As social media steps up efforts to counter attempts to influence opinion via their platforms, Facebook and Twitter announced on Friday, December 20, that they have blocked government-supported manipulation, notably in favor of Donald Trump.
Twitter has been engaged since 2018 in dismantling a massive manipulation campaign, which has resulted in the suspension of more than 88,000 accounts. Last October, thanks to “Rigorous investigations” internally, the platform has established that Saudi Arabia was the source of this large-scale interference.
The company has published information on a core of nearly 6,000 accounts, representative of the whole, for the purpose of “Transparency”. The shared content dates from the end of 2016, and appears to support Donald Trump when he was a candidate and just after his election. Many accounts involved used automated tools to widely circulate non-political messages, Twitter said. These tools are usually used to propagate important announcements in the event of a crisis, and do not violate platform rules.
But “These tactics made it difficult for observers who had to locate political tweets on accounts that essentially shared non-political content automatically”, says the press release. Most of these profiles were in Arabic and served as sounding boards “To messages in favor of the Saudi authorities”, but part of it was in English and targeted Western audiences.
Facebook, for its part, said on Friday that it had ended two separate public manipulation operations, including a network piloted in Vietnam and the United States that targeted Americans with messages in favor of Donald Trump. The internet giant has removed more than 600 accounts from Facebook and Instagram.
These pages, groups and profiles mainly shared content from the media group Epoch Times (linked to the spiritual movement Falun Gong, banned in China) and BL, an American media favorable to the American president.
People involved in this campaign “Widely used false profiles – many of which were automatically blocked by our systems – to manage their pages and groups, post automatically, at very high frequency, and redirect users to other sites “, detailed Nathaniel Gleicher, head of cybersecurity at Facebook.
The platform has also noticed that some profiles display photos generated by artificial intelligence technologies, pretending to be Americans. They shared texts, images and montages on subjects of American politics, from the dismissal procedure launched against Donald Trump in the elections, through religion, trade and family values.
The other operation dismantled by Facebook was carried out from Georgia and targeted residents of this Caucasian country, shaken in recent weeks by a deep political crisis.
At least seven countries involved
With less than a year to go before the 2020 presidential election in the United States, Facebook and Twitter are under even more pressure to contribute, not harm, to the democratic process. The two Californian groups were strongly criticized for not having foiled major disinformation campaigns in 2016, including during the American campaign.
This fall, they dismantled several operations similar to those revealed on Friday, supported by different countries (Iran, Russia, Saudi Arabia, etc.), and seeking to manipulate the opinion of their citizens or populations of other countries. They typically use robots, bogus profiles, and artificial intelligence technologies to blend in, spread messages effectively, and drive traffic.
A report from the Oxford Internet Institute recently found that the number of such campaigns had doubled in two years, and that they came from both democratic and authoritarian governments. According to the researchers, sophisticated state agencies in at least seven countries (China, India, Iran, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Venezuela) use Facebook and Twitter to gain influence in foreign countries.