January 3, 2020
Facebook discovered and removed hundreds of fake accounts with AI-generated profile photos tied to Epoch Media Group, the parent company of news outlet The Epoch Times and other Falun Gong-related publications. The use of artificial intelligence to generate fake photos has long been a concern among computer scientists. Although these fake photos were not the level of those created at Big Tech companies, their widespread appearance on Facebook marks another way that disinformation can invade social media platforms.
The New York Times reports that “scientists have already shown that machines can generate images and sounds that are indistinguishable from the real thing or spew vast volumes of fake text, which could accelerate the creation of false and misleading information.”
At the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, director Graham Brookie noted that the fake Facebook accounts showed “an eerie, tech-enabled future of disinformation.” He reported that the 610 Facebook accounts, 89 Facebook Pages, 156 Groups and 72 Instagram accounts were “a large brazen network … that systematically posted content with two ideological focuses: support of Donald Trump and opposition to the Chinese government.”
Those creating the fake profiles relied on generative adversarial networks (GANs), which “teach themselves to create realistic images of faces, even though they do not belong to a real person.”
But Facebook’s head of security Nathaniel Gleicher said that using GANs “did not actually make it harder for the company’s automated systems to detect the fakes, because the systems focus on patterns of behavior among accounts.” Although the accounts combined fake and real U.S. accounts to manage pages and groups, “the coordinated, inauthentic activity … revolved around the media outlet The BL — short for ‘The Beauty of Life’ — which the fact-checking outlet Snopes said in November was ‘building a fake empire on Facebook and getting away with it’.”
Facebook, which had banned advertising from The Epoch Times in August after NBC News reported it “obscured its connection to Facebook ads promoting President Trump and conspiracy content,” has now banned The BL from the platform.
Facebook also removed more than 300 pages and 39 Facebook accounts “and their coordinated, inauthentic activities on domestic political news in Georgia,” finding that the accounts were run by the “Georgian Dream-led government, and Panda, a local advertising agency in the country.” The Facebook Pages’ owners “masqueraded as news organizations and impersonated public figures, political parties and activist groups.”
According to Stanford Internet Observatory disinformation researcher Renee DiResta, Twitter also “took down 32 million tweets from nearly 6,000 accounts related to a Saudi Arabian social media marketing company called Smaat, which ran political and commercial influence operations … [and was led] in part by Ahmed Almutairi, a Saudi man wanted by the FBI on charges that he recruited two Twitter employees to search internal company databases for information about critics of the Saudi government.”