Twitter, Meta kill hundreds of pro-Western troll accounts

It turns out online chicanery aiming to destabilize foreign nations is a two-way street

Well known for an abundance of anti-western troll accounts and propaganda, Twitter and Meta are reporting that they've taken down nearly 200 accounts that, for the past five years, have been amplifying pro-Western messages in the Middle East and Central Asia.

Stanford Internet Observatory (SIO) and Graphika, a social media analytics company, have published a report based on data from Meta and Twitter, in which they describe their findings as "the most extensive case of covert pro-Western [influence operations] on social media to be reviewed and analyzed by open-source researchers to date."

Lest you think it's just Russian trolls trying to destabilize the West, the researchers found "an interconnected web of accounts on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and five other social media platforms that used deceptive tactics to promote pro-Western narratives." 

Neither company has made any allegations as to what entity may have sent the tweets; Twitter has  only said it believes the tweets came from the US and Great Britain, while Meta said activity it flagged originated in the US.

Included in the data were 170 Twitter accounts with over 300,000 collective tweets that Twitter said it removed due to "platform manipulation and spam," as well as 39 Facebook profiles, 16 pages, two groups and 26 Instagram accounts Meta took down for engaging in "coordinated inauthentic behavior." 

In the data, the researchers say they uncovered both overt and covert activities, but focused their findings on covert propaganda "to better understand how different actors use inauthentic practices to conduct online influence operations." 

There could be connections between the various social efforts. Researchers did note some low-level, open-source connections between overt and covert activity on Twitter and Meta, but the technical data was limited, making it difficult to establish. 

The Register has asked Meta and Twitter for more details.

Trolls are trolls, and their tactics are limited

The SIO and Graphika describe the Twitter/Meta dataset as relatively unique, as "with few exceptions, the study of modern influence operations has overwhelmingly focused on activity linked to authoritarian regimes in countries such as Russia, China, and Iran." 

What they found is somewhat surprising: Western social media propagandists use the same limited set of tactics employed in previously studied campaigns originating in Russia, China, and Iran.

Fake personas with GAN-generated faces, fake independent media outlets, memes, short-form videos, online petitions, and hashtag campaigns were all discovered in the posting history of the terminated accounts.

Additionally, the researchers said the data shows just how ineffective such tactics can be as the "vast majority" of posts and tweets from the accounts "​​received no more than a handful of likes or retweets, and only 19 percent of the covert assets we identified had more than 1,000 followers." 

The most followed accounts in the data, the researchers wrote, were those overtly associated with the US military. ®

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