For the first time, a major covert pro-US propaganda campaign has been taken down by social media giants.
According to a report by Graphika and the Stanford Internet Observatory, Twitter and Meta (the parent company of Facebook and Instagram) have removed dozens of accounts used to promote US interests abroad.
These accounts targeted audiences in the Middle East and in Central Asia in multiple languages.
They promoted narratives to support the US and its allies, while opposing countries like Russia, China and Iran.
One example used by the researchers was how this campaign portrayed Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to different audiences.
“What was interesting was how they customized it for different countries. For example, when they targeted people in Iran, they talked about how the Iranian government was selling drones to Russia to kill innocent civilians and that Iran's cooperation with Russia was hurting Iranians," said Shelby Grossman, a researcher for the Stanford Internet Observatory in an interview with Euronews.
Meanwhile, when these accounts targeted users in Central Asian countries they would posts statements like “Russia invaded Ukraine, you’re next! You need to stand up to Russia now.”
The campaign mirrored common propaganda tactics that have been used against the West by countries like Russia or Iran.
Shelby Grossman said she was even surprised by how ordinary this campaign was: "I was shocked that the tactics we saw being used were identical to the tactics used by authoritarian regimes," she said.
These accounts used classic online propaganda tactics such as creating fake persona accounts, generating profile pictures using artificial intelligence.
The accounts published sometimes also posed as independent news media organisations, posting short-form videos, memes, and political cartoons, all of which are very common tactics according to the researchers.
It’s still not clear who is behind the operation. The report says Twitter has identified the US and the UK as the "countries of origin", while Meta said it's the US.
Most importantly, this campaign had very limited success. The majority of posts and tweets received no more than a handful of likes or retweets.
"This report shows the limits of inauthentic tactics to try to build influence online. It’s really hard to get engagement when you use these sorts of tactics," said Shelby Grossman.