. Instead of operating during US hours, the accounts only posted during working hours in China, posting was sporadic, many of the accounts had fake female English names but male profile pictures, and most appear to have been written in broken English.

It’s almost as if they wanted to be caught.

“Only a few people engaged with [the Chinese operation’s posts] and some of those who did called it out as fake,” Meta said in its report. It added that a number of the accounts were taken down by Facebook’s automated systems without requiring human intervention.

While ineffective, the tactics being used by operators based in China should at least give pause for concern. Ben Nimmo, Meta’s global threat intelligence lead, reiterated to CNN that Meta had not seen Chinese groups target US politics before.

“They were running fake accounts that pretended to be Americans and tried to talk like Americans and they were talking about really divisive domestic issues like abortion and gun control,” Nimmo said. 

Meta says that the same Chinese group was also targeting the Czech Republic, primarily in an attempt to influence opinions of their country’s policies toward China and Ukraine. 

Russian operation largest since Ukraine war

In contrast to the small and somewhat unsuccessful Chinese-based misinformation campaign, Meta described the Russian misinformation network it rattled as “the largest and most complex Russian-origin operation that we’ve disrupted since the beginning of the war in Ukraine.”

The Russian operation primarily targeted Germany, France, Italy and the United Kingdom, and was vast in scope: 1,633 accounts, 703 pages and one group on Facebook, and 29 Instagram accounts made up the operation. Of those, some 4,000 people followed “one or more” of the Facebook pages, while “one or more” of the Instagram accounts had upwards of 1,500 followers.

The Russian network appeared to be well funded too, spending around $105,000 (£97,500) in US dollars and Euros on Facebook and Instagram ads.

Russia’s efforts were impressive, with a network of more than 60 websites crafted to impersonate legitimate news organizations like Germany’s Der Spiegel and Bild, and The Guardian. Those sites were used to publish anti-Ukrainian and pro-Russian stories that were then amplified on social media and passed off as legitimate stories from trusted sources.

Meta’s report doesn’t specifically accuse any government or group of either the Chinese or Russian campaigns, only saying that the groups appeared to be operating out of those countries. 

Beyond misinformation campaigns, security researchers have said that it’s highly likely foreign cyber operations will target US election infrastructure during the 2022 midterm elections.

Researchers from Mandiant said recently that attacks on election equipment such as voting machines was unlikely, saying that a cyberattack like a DDoS was a more appealing prospect for countries bent on disrupting a US election.

Beyond that, Mandiant said, expect China, Russia and other US political rivals to keep up the misinformation campaigns on social media – some of which might not be careless enough to get caught. ®