Facebook attributes fake social media campaign targeting Middle East to US military
Image: Meta, Pono Lopez
Jonathan Greig November 23, 2022

Facebook attributes fake social media campaign targeting Middle East to US military

Facebook attributes fake social media campaign targeting Middle East to US military

Facebook parent company Meta has determined that a coordinated campaign targeting countries in the Middle East has links to the U.S. military, according to the company’s latest Adversarial Threat Report

Facebook said it removed 39 Facebook accounts, 16 Pages, two Groups and 26 accounts on Instagram for violating their rules around “coordinated inauthentic behavior” — a term they use to describe fictitious social media campaigns typically carried out by governments.

The campaign specifically focused on Afghanistan, Algeria, Iran, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Somalia, Syria, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Yemen.

Facebook noted that they were not the only social media site that the campaign targeted. They also found fake accounts on Twitter, YouTube, Telegram, VKontakte, Odnoklassniki and others. 

“It included several clusters of fake accounts on our platforms, some of which were detected and disabled by our automated systems prior to our investigation. The majority of this operation’s posts had little to no engagement from authentic communities,” the company explained

“Although the people behind this operation attempted to conceal their identities and coordination, our investigation found links to individuals associated with the US military.”

Facebook said it started an investigation into suspected inauthentic activity following an August report from researchers at Graphika and the Stanford Internet Observatory that highlighted pro-Western influence operations on social media. 

Meta said the posts generally covered “sports and culture in a particular country; cooperation with the United States, including military cooperation; and criticism of Iran, China, or Russia.”

The Washington Post reported in September that the Defense Department ordered a review of the “information warfare” program after the White House and other agencies raised concerns about the military’s attempts to influence people overseas. 

One source told the newspaper that some of the campaign was attributed to U.S. Central Command and that it mostly involved anti-Russia propaganda dispersed during the summer. Many of the posts warned of potential spillover effects from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on several central Asian countries. 

A Defense Department spokesperson said they are aware of the report.

“At this time, we do not have any further comments on the report or potential actions that may be taken by the Department as a result of the report,” the spokesperson said.

Other posts were critical of Iran and contained outlandish claims about organ removals that one defense official told The Washington Post would be a violation of the Pentagon’s “doctrine and training practices.”

Meta noted that the campaigns, although pretending to come from locals in the countries they targeted, operated during U.S. business hours.

“The majority of this operation’s posts had little to no engagement from authentic communities. 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,” Meta said. 

“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.” 

In total, Meta found that about 22,000 accounts followed one or more of these pages, about 400 joined at least one of the Groups and around 12,000 accounts followed one or more of the Instagram accounts.

The campaigns spent about $2,500 in ads on Facebook, paid in both U.S. dollars and British pounds. 

The report also includes mentions of actions taken in September to remove similarly inauthentic campaigns from Russia and China.

Jonathan has worked across the globe as a journalist since 2014. Before moving back to New York City, he worked for news outlets in South Africa, Jordan and Cambodia. He previously covered cybersecurity at ZDNet and TechRepublic.