(Bloomberg) -- Facebook Inc. said it detected and removed a small scale network of fake accounts aimed at distributing Chinese propaganda and disinformation across Southeast Asia and the U.S.
Disguised as local operators, the accounts sought to amplify pro-China messaging over its control of the South China Sea and surrounding area, while promoting political leaders deemed to be sympathetic to China’s influence in the region, according to Graphika Inc., which seeks to uncover disinformation operations and released a report on the China-based activity. Facebook said the fake accounts also pushed messages for and against U.S. President Donald Trump, his Democratic opponent Joe Biden and former Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg.
Although researchers could not attribute the operation to the Chinese government or the Chinese Communist Party, the propaganda campaign was the second squashed by Facebook in a month over fake content related to the November election. Weeks ago, Facebook removed a small network of accounts linked to Russia’s Internet Research Agency, the Kremlin-linked troll farm that used social media accounts to deepen divisions in the U.S. and help Trump in the 2016 presidential campaign.
The China-based operation appeared likely to be leveraging the U.S. election -- a hotly discussed topic on social media -- to build its own audience rather than attempting to influence voters to tip the outcome, said Ben Nimmo, who leads investigations at Graphika.
The campaign’s U.S. operations were deemed to be weak in both sophistication and scale, and did not indicate preferential treatment for either presidential candidate, Nimmo said.
“On the grand scale of the American internet, it’s not even a feather on the scale. It’s really small,” said Nimmo. “They got caught early but overall it didn’t feel like a sophisticated operation.”
The operation began in late 2016 by targeting Taiwan, as some of its posts attacked President Tsai Ing-Wen. In early 2018, fake users posted about the Philippines with content that supported President Rodrigo Duterte and argued in favor of Chinese regional influence. Concurrently, they also created a collection of pages that focused more broadly on the South China Sea and defended China’s contested policies there, Graphika said in the report.
It wasn’t until late 2019 and early 2020 that the disinformation operation shifted its attention to the U.S. But even those accounts and groups often brought the conversation back to China’s maritime security, according to Graphika.
“Many of the accounts in this phase of the operation were barely active,” according Graphika’s report.
In total, Facebook said it removed 155 Facebook accounts, 11 pages, 9 groups and 6 Instagram accounts. The campaign attracted more than 130,000 followers, but less than 3,000 were based in the U.S. The accounts were removed because they violated Facebook’s policies against coordinated campaigns with false identities, the Menlo Park, California-based company said.
(Updates throughout with details from Graphika report)
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