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Graphika Report

Thursday April 7, 2022

Slash and Burner Accounts

The Graphika Team

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Navigating a forest of fake friends, faces, and followers used to target Brazilian audiences and environmental groups during the pandemic

On April 7, Meta said it had removed a network of 14 Facebook profiles, nine pages, and 39 Instagram accounts in March that originated in Brazil and engaged in “coordinated inauthentic behavior” to target domestic audiences. The network gained minimal to no engagement among authentic communities but is the first covert influence operation Meta has removed that focused primarily on environmental issues. “Although the people behind it attempted to conceal their identities and coordination, our investigation found links to individuals associated with the Brazilian Military,” Meta said.

Before removing them from its platforms, Meta shared a set of Facebook profiles, pages, and Instagram accounts with Graphika for further analysis. Our investigation found what appears to have been a small and relatively contained operation that used deceptive behaviors in two distinct phases. The first of these, in April - June 2020, advanced narratives about domestic social issues, including land ownership and COVID-19. The second, which was the main thrust of the operation, took place in May - June 2021 and focused on environmentalism and deforestation in the Amazon rainforest. A number of posts from 2020 specifically criticized President Jair Bolsonaro, primarily over his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, an outbreak that has so far killed almost 660,000 people in Brazil.

The identified activity underscores the importance of analyzing influence operations within the broader offline social and political context in which they take place. The operation detailed in this report was primarily active in mid-2020 and mid-2021, a time of political turbulence in Brazil as COVID-19 deaths soared, the Amazon rainforest burned, and tensions spilled over between Bolsonaro and the country’s military. In March 2021, shortly before a third of the assets in the set were created, Brazil’s three most senior military officers resigned over Bolsonaro’s sacking of his defense minister and attempts to exert control over the security services. The military has itself come under international pressure over a reportedly unsuccessful effort to protect the rainforest, which Bolsonaro launched in 2019 and has been spearheaded by the armed forces.

This is particularly relevant in Brazil, which has a history of politically-motivated actors engaging in coordinated and harmful online behavior, and is due to hold a presidential election in October this year. Police investigators have accused allies of Bolsonaro of orchestrating a sprawling online harassment campaign to target the president’s critics, parts of which Meta removed in July 2020. The newly identified activity did not target the upcoming vote but does illustrate the range of actors attempting to manipulate Brazil’s polarized and fragile political landscape.

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