Blogs December 2, 2021

In Bed with Embeds: How a Network Tied to IRA Operations Created Fake “Man on the Street” Content Embedded in News Articles

In this post and in the attached report, we investigate IRA operations
cartoon image of a crowd of people

On December 2, 2021 Twitter announced that they had suspended two networks of accounts linked to previously removed activity from the Internet Research Agency. The networks targeted the Central African Republic, Syria, Libya, Sudan, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe, and included a mix of accounts representing real people and fake accounts (at least one with an AI-generated profile photo). Our analysis focuses on one of these networks, which Twitter calls IRA - North Africa; Twitter assesses the operation originated in North Africa. 

This network was most notable for the high proportion of accounts that had their tweets embedded in news articles from the publication RIA FAN (“Federal News Agency”), widely reported to be linked to Yevgeny Prigozhin. Suspended account tweets were also embedded in Russian state media outlet Sputnik, and a wider ecosystem of websites around the world. Social media embedding is a practice of incorporating public commentary into news articles that is widely leveraged by many credible publications worldwide, and leveraged to provide on-the-ground or “man-on-the-street” perspectives on pivotal issues. However, in the case of RIA FAN, what was embedded was commentary by way of tweets linked to inauthentic accounts from influence networks. This tactic is a novel addition to deceptive long-form propaganda practices that include byline fabrication and hashtag laundering

 

A tweet from the now-suspended account @ArynHabeeb embedded in an article on Sputnik, a Russian state media outlet.
A tweet from the now-suspended account @ArynHabeeb embedded in an article on Sputnik, a Russian state media outlet.

While few of the tweets had high engagement on Twitter, the embedding offered the opportunity for a different mode of influence: the commentary could be pushed out to entirely different audiences to illustrate supposed points of view from real people about important, and often, divisive political and policy issues. One account had a tweet embedded in France 24, a French state-owned media outlet. Other accounts frequently chatted on Twitter with Western reporters and analysts, providing what they claimed was accurate on-the-ground information from conflict zones. 

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