Video-sharing service TikTok dismantled a “covert influence operation” network dedicated to targeting users in Ireland with “divisive” content to “intensify social conflict”, the company has disclosed.
The influence network was made up of 72 accounts that together had a following of some 94,743 users, and was shut down earlier this year.
The revelation was disclosed in data reported by the social media company to the European Commission under a new code of conduct that requires major tech platforms to report disinformation on their networks and efforts to combat it.
“The network targeted Irish audiences,” TikTok wrote in its report.
“The individuals behind this network created inauthentic accounts; hyper-posted content with divisive views related to nationalism in Ireland, Japan, Russia, and Taiwan,” it wrote.
The network “hyper-posted comments with similar low-quality content in an attempt to redirect TikTok users off-platform and to intensify social conflict”.
Overall, in the first half of this year the company removed 2,165 videos posted from Ireland that it deemed had violated its “harmful misinformation” policy, which together had been viewed 2,440,995 times before they were taken down.
Ireland was not the only country targeted by a convert influence operation network, the company said.
It also shut down a network of 3,181 accounts originating in Russia that “targeted European countries, primarily Germany” with “inauthentic localised content in German about the ongoing war in Ukraine, as well as its consequences on EU countries’ economies”. This network was followed by some 418,196 TikTok accounts.
The data was reported to the European Commission under a new code of conduct joined by TikTok, Microsoft, Google and Meta, and is part of an effort to curb online disinformation under new EU rules for tech giants that recently came into force.
X, formerly known as Twitter, withdrew from the code of conduct but was described by the commission has having the highest rate of disinformation among the social media networks.
The reported data suggests there has so far been low take-up of tools created by tech companies to help users to verify whether content claims are true or false.
Across TikTok, Facebook and Instagram, two-thirds of people choose to re-share content anyway if they received a pop-up warning that the information is unverified or may be false, the data shows.
In Ireland there were 340 users of Google’s Fact Check Explorer tool in the first half of this year, while just one person downloaded Microsoft Bing’s Newsguard extension for the Edge internet browser, which displays reliability ratings for websites.
Google’s Fact Check Explorer does not cover the Irish language, and YouTube content moderation is not provided for Irish-language content.
TikTok reported that 155 videos uploaded to its platform from Ireland were sent to its fact-checking service, of which 21 were removed.
TikTok introduced “search interventions” that nudge users towards trustworthy information if they search for key words related to common disinformation topics such as Holocaust denial, climate change and Covid-19 vaccines.
In the first half of the year in Ireland, the search intervention for Covid-19 vaccines was triggered 14,193 times, Holocaust misinformation and denial 129,544 times, and climate change 36,485 times. However, only 0.05-2 per cent of users chose to click to see the verified content on the topic.
Meanwhile, YouTube removed 15 videos from Ireland for deploying “deceptive manipulated media” such as deep fakes, which can show a famous person appearing to say something they did not say, two of which had up to 10,000 views. It also removed 729 videos for misinformation, 11 of which had more than 10,000 views.
Fake accounts were prevalent across platforms, with Facebook estimating that they make up 4-5 per cent of its monthly active users around the world. Between March and June this year, TikTok removed 67,013 fake accounts in Ireland, including bots and accounts set to automatically post content, which together had almost 300,000 followers at the time of their removal.
Microsoft reported it had prevented or restricted the creation of 52,729 fake LinkedIn accounts from Ireland in the first half of the year.
Meta reported removing 960 content posts from Ireland on Facebook and less than 500 on Instagram for violating its harmful health misinformation or voter or census interference policies.