Online deception campaigns on the rise, new Meta report shows

According to new data from Facebook parent company Meta, last year, a rising share of the online deception campaigns taken down by the company were home-grown. It's a trend, the company said, caused in part by the entry of more amateurs into the space which was once dominated by government-linked groups.

The data came from a report published Thursday by Meta on "coordinated inauthentic behavior," a term it defined as "coordinated efforts to manipulate or corrupt public debate for a strategic goal, while relying centrally on fake accounts to mislead people about who's behind them."

Meta said in its report that in 2021 it took down 52 networks engaged in the practice, operating out of 34 different countries. More networks -- 11 of them -- were detected in Mexico than in any other country.

Of the 52 campaigns disrupted worldwide, Facebook said 64% had domestic targets, 15% targeted a mix of audiences both at home and abroad and 21% had foreign targets.

In 2020, a little over half of the campaigns taken down were domestic; the year before, that figure was just 37%.

Meta, which at the time still traded under the name Facebook, introduced the term "coordinated inauthentic behavior" in 2017, amid concerns about digital efforts to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election, most prominently by Russian government-linked actors. In 2017, the only network taken down under Facebook's coordinated inauthentic behavior policy originated in Russia.

Meta's latest report points to a changing landscape of online deception no longer dominated solely by government-linked groups aiming to manipulate foreign audiences for political gain.

In a briefing, Facebook security executive David Agranovich attributed the shift to a mix of factors, including, he said, that the company's investigators had gotten better at finding deceptive tactics.

"I would imagine we are seeing more of the ecosystem than most of the company's investigators were seeing back in 2017," he said.

Agranovich pointed to an "increase in amateur players in the space," with more home-grown networks adopting the sophisticated tactics previously used by elite groups trying to project influence abroad.

"It's a combination of investigators getting better at finding bad things. It's also an increasing adoption of some of these tactics as they become more widely known by less sophisticated bad actors and by domestic actors who might see some value in using some of these deceptive tactics," he said.

One of the domestic-facing networks taken down in 2021 was run by multiple agencies of Nicaragua's government. The so-called "troll farm" of 896 Facebook accounts and 362 Instagram accounts first aimed to discredit opposition protesters in Nicaragua before shifting its focus to the promotion of pro-government messaging, according to a November 2021 report by Meta.

In the briefing, Agranovich also highlighted the links between deception campaigns and the profit motive. "We had several takedowns over the last year from Mexico that were operations run by relatively small groups of political consultants or marketing firms," he said.

One of those firms, the Mexico-based Wish Win, was mentioned in Meta's latest report. The network linked to that firm promoted a false claim ahead of Honduras's presidential election that former President Manuel Zelaya had been implicated in the Pandora Papers money laundering investigation. At the time, Zelaya's wife, Xiomara Castro, was a candidate in that election.

The existence of the network linked to the Mexico-based company Wish Win was revealed earlier in 2021 by the news website Rest of World, after an Honduras-based researcher found that Wish Win was registered as the owner of a website that later posted false stories about Zelaya.

Meta said in its report that media coverage of the Mexico-based network triggered its own probe into the group.

Agranovich said the Mexico-based networks were relatively ineffective despite the use of the same tactics by previous, larger operations.

"They don't seem to be able to garner much attention," he said.

Castro went on to win Honduras's presidential election and is set for inauguration on Jan. 27.

Nonetheless, Graham Brookie, senior director at the Atlantic Council's Digital Forensic Research Lab, underlined the growing prominence of the disinformation-for-hire campaigns highlighted by Meta. "We're seeing a huge spike in that," he said.
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