One year in, how pro-Russia online campaigns evolved

Pro-Russian actors adapted to enforcement, the social media company said.

ByABC News
February 23, 2023, 8:00 AM

One year into the full-scale invasion of Ukraine by Russia, a new report by the social media company Meta details the evolution of pro-Russian influence campaigns online.

The report describes a declining presence for Russian state media outlets on Meta's platforms Facebook and Instagram, as well as crude efforts by covert pro-Russian networks to maintain their reach in the face of a crackdown by Meta.

According to Meta's report, the company responded to Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine with restrictions on Russian state-controlled media outlets, including curbs on advertising and limiting the reach of the outlets' content in users' feeds.

Since then, Meta observed, Russian state media outlets have become less active on its platforms and their posts have attracted less attention.

However, at the same time, some Russian state media outlets have been inviting their audiences to follow them on other platforms.

"Russian state media outlets have significantly reduced their activity on our platforms and pivoted elsewhere," the company noted.

PHOTO: A person types on a laptop in this undated stock image.
A person types on a laptop in this undated stock image.
STOCK PHOTO/Getty Images

Meta also cracked down in 2022 on covert, unofficial networks promoting Russia's invasion of Ukraine, including a group it identified as "Cyber Front Z," which the company said had links to Yevgeny Prigozhin, an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Prigozhin was charged in 2018 by U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller for allegedly funding the Internet Research Agency, an online "troll farm" accused of attempting to influence U.S. politics.

In Nov. 2022, Prigozhin admitted in a social media statement that he had interfered in U.S. elections.

In an August 2022 report, Meta said the Cyber Front Z network was operated in part by individuals linked to the Internet Research Agency. The network's existence was first revealed earlier that year in a March exposé by the Russian outlet Fontanka.

Along with another pro-Russia network known as "Doppleganger," Cyber Front Z was reportedly active not just on Meta's platforms but on other services including Telegram, Twitter, TikTok and LinkedIn.

In the August report, Meta said the Cyber Front Z network was "clumsy and largely ineffective," noting that on Instagram, for example, more than half of the fake accounts created by the network were quickly detected and removed upon creation.

"On our platforms, these networks resembled brute-force, 'smash-and-grab' attempts to use a large number of low-quality accounts all at once, in the hope that at least a few might survive and escape detection," the company said in its latest report.

Tim Squirrell, a spokesperson for the London-based Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a think tank that researches disinformation, told ABC News, "It's unsurprising that there has been a proliferation of pro-Kremlin accounts trying to crowd out the information environment with their propaganda," but cautioned that in addition to state media and covert accounts, pro-Russia influencers are more effective than either at reaching audiences.

Squirrell added that Meta's conclusions are difficult to fully assess due to a lack of raw data from the company.

"If they care so much about transparency," why are they cutting researchers out?," Squirrell asked.

PHOTO: In this July 4, 2017 file photo Russian businessman and Wagner mercenary group founder Yevgeny Prigozhin at the Kremlin in Moscow.
In this July 4, 2017 file photo Russian businessman and Wagner mercenary group founder Yevgeny Prigozhin at the Kremlin in Moscow.
Sergei Ilnitsky/Pool via Reuters, FILE

When Meta cracked down on Cyber Front Z and Doppleganger, they responded "aggressively" in an effort to restore their online presence, at a scale the company described as unusual for Russia-based covert influence campaigns.

Meta said in its report that it had detected and disrupted "thousands" of attempts to create fake accounts and "hundreds more" efforts at sharing fake websites, including some masquerading as real news outlets.

Meta suggested in its report that this aggressiveness could result from a lack of preparation by the networks' operators for the unique context of a fast-paced, full-scale war, adding that those responsible for the covert networks were likely still paid despite the low quality and minimal impact of their work.

"These actors can provide plausible deniability to their customers, but they also have an interest in exaggerating their own effectiveness," Meta said in its report.

Prigozhin, the Internet Research Agency's alleged operator, is also known as the owner of the private military company Wagner, whose members have fought alongside Russian troops in Ukraine.

Meta's latest report on covert pro-Russian online networks comes amid an increasingly public feud between Prigozhin and the Russian military establishment. In a recent audio statement, Prigozhin accused top Russian military and defense officials of depriving Wagner fighters of ammunition.

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