Western Balkan Troll Networks Targeted Australia’s 2019 Federal Elections – Exit | #cybersecurity | #cyberattack

A new report from The Australian Strategic Policy Institute has noted that “financially motivated actors” from Albania, Kosovo, and North Macedonia targeted the 2019 Australian federal elections with fake news and spam for content farm websites.

Published today, the ‘Influence for hire: The Asia Pacific’s online shadow economy’ the report noted how these operators built large Facebook groups in which they would post inflammatory Islamophobic and nationalistic content in efforts to drive engagement. The groups were populated with links to off-platform websites. Each click-through to a site would generate advertising revenue for those running the operations, according to the report.

Similar tactics were also discovered running from Israel, again manipulating and monetizing nationalistic and Islamophobic sentiment to make money.

It noted that Mehreen Faruqi, Australia’s first female Muslim senator, was subjected to “racist vitriol” stemming from the 546,000 members of ten groups involved in the network.

“These financially motivated actors demonstrate that even well-established democracies are vulnerable to manipulation through the exploitation of the fissures in their social cohesion,” the report found.

In September 2020, a VPN company reported that Albania was one of Europe’s leading sources for cyberattacks. It ranked five globally, accounting for 11.79% of all attacks in the region.

The greatest threat across the top five countries were Trojan Horses and Ransomware which can make changes to the device’s system, leaving an open door for hackers to steal private data. 

Then in April of this year, Facebook took down 128 accounts, 41 pages, 21 groups, and 146 Instagram accounts based in Albania. This network, which Facebook described as a “long-running operation” and a “deceptive campaign,” had more than 121,000 combined followers.

The social media giant pointed the finger at Mojahedin-e Khalq (MEK) an exiled militant opposition group from Iran. The “tightly organized troll farm” was targeting Iran, but also other global audiences.

The individuals involved posted MEK-related content on their and others’ posts. They included links to international media sites and to sites affiliated with the MEK. Facebook found that they exclusively talked about Iran and “routinely praised the activity of MEK  and its leaders and criticized the Iranian government.”

The National Council for Resistance in Iran, an organization that includes MEK, issued a statement to the media denying that any accounts affiliated with MEK have been removed. They also denied that there was a troll farm in Albania affiliated with them in any way.

In 2019, an Exit was able to visit the MEK compound in Manez near Durrës. You can read the account of the visit here.

Exit has also revealed well-organized networks of fake pages and profiles that comment in support of political figures, quell criticism, and aim to change the discourse, particularly prior to elections. An ongoing investigation, started in 2019 showed that hundreds of fake social media accounts had been set up, sometimes supporting opposing political figures.

The findings were confirmed by Facebook Whistleblower Sophie Zhang in June 2021.

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