Facebook, Twitter remove Russian-backed disinformation operation in Thailand

Archived images from the Anthony Cartalucci Facebook page as archived in a post on Medium.com. Original images: Facebook
Archived images from the Anthony Cartalucci Facebook page as archived in a post on Medium.com. Original images: Facebook

Facebook announced yesterday it has removed pages, groups and accounts linked to a Moscow-funded operation in Thailand that has long disseminated political conspiracy theories through “networks of accounts to mislead others.”

“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,” said a statement attributed to Nathaniel Gleicher, head of Facebook’s cybersecurity policy.

The announcement said the social media giant also removed similar networks located in Ukraine and Honduras that were spreading pro-Russian misinformation and propaganda.

“They also frequently shared divisive narratives and comments on topics including Thai politics, geopolitical issues like US-China relations, protests in Hong Kong, and criticism of democracy activists in Thailand.”

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In Thailand alone, Facebook removed 12 accounts and 10 pages “linked to an individual based in Thailand associated with New Eastern Outlook, a Russian government-funded journal based in Moscow.” Accounts associated with the same actors were suspended on Twitter as well.

Western intelligence describes the networks as part of elevated “active measures” Russia has embraced via disinformation and propaganda against the United States.

New Eastern Outlook is a clearinghouse of pro-Russian messaging that reads like an extreme version of the content produced by Sputnik or RT.  Its website, Journal-neo.org, acknowledged itself that it is published by the Russian Academy of Sciences, a Russian government think tank.

Its content is amplified through other pages and sites that repackage it for a local audience. In Thailand, that’s been “Land Destroyer” and “AltThaiNews.” All featured frequent polemics written by the anonymous editor, who goes by the online alias Athony (Tony) Cartalucci. The Anthony Cartalucci Facebook page was no longer available as of Friday.

Emails to New Eastern Outlook’s editor were not immediately returned and its homepage was inaccessible Friday morning.

In a post on his blogspot, “Cartalucci” acknowledged being banned by Facebook and Twitter, saying he was a victim of a “smear/censorship campaign.”

“I’ve also more than doubled my website’s viewership — because as is often the case — the harder you try to silence someone or something, the more attention you attract,” he wrote.

Sunai Phasuk, senior Human Rights Watch researcher on Thailand, said the removal was “only the tip of the iceberg.”

“His model of coordinated misinformation and fake news has poisoned the Thai society and become a model for the military’s ‘information operation’, pro-government media, and ultraconservative groups to discredit and incite hate and violence against pro-democracy activists, human rights defenders, and critics of the government,” Sunai said.

New Eastern Outlook’s page information indicated it was first created in May 2010, at the height of anti-government Redshirt protests gripping Bangkok. It had three managers based in Thailand, along with one each in Greece and Russia.

Long before “fake news” entered the lexicon in the wake of the 2016 US presidential election, the network of sites and platforms worked together to spread the kind of conspiracy theories and misinformation in Thailand that have since been recognized as an epidemic on social media.

The work of Tony Cartalucci usually consists of sub-coherent and logically strained conspiracy theories involving Thaksin Shinawatra and US interference welded onto reliable internet tropes sprinkled with anti-semitism (George Soros!). Though presented as objective journalism – and dismissing everyone else as “fake news,” a review of the headlines beggars belief of even the most cynical reads of America’s role in world affairs.

Hong Kong’s protests are the work of Washington, and China’s internment of millions of Muslim Uighur’s in its western province of Xinjiang is “a supposed anti-Muslim crackdown.” That was just in one Friday morning “Land Destroyer” post.

Yet the work is often translated and disseminated uncritically by Thai media, such as this recent anti-Future Forward Party tract in April republished by Thai Post.

Removing the network from Facebook may limit its reach, but is unlikely to spell its end.

At the height of the 2016 US election, it promoted stories that were shared widely by Thais through private chat groups on Line, which discussed how the election of Hillary Clinton would usher in World War III.

In Thailand, the preferred bogeyman for Cartalucci, who some believe to be an American retiree, was long Thaksin Shinawatra, but he has since shifted to attacking Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit since the latter eclipsed Thaksin as heir apparent to the pro-democracy opposition.

Update: This story has been updated with a quote from Human Rights Watch’s Sunai Phasuk.

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