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In July and August 2022, Twitter and Meta removed two overlapping sets of accounts for violating their platforms’ terms of service. Twitter said the accounts fell foul of its policies on “platform manipulation and spam,” while Meta said the assets on its platforms engaged in “coordinated inauthentic behavior.” After taking down the assets, both platforms provided portions of the activity to Graphika and the Stanford Internet Observatory for further analysis.

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In July and August 2022, Twitter and Meta removed two overlapping sets of accounts for violating their platforms’ terms of service. Twitter said the accounts fell foul of its policies on “platform manipulation and spam,” while Meta said the assets on its platforms engaged in “coordinated inauthentic behavior.” After taking down the assets, both platforms provided portions of the activity to Graphika and the Stanford Internet Observatory for further analysis.

Our joint investigation found an interconnected web of accounts on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and five other social media platforms that used deceptive tactics to promote pro-Western narratives in the Middle East and Central Asia. The platforms’ datasets appear to cover a series of covert campaigns over a period of almost five years rather than one homogeneous operation. 

These campaigns consistently advanced narratives promoting the interests of the United States and its allies while opposing countries including Russia, China, and Iran. The accounts heavily criticized Russia in particular for the deaths of innocent civilians and other atrocities its soldiers committed in pursuit of the Kremlin’s “imperial ambitions” following its invasion of Ukraine in February this year. A portion of the activity also promoted anti-extremism messaging.

We believe this activity represents the most extensive case of covert pro-Western influence operations on social media to be reviewed and analyzed by open-source researchers to date. With few exceptions, the study of modern influence operations has overwhelmingly focused on activity linked to authoritarian regimes in countries such as Russia, China, and Iran, with recent growth in research on the integral role played by private entities. This report illustrates the much wider range of actors engaged in active operations to influence online audiences.

At the same time, Twitter and Meta’s data reveals the limited range of tactics influence operation actors employ; the covert campaigns detailed in this report are notable for how similar they are to previous operations we have studied. The assets identified by Twitter and Meta created fake personas with GAN-generated faces, posed as independent media outlets, leveraged memes and short-form videos, attempted to start hashtag campaigns, and launched online petitions: all tactics observed in past operations by other actors. 

Importantly, the data also shows the limitations of using inauthentic tactics to generate engagement and build influence online. The vast majority of posts and tweets we reviewed received no more than a handful of likes or retweets, and only 19% of the covert assets we identified had more than 1,000 followers.

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Twitter suspended a network of accounts that coordinated to promote narratives around the coronavirus pandemic, and to amplify a pro-Russian news site ahead of the invasion of Ukraine.
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Mind Farce

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Analysis of February 2021 Twitter Takedowns

In this post and in the attached reports we investigate a Twitter network attributed to actors in Armenia, Iran, and Russia.
Analysis of February 2021 Twitter Takedowns
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Stanford Internet Observatory collaborated with Graphika to analyze a large network of accounts removed from Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter in our latest report. This information operation likely originated in the United States and targeted a range of countries in the Middle East and Central Asia.

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In December 2019, the Stanford Internet Observatory alerted Twitter to anoma- lous behavior in the hashtag السراج خائن ليبيا (“Sarraj the traitor of Libya”); Fayez al-Sarraj is Libya’s Prime Minister. The distribution pattern of the hashtag looked suspicious, and the images that appeared with the hashtag looked similar to those that Twitter removed in September 2019 as part of a takedown of a prior state-backed influence operation originating in the UAE and Egypt. Twitter confirmed that many accounts creating content with the “Sarraj the traitor of Libya” hashtag were related to that prior network, and took them down. Following extensive additional investigation based on the tip, Twitter shared with us a network of 36,523,977 tweets from 5,350 accounts that have been taken down. Facebook then shared with us 55 Pages linked to this Twitter network; we analyzed these Pages before Facebook removed them. We title this report “Blame it on Iran, Qatar, and Turkey”, given the prominent theme of lumping blame on these three countries for everything from terrorism throughout the Arab world to the disappearance of Malaysia Air Flight 370 to the spread of COVID-19.

Twitter reports that the network has links both to the digital marketing firm that was previously known as DotDev, which operated (or continues to, in other incarnations) out of Egypt and the UAE, and Smaat, a Saudi Arabian digital marketing firm. In December 2019 Twitter announced its largest ever state- tied takedown of a Saudi operation tied to Smaat. This new network revealed a link between the September 2019 DotDev takedown and the December 2019 Smaat takedown.

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Renee DiResta
Tara Kheradpir
Carly Miller

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Mosbacher Senior Fellow in Global Democracy at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies
William L. Clayton Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution
Professor, by courtesy, of Political Science and Sociology
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MA, PhD

Larry Diamond is the William L. Clayton Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, the Mosbacher Senior Fellow in Global Democracy at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies (FSI), and a Bass University Fellow in Undergraduate Education at Stanford University. He is also professor by courtesy of Political Science and Sociology at Stanford. He leads the Hoover Institution’s programs on China’s Global Sharp Power and on Taiwan in the Indo-Pacific Region.  At FSI, he leads the Program on Arab Reform and Democracy, based at the Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law, which he directed for more than six years.  He also co-leads with (Eileen Donahoe) the Global Digital Policy Incubator, based at FSI’s Cyber Policy Center. He is the founding coeditor of the Journal of Democracy and also serves as senior consultant at the International Forum for Democratic Studies of the National Endowment for Democracy. His research focuses on democratic trends and conditions around the world and on policies and reforms to defend and advance democracy. His latest edited book (with Orville Schell), China's Influence and American Interests (Hoover Press, 2019), urges a posture of constructive vigilance toward China’s global projection of “sharp power,” which it sees as a rising threat to democratic norms and institutions. He offers a massive open online course (MOOC) on Comparative Democratic Development through the edX platform and is now writing a textbook to accompany it. 

Diamond’s book, Ill Winds: Saving Democracy from Russian Rage, Chinese Ambition, and American Complacency, analyzes the challenges confronting liberal democracy in the United States and around the world at this potential “hinge in history,” and offers an agenda for strengthening and defending democracy at home and abroad. A paperback edition with a new preface was released by Penguin in April 2020. His other books include: In Search of Democracy (2016)The Spirit of Democracy (2008), Developing Democracy: Toward Consolidation (1999),  Promoting Democracy in the 1990s (1995), and Class, Ethnicity, and Democracy in Nigeria(1989). He has also edited or coedited more than forty books on democratic development around the world, most recently, Dynamics of Democracy in Taiwan: The Ma Ying-jeou Years.

During 2002–03, Diamond served as a consultant to the US Agency for International Development (USAID) and was a contributing author of its report, Foreign Aid in the National Interest. He has also advised and lectured to universities and think tanks around the world, and to the World Bank, the United Nations, the State Department, and other governmental and nongovernmental agencies dealing with governance and development. During the first three months of 2004, Diamond served as a senior adviser on governance to the Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad. His 2005 book, Squandered Victory: The American Occupation and the Bungled Effort to Bring Democracy to Iraq, was one of the first books to critically analyze America's postwar engagement in Iraq.

Among Diamond’s other edited books are Democracy in Decline?; Democratization and Authoritarianism in the Arab WorldWill China Democratize?; and Liberation Technology: Social Media and the Struggle for Democracy, all edited with Marc F. Plattner; and Politics and Culture in Contemporary Iran, with Abbas Milani. With Juan J. Linz and Seymour Martin Lipset, he edited the series, Democracy in Developing Countries, which helped to shape a new generation of comparative study of democratic development.

Former Director of the Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law
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