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Meta formally links pro-Western influence operation to US military

Meta’s security team has formally confirmed the involvement of the US military in a pro-Western influence operation the social network took down this summer.

The company said it removed 39 Facebook accounts, 16 Facebook pages, and 26 Instagram accounts that tried to pose as locals in various countries.

The accounts posted content in different languages and across several countries as part of an influence operation meant to praise the anti-terrorism efforts of the US military and criticize China, Russia, and the Taliban.

“The people behind this activity posted primarily in Arabic, Farsi and Russian about news and current events, including terrorism concerns and praise of the US military, as well as content about the COVID-19 pandemic — some of which we removed for violating our misinformation policy. This operation also shared posts criticizing Iran, China and Russia, including Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, China’s treatment of the Uyghur people, Iran’s influence in the Middle East, and the support of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan by Russia and China.”

This is the same campaign that was first described at the end of August in a joint report from Graphika and the Stanford Internet Observatory—a joint report based on Meta and Twitter datasets the companies released in advance, and the campaign that was ridiculed for gaining almost zero engagement despite its years-long effort.

At the time, the two organizations formally linked the campaign to the Trans-Regional Web Initiative, a somewhat obscure DOD project launched 15 years ago and meant to create and run regional news websites to educate and inform local audiences.

While back in the 2000s, the project looked like another Radio Liberty initiative, it appears the project turned into your run-of-the-mill covert influence operation.

While Meta didn’t specifically connect their findings to the Trans-Regional Web Initiative project, they did say that their “investigation found links to individuals associated with the US military” and that these individuals actively tried to conceal their identities and coordination.

This probably didn’t help with the concealment thing:

“This network posted primarily during US business hours (EST) rather than during work hours in the countries they targeted.”

While the Pentagon did not formally confirm the August report, the DOD did order a sweeping audit of its “information warfare” efforts, most likely not pleased with either the abysmal results they were getting or getting publicly doxxed and shamed. All of this is particularly interesting since WaPo also reported that Meta gave the DOD a small nudge about its easy-to-spot clandestine info-op back in 2020, telling them to knock it off before cracking down on the accounts two years later.

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