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A third of the world now runs social media influence operations

In a report summarizing its actions against covert influence operations, Meta said that 2022 saw the largest number of Coordinated Inauthentic Behavior (CIB) networks since the company began tracking and cracking down on these operations back in 2017.

The company said it shut down this year more than 200 influence networks operating from 68 countries in 42 different languages.

The number represents 35% of all internationally recognized states today, meaning that roughly a third of countries across the globe have employed or harbored a social media influence network within their borders throughout 2022.

“Russia (34 networks), Iran (29 networks) and Mexico (13 networks) were the three most prolific geographic sources of CIB activity — whether by state actors, political groups or commercial firms,” Meta said.

Global CIB Disruptions, 2017-2022 (by country of orgin)

Meta’s numbers are eye-opening for anyone today thinking social media influence operations don’t work. They obviously do; otherwise, they wouldn’t have been around after five years and certainly not exploded like they did this past year.

But Meta says that we all have a skewed view of what influence operations really are and what they’re used for.

While back in 2017, when Meta began tracking CIB networks, these operations would target foreign audiences, this has quickly turned, and for the past few years, the vast majority of CIB networks target internal audiences—which explains why we see influence ops in places like Uganda, Finland, or Zimbabwe.

Furthermore, CIB operations have “devolved” from trying to influence US Presidential elections to the lowest level of the political process, with Meta finding PR firms sometimes running “influence” campaigns for two rivals going for the same elected position.

How CIB networks operate also appears to be region specific. Meta said that 90% of the influence ops it saw originate from Asia-Pacific, sub-Saharan Africa, and Latin America typically targeted local audiences. On the other hand, CIB networks in the EU and MENA seem to be mainly focused on international audiences, which makes sense primarily due to the complicated political structure in both regions.

“Uniquely, the Gulf region was where we saw covert influence operations from many different countries target each other, signaling these attempts at influence as an extension of geopolitics by other means. For example, we removed: an Iranian network criticizing Saudi Arabia and the US; a network from Saudi Arabia criticizing Iran, Qatar, and Turkey; an operation from Egypt, Turkey and Morocco supporting Qatar and Turkey and criticizing Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and the Egyptian government; and a network from Egypt supporting the UAE and criticizing Qatar and Turkey.”

Meta didn’t end its report with a conclusion, but it didn’t need to. Nevertheless, I’ll end this newsletter edition with an anecdote, something I accidentally heard in a bar 2-3 years back while having lunch with a friend. Five women having coffee, and one of them turned out to be the wife of the local mayor. Helped by a pause in the restaurant music playlist, I was surprised to hear that the Spice Girls behind me were arranging a James Bond covert-level operation to flood the city’s Facebook groups and newspaper comments sections with praises for the incumbent mayor ahead of an upcoming reelection campaign. It made me chuckle at the time and go, “Look at these IRA wannabes!”

But if stuff like this was happening years back in a town in the b***hole of Romania, and Meta says it’s only seeing ~200 CIB operations, you have to ask yourself how many other CIB operations have gone undetected; and if social networks will ever be able to see anything this small.

Further, as Meta also points out in its report, many of these influence ops also work across platforms and mediums. Now, with Twitter’s security team yeeted into the sun, it’s going to be much so harder to have an insight into these operations with only Google and Meta looking for them. So, we can confidently say that social media influence ops are here to say.

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