Meta announced on Thursday that it had removed thousands of Facebook accounts based in China that were impersonating Americans debating political issues in the United States. The company warned that the campaign presaged coordinated international efforts to influence the 2024 presidential election.
The network of fake accounts — 4,789 in all — used names and photographs lifted from elsewhere on the internet and copied partisan political content from X, formerly known as Twitter, Meta said in its latest quarterly adversarial threat analysis. The copied material included posts by prominent Republican and Democratic politicians, the report said.
The campaign appeared intended not to favor one side or another but to highlight the deep divisions in American politics, a tactic that Russia’s influence campaigns have used for years in the United States and elsewhere.
Meta warned that the campaign underscored the threat facing a confluence of elections around the world in 2024 — from India in April to the United States in November.
“Foreign threat actors are attempting to reach audiences ahead of next year’s various elections, including in the U.S. and Europe,” the company’s report said, “and we need to remain alert to their evolving tactics and targeting across the internet.”
Although Meta did not attribute the latest campaign to China’s Communist government, it noted that the country had become the third-most-common geographic source for coordinated inauthentic behavior on Facebook and other social media platforms, after Russia and Iran.
The Chinese network was the fifth that Meta has detected and taken down this year, more than in any other nation, suggesting that China is stepping up its covert influence efforts. While previous campaigns focused on Chinese issues, the latest ones have weighed more directly into domestic U.S. politics.
“This represents the most notable change in the threat landscape, when compared with the 2020 election cycle,” the company said in the threat report.
Meta’s report followed a series of disclosures about China’s global information operations, including a recent State Department report that accused China of spending billions on “deceptive and coercive methods” to shape the global information environment.
Microsoft and other researchers have also linked China to the spread of conspiracy theories claiming that the U.S. government deliberately caused the deadly wildfires in Hawaii this year.
The latest inauthentic accounts removed by Meta sought “to hijack authentic partisan narratives,” the report said. It detailed several examples in which the accounts copied and pasted, under their own names, partisan posts from politicians — often using language and symbols indicating the posts were originally on X.
Two Facebook posts a month apart in August and September, for example, copied opposing statements on abortion from two members of the U.S. House from Texas — Sylvia R. Garcia, a Democrat, and Ronny Jackson, a Republican.
The accounts also linked to mainstream media organizations and shared posts by X’s owner, Elon Musk. They liked and reposted content from actual Facebook users on other topics as well, like games, fashion models and pets. The activity suggested that the accounts were intended to build a network of seemingly authentic accounts to push a coordinated message in the future.
Meta also removed a similar, smaller network from China that mostly targeted India and Tibet but also the United States. In the case of Tibet, the users posed as pro-independence activists who accused the Dalai Lama of corruption and pedophilia.
Meta warned that while it had removed the accounts, the same networks continued to use accounts on other platforms, including X, YouTube, Gettr, Telegram and Truth Social, warning that foreign adversaries were diversifying the sources of their operations.
In its report, Meta also weighed in on Republican attacks on the U.S. government’s role in monitoring disinformation online, a political and legal fight that has reached the Supreme Court in a challenge brought by the attorneys general of Missouri and Louisiana.
While Republicans have accused officials of coercing social media platforms to censor content, including at a hearing in the House on Thursday, Meta said coordination among tech companies, government and law enforcement had disrupted foreign threats.
“This type of information sharing can be particularly critical in disrupting malicious foreign campaigns by sophisticated threat actors who coordinate their operations outside of our platforms,” the report said.