Russian covert influence operations have become ‘low-quality,’ says Meta

Since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, Russia’s covert influence operations on Facebook and Instagram have shied away from building convincing brands or personas, Meta announced on Thursday.

Instead these operations are trying to escape the social media giant’s detection efforts by creating “a large number of low-quality accounts all at once, in the hope that at least a few might survive,” the company explained in its quarterly threat report.

The activity has become less like “the stealthy and deceptive Russian influence operations we’ve disrupted in the past,” said the company, and now bears “a closer resemblance to a spammers’ playbook.”

The new approach to influence campaigns mirrors the purported Russian tactic of attempting to swamp entrenched Ukrainian positions with waves of poorly trained and poorly equipped conscripts. That tactic has meant Russia was losing as many as 2,000 men for every 100 yards it was gaining, according to a report in The Times of London, citing NATO intelligence.

On Meta’s platforms, the campaigns include one known as Cyber Front Z, which has been linked to the Russian entrepreneur Yevgeny Prigozhin, who also owns the mercenary Wagner Group. Prigozhin was sanctioned for his involvement in interference in the U.S. presidential election in 2016.

Meta said that the operators’ spam-like approach to influence operations was providing “low overall return on their activity.”

The company said that the operations had a “uniquely aggressive persistence” suggesting that they “appeared to hastily respond to the state’s military actions with no time to build credibility and influence in promoting pro-Russia narratives” and “were likely paid to keep running these efforts … no matter how low the quality or impact of their work.”

More traditional propaganda from Russian state-controlled media is on the wane, Meta’s threat report said, because those outlets have been banned from running ads and any posts that link to their content receive warning labels.

Meta said this has had a “substantial drop” in the activity of these pages and people’s engagement with that content, despite “infrequent” attempts to evade the company’s bans and transparency requirements.

“Although they are still active on our platforms, a number of Russian state-controlled media have shared posts urging followers to find them on other services instead,” the report said, suggesting the enforcement action is working.

Serbia takedowns

The company also said it took down 5,374 accounts and 12 groups on Facebook, as well as 100 accounts on Instagram, that were connected to a network operated by employees of the Serbian Progressive Party — the country’s ruling party — targeting domestic audiences.

This network, which “ran across the internet and targeted social media services including Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, in addition to local news media to create a perspective of widespread and authentic grassroots support for Serbian President Alexander Vučić.”

It was unlike traditional troll farms, which operate in a single location or set of offices, and instead relied on individuals coordinating their efforts from across Serbia.

The people behind the activity used fake accounts — some of which Meta said it detected and disabled automatically — to manipulate content by making it appear more popular than it really was, alongside posting original memes criticizing Serbian opposition figures.

The network coordinated its posting efforts through a web app that Meta said it blocked in 2020 after reviewing reporting by the investigative journalists at Balkan Insight, the independent news website.

Meta said it was able to tie the operation to the Serbian Progressive Party, a group of employees known as its Internet Team, and state employees from around Serbia, following a tip from Twitter.

The company’s threat report also announced the takedown of a network based in Cuba targeting people in that country as well as the Cuban diaspora abroad. The company’s investigation “found links to the Cuban government and its various entities,” Meta said.

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Alexander Martin

Alexander Martin is the UK Editor for Recorded Future News. He was previously a technology reporter for Sky News and is also a fellow at the European Cyber Conflict Research Initiative.