Old news, new fish.

Enlarge / Old news, new fish. (credit: Rick Barrentine/Getty Images)

Researchers at Recorded Future have uncovered what appears to be a new, growing social media-based influence operation involving more than 215 social media accounts. While relatively small in comparison to influence and disinformation operations run by the Russia-affiliated Internet Research Agency (IRA), the campaign is notable because of its systematic method of recycling images and reports from past terrorist attacks and other events and presenting them as breaking news—an approach that prompted researchers to call the campaign “Fishwrap.”

The campaign was identified by researchers applying Recorded Future’s “Snowball” algorithm, a machine-learning-based analytics system that groups social media accounts as related if they:

  • Post the same URLs and hashtags, especially within a short period of time
  • Use the same URL shorteners
  • Have similar “temporal behavior,” posting during similar times—either over the course of their activity, or over the course of a day or week
  • Start operating shortly after another account posting similar content ceases its activity
  • Have similar account names, “as defined by the editing distance between their names,” as Recorded Future’s Staffan Truvé explained.

Influence operations typically try to shape the world view of a target audience in order to create social and political divisions; undermine the authority and credibility of political leaders; and generate fear, uncertainty, and doubt about their institutions. They can take the form of actual news stories planted through leaks, faked documents, or cooperative “experts” (as the Soviet Union did in spreading disinformation about the US military creating AIDS). But the low cost and easy targeting provided by social media has made it much easier to spread stories (even faked ones) to create an even larger effect—as demonstrated by the use of Cambridge Analytica’s data to target individuals for political campaigns, and the IRA’s “Project Lakhta,” among others. Since 2016, Twitter has identified multiple apparent state-funded or state-influenced social media influence campaigns out of Iran, Venezuela, Russia, and Bangladesh.

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