Facebook Takes Down Inauthentic Pages with Connections to Thailand
Pages removed from Facebook and Instagram pushed anti-U.S. narratives
BANNER: (Source: @KaranKanishk/DFRLab)
Facebook announced on July 24 that it had removed 22 Thai Facebook and Instagram assets that engaged in “coordinated inauthentic behavior” on its platforms.
In its announcement, Facebook stated:
The people behind this small network used fake accounts to create fictitious personas and run Pages, increase engagement, disseminate content, and also to drive people to off-platform blogs posing as news outlets. They also frequently shared divisive narratives and comments on topics including Thai politics, geopolitical issues like U.S.-China relations, protests in Hong Kong, and criticism of democracy activists in Thailand. Although the people behind this activity attempted to conceal their identities, our review found that some of this activity was linked to an individual based in Thailand associated with New Eastern Outlook, a Russian government-funded journal based in Moscow.
Facebook shared details of some of the assets with the DFRLab a few hours prior to the takedown. An initial investigation into the pages revealed that the pages boosted hostile narratives and positioned themselves as “alternative media” that countered Western stances on international issues, with a particular emphasis on Thailand.
The assets misrepresented themselves and attempted to conceal their provenance. The pages had a link to a small cadre of external websites, including one with a clear connection to the Russian government.
Look Out for New Eastern Outlook
One of the pages, “New Eastern Outlook,” featured posts related to geopolitics. The page had 19,432 likes total and an average of 49.29 likes per post.
According to its page transparency information, New Eastern Outlook was first created in May 2010 and had three managers based in Thailand, along with one each in Greece and Russia.
New Eastern Outlook’s now-deleted “about” page explained its mission:
[…] to develop and disseminate ideas of respectful and open dialogue between cultures and civilizations, a harmonious and complementary coexistence of different traditions. According to Walter Schubart -wrongly forgotten German philosopher, who stated in the middle of XX-th century, that “… the future is a global battle between East and West, the reconciliation between them and rise of a global West-East culture of a new era ….
While it framed its Facebook page as if it were a neutral news outlet, New Eastern Outlook was mostly biased, as can be seen in the headlines of the stories it shared.
Most of the page’s posts linked to stories on its external website, Journal-neo.org, that primarily posted biased articles on a range of geopolitical, economic, and social issues.
The Journal-neo.org website is a publication of the Institute of Oriental Studies under the Russian Academy of Sciences (IVRAN), a geopolitical think tank chartered by the Russian government.
IVRAN is based in Moscow and has produced reports that attempted to delegitimize Western reporting on a variety of topics, including those related to the Middle East.
On the New Eastern Outlook Facebook page, the post that received the most engagement — more than 3,200 likes but just one comment and eight shares –lambasted Michael Weiss, an American journalist who currently serves as a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Strategic Dialogue and a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council. The post targeted Weiss for his extensive work on Russian information warfare.
In another story, the website accused the United States of political interference with regard to developing China-Thailand relations.
In particular, the article accused the U.S. of interfering in Thailand’s March 2019 general election in an effort “to install political forces into power that will reverse Thai-Chinese relations.”
Another page included in the takedown, “Anthony Cartalucci,” also published content related to geopolitics and international security. The page had 652 likes, and linked itself to yet another website, landdestroyer.blogspot.com. The page was first created on June 3, 2009.
The page frequently commented on its own posts, including linking to a third website, a blog at altthainews.blogspot.com.
It is unclear if “Anthony Cartalucci” is the real name of a person posting the content or if it is an online persona. According to an account on Twitter under the name “Tony Cartalucci” that shared the same profile photo with that of the Anthony Cartalucci Facebook page, Cartalucci is a “Bangkok-based geopolitical analyst.” The Twitter account writes in fluent English.
References to Cartalucci found elsewhere online shed more light on the persona. Among other things, there is a YouTube account named “CartalucciCritic” that has posted original content as well as reposting a Vice News story on rich Thai royalists under the title “Tony Cartalucci Super Rich.” (The Vice News piece does not mention Cartalucci.)
The other videos on the CartalucciCritic account are mostly 2–5 minute spoken criticisms vaguely or tangentially addressing one of Cartalucci’s written pieces, often with a heavy Thailand focus.
Also on YouTube, there is a supposed interview with Cartalucci in a video titled “Tony Cartalucci-Land Destroyer talks about Baba Beijing on China Rising Radio Sinoland 171102.” Around 20 seconds into the video, however, the host says that he is sharing a “written interview” [emphasis added] with Cartalucci.
The DFRLab could only find two websites displaying a photo claiming to be of Cartalucci. However, it appears both sites are using a picture of a late Irish journalist named Maidhc Ó Cathail. The first, “Letter for Truth,” appears intent on spreading pro-Iran messaging, while the second, TheAltWorld, aggregates conspiracy-laden content, including pieces written by Tony Cartalucci for Journal-neo.org.
The final curiosity among Cartalucci’s online presence is an ebook, titled Subverting Syria: How CIA Contra Gangs and NGO’s Manufacture, Mislabel and Market Mass Murder, written by Cartalucci and co-author (and RT columnist) Nile Bowie.
A Network of Crossposting Pages
The DFRLab identified a network of external websites affiliated with the Facebook pages, though this analysis focused on four key websites. These include Journal-neo.org, AltThaiNews, Land Destroyer, and The New Atlas. The websites look highly similar and consistently crosspost the same content. (Other websites possibly in the network include LocalOrg and FTAWatch.org.)
Identifying the network was relatively easy, as the Anthony Cartalucci Facebook page had direct links to three of the four pages. The fourth website was “The New Atlas,” which aligned with a screenshot included in Facebook’s announcement of the takedown. The DFRLab, however, did not have access to the latter page prior to its takedown.
Mapping the network, however, was slightly more complicated.
At the time of this analysis, the lead article on the AltThaiNews blog appeared to have been written by Tony Cartalucci, whose byline also included a reference to “NEO” — New Eastern Outlook. Clicking through the author’s name on the blogpost led directly to an author’s page on journal-neo.org.
The websites often crosspost, sometimes across all four on the same day.
Land Destroyer, which was referenced in many of Cartalucci’s social media profiles, also offered a limited amount of content in other languages, including Thai, Arabic, and Russian.
AltThaiNews also featured some content in Thai, and Journal-neo.org had an English-Russian toggle in the top left of its website.
The four websites were a favorite destination for the pages in removed as a part of the takedown. Often the pages themselves had identical names to the external websites, as with New Eastern Outlook. Another of the removed pages — identified independently by the DFRLab and confirmed by Facebook directly to have been among the pages removed — bore the name “Altthainews” and shared posts from the Anthony Cartalucci page.
With its charter from the Russian Academy of Sciences (IVRAN), New Eastern Outlook is a clear affiliate of the Russian government, so the anti-Western sentiment conveyed by the content spread by its network is therefore not surprising. It’s unclear, however, if the other external websites have any link to Russia. The Cartalucci persona, meanwhile, while clearly coordinating with these websites and pages, may simply be an individual in Thailand espousing anti-Western views.
The DFRLab did not have access to the full set of pages from the takedown, but the pages provided by Facebook had audiences ranging from about 600 to more than 15,000 users. This suggested a moderate-to-low reach for the network, as the DFRLab would consider a threshold of 50,000 as constituting high reach.
Finally, while the set made Anthony Cartalucci an easy starting point for research, opportunities remain in examining the online footprint of other authors featured on the external websites. There may also be other websites that fall under the broader sway of the network.
Follow along for more in-depth analysis from our #DigitalSherlocks.