Facebook said Tuesday it has identified a sprawling online propaganda effort: a pro-China campaign that had a presence on more than 50 websites.
The campaign “appears to be the largest known cross-platform covert influence operation in the world,” Meta said in a report. The researchers said the broadly coordinated postings of pro-China images, videos, comments and audio files were part of a yearslong operation that researchers had previously dubbed “Spamouflage.”
The findings underscore the potential for internet propaganda campaigns to attempt to exploit internet platforms to influence the U.S. election in 2024. Since 2016, Russia, Iran and to a lesser extent China have all launched covert online efforts to influence U.S. voters.
Despite its scope, the campaign received little engagement and rarely gained much traction beyond its initial posts. Online propaganda campaigns have struggled to replicate the success of early influence efforts, such as Russia’s efforts to sow discord ahead of the 2016 election.
The content mostly consisted of positive commentary about China, defense of its policies, and criticism of the U.S. and other Western countries, the report said.
Meta said it took down 7,704 Facebook accounts and 954 pages linked to the campaign, though much of the content on other websites is still accessible.
In a call Monday previewing the report, Ben Nimmo, Facebook’s global threat intelligence lead, said those posting the material appeared to be more intent on filling quotas than deeply convincing users to China’s views.
“We saw hundreds of accounts on dozens of platforms, making what were likely meant to be personal comments, but it was the same comment from many different accounts day after day, as if they were copy-pasting from a list or a spreadsheet,” Nimmo said. “Some of them even put numbers in front of these apparently personal comments, as if they’ve copied them from a numbered list and forgotten to proofread them before they posted.”
A spokesperson for the Chinese Embassy in Washington, D.C., didn’t immediately respond to an email requesting comment.
Despite the campaign’s apparent ineffectiveness, it’s notable for the sheer number of websites on which its operators tried to share the material. It includes TikTok, the video-sharing site Vimeo, LiveJournal, Reddit, Medium, Tumblr and the audio platform SoundCloud.
A Reddit spokesperson said in an email that the company “regularly” bans accounts tied to Spamouflage.
TikTok, Vimeo, Medium, Tumblr and SoundCloud didn’t immediately respond to an email requesting comment. LiveJournal could not be reached for comment.
The material was often remarkably unconvincing, Nimmo said.
“There was one case where the operation replied to a question on Quora, which was about losing belly fat in English, with a post in Chinese about why Taiwan should surrender. So it doesn’t look like this has been a high-precision effort, or heavily focused on actually attracting a real audience,” he said.
Quora didn’t respond to an email requesting comment.