Meta dismantles a China-based network of fake accounts ahead of the midterms

The company also took down a large network of fake accounts from Russia.

Dado Ruvic / reuters

Meta has taken down a network of fake accounts from China that targeted the United States with memes and posts about “hot button” political issues ahead of the midterm elections.The company said the fake accounts were discovered before they amassed a large following or attracted meaningful engagement, but that the operation was significant due to its timing and because of the topics the accounts posted about.

The network consisted of 81 Facebook accounts, eight Facebook Pages, two Instagram accounts and a single Facebook Group. Just 20 accounts followed at least one of the Pages and the group had about 250 members, according to Meta.

The fake accounts posted in four different “clusters” of activity, Meta said, beginning with Chinese-language content “about geopolitical issues, criticizing the US.” The next cluster graduated to memes and posts in English, while subsequent clusters created Facebook Pages and hashtags that also circulated on Twitter. In addition to the US, some clusters also targeted posts to people in the Czech Republic.

During a call with reporters, Meta’s Global Threat Intelligence Lead Ben Nimmo said the people behind the accounts “made a number of mistakes” that allowed Meta to catch them more easily, such as only posting during working hours in China. At the same time, Nimmo said the network represented a “new direction for Chinese influence operations” because the accounts posed as both liberals and conservatives, advocating for both sides on issues like gun control and abortion rights.

“It's like they were using these hot button issues to try and find an entry point into American discourse,” Nimmo said. “It is an important new direction to be aware of.” The accounts also shared memes about President Joe Biden, Florida Senator Marco Rubio, Utah Senator Mitt Romney and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, according to Meta.

Meta also shared details about a much larger network of fake accounts from Russia, which it described as the “most complex Russian-origin operation that we’ve disrupted since the beginning of the war in Ukraine.” The company identified more than 1,600 Facebook accounts and 700 Facebook Pages associated with the effort, which drew more than 5,000 followers.

The network used the accounts to boost a series of fake websites that impersonated legitimate news outlets and European organizations. They targeted people in Germany, France, Italy, Ukraine and the United Kingdom, and posted in several languages.

“They would post original articles that criticized Ukraine and Ukrainian refugees, praised Russia and argued that Western sanctions on Russia would backfire,” Meta writes in its report. “They would then promote these articles and also original memes and YouTube videos across many internet services, including Facebook, Instagram, Telegram, Twitter, petitions websites Change[.]org and Avaaz[.]com, and even LiveJournal.”

Meta notes that “on a few occasions” the posts from these fake accounts were “amplified by Russian embassies in Europe and Asia” though it didn’t find direct links between the embassy accounts and the network. For both the Russia and China-based networks, Meta said it was unable to attribute the fake accounts to specific individuals or groups within the countries.

The takedowns come as Meta and its peers are ramping up security and anti-misinformation efforts to prepare for the midterm elections in the fall. For Meta, that means largely using the same strategy it employed in the 2020 presidential election: a combination of highlighting authoritative information and resources, while relying on labels and third-party fact checkers to tamp down false and unverified info.