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Facebook, Twitter dismantle a U.S. influence campaign about Ukraine

Accounts promoting U.S. government messages violated the platforms’ rules against coordinated inauthentic behavior

A parade of destroyed Russian military equipment is exhibited in Kyiv as part celebration of Ukrainian Independence Day. Social media giants have been trying to crack down on disinformation campaigns about the war in Ukraine. (Wojciech Grzedzinski for The Washington Post)
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Facebook and Twitter disrupted a web of accounts that were covertly seeking to influence users in the Middle East and Asia with pro-Western perspectives about international politics, including Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, according to a new report from social media analytics firm Graphika and Stanford University.

The covert influence operation used accounts on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and other social media giants to promote narratives supporting the interests of the United States and its allies while opposing countries including Russia, China and Iran, according to the report.

Covert influence campaigns run out of Russia and Iran repeatedly have been targeted by social media platforms over the years. This crackdown is the rare instance in which a U.S.-sponsored campaign targeting foreign audiences was found to violate the companies’ rules.

The accounts are being taken down at a time when social media giants have been trying to crack down on disinformation campaigns about the war in Ukraine. But much of that work has been focused on fighting efforts by Russian authorities to promote propaganda about the war, including false claims about Ukrainian military aggression in the region or blaming Western nations’ complicity in the war.

Margarita Franklin, a spokeswoman for Facebook’s parent company, Meta, confirmed in a statement that the company recently removed a network of accounts that originated in the United States for violating the platforms’ rules against coordinated inauthentic behavior. Franklin said it’s the first time the company has removed a foreign-focused influence network promoting the United States’ position.

Twitter declined to comment.

Brig. Gen. Patrick S. Ryder, Pentagon press secretary, said in a statement the Defense Department would “look into and assess any information that Facebook provides.”

The accounts shared news articles from U.S. government-funded media outlets, such as Voice of America and Radio Free Europe, and linked to websites sponsored by the U.S. military to criticize the Kremlin’s invasion of Ukraine. The campaigns promoted the narrative that Russia was responsible for the deaths of innocent civilians and other atrocities just so it could pursue its “imperial ambitions,” the report said.

The campaign often mimicked the strategies deployed by other countries such as Russia when seeking to influence the public perception of world events. For instance, the campaign created fake personas with digitally created photos, posed as independent media outlets and attempted to start hashtag campaigns, the report said.

The social media analytics firm Graphika and Stanford Internet Observatory, which produced the report, noted that the covert campaigns didn’t always garner much engagement or traction online.

“Importantly, the data also shows the limitations of using inauthentic tactics to generate engagement and build influence online,” the researchers noted. “The vast majority of posts and tweets we reviewed received no more than a handful of likes or retweets.”

In the wake of the war, social media apps such as Facebook, Instagram and YouTube banned or throttled Russian state media accounts, restricted advertising and bolstered their fact-checking operations during the war. Traffic to Russian government-backed media channels on social media spiked in the early days of the invasion and then plummeted as the companies cracked down, according to a March Washington Post analysis.

Since then, Ukrainian officials have flagged thousands of tweets, YouTube videos and other social media posts as Russian propaganda or anti-Ukrainian hate speech, but many of the companies have failed to keep up, according to a recent report.

Ellen Nakashima contributed to this report.