Meta announced Thursday it had banned Cyber Front Z, a pro-Russia troll group that purported to mobilize harassment by supporters of Vladimir Putin's war in Ukraine through a public Telegram channel.
The group's activities had raised concerns that, by moving off of the biggest social media platforms to coordinate real people who would then post back on Instagram or YouTube, the Moscow-allied group might be evading the major sites' focus on taking down networks of fake personas. Research reviewed by Protocol had documented spikes of dozens of comments and posts, often in Russian, by both inauthentic and "seemingly authentic" users. The activity would come soon after calls on Cyber Front Z's Telegram channel, which has 100,000 followers.
Yet Meta cybersecurity officials told reporters on Thursday that almost all of the group's work on Instagram was done by inauthentic accounts. Research released by the company as part of its quarterly threat reports said the efforts originated primarily with trolls who rarely bothered to even try to establish legitimacy or personality before posting as part of "a typing pool to flood pro-Ukrainian posts."
Meta concluded in its report that Cyber Front Z hadn't "succeeded in rallying substantial authentic support online as part of this operation." The report details failures by the group, despite calls on Telegram, to get any comments onto the accounts of the Finnish prime minister or the actor Morgan Freeman. Cyber Front Z also appears to have directed followers to a long-abandoned Facebook fan page for U.K. Foreign Secretary Liz Truss rather than her actual page.
The troll group's presence included 1,000 Instagram accounts with about 49,000 followers between them, as well as 45 accounts on Facebook, according to Meta. The company has faced years of criticism over its handling of influence networks around the world, including Russian attempts to meddle in U.S. politics, and Meta officials insisted Thursday that Cyber Front Z does not reveal a successful use of Facebook or Instagram as part of the information front in the war in Ukraine. Rather, the company cast Cyber Front Z as a group of trolls inflating its own power even as it ran a shoddy and amateurish campaign.
Meta officials also said they had not yet encountered significant coordinated inauthentic behavior aimed at the U.S. midterm election in November, but they said they're particularly alert to other campaigns that would engage in "perception hacking" to try to overstate their influence as a way to erode trust in the democratic process.
"It’s the operation that drops the ice cube and tries to convince people that there’s an iceberg there," Ben Nimmo, Meta's global threat intelligence lead, told Protocol. "That is a ploy which is aimed at situations where people are aware but don’t quite grasp the details."
In addition to Cyber Front Z, Meta's quarterly report detailed efforts to take more action against what the company called "emerging harms networks," including efforts to harass targets through mass reporting of their content in Indonesia and a brigading network of cyber-bullies in India.