There were hundreds, tens of thousands of meetings and hundreds of thousands of views. As of early November, MIT Technology Review found that dozens of dubbed fake Live videos during this period were still valid. One dubbing pair with over 200,000 and 160,000 views respectively proclaimed in Burmese, “I am the only one who broadcasts live from all over the country in real time.” Facebook removed a few of them after we got their attention, but dozens more, as well as the pages they were hosted on, still remain. Osborne said the company is aware of the issue and has significantly reduced the number of fake lives and their proliferation over the past year.
Ironically, Rio said the videos were most likely copied from a video of the crisis uploaded to YouTube as evidence of human rights. In other words, the scenes are indeed from Myanmar, but they were all posted from Vietnam and Cambodia.
Over the past six months, Rio has tracked and identified several clusters of pages originating from Vietnam and Cambodia. Many have used fake live videos to quickly gain subscribers and entice viewers to join Facebook groups disguised as democratic communities. Rio currently fears that Facebook’s latest rollout of live in-stream ads will further incentivize clickbait members to spoof them. One 18-page Cambodian cluster began publishing highly destructive political disinformation, reaching a total of 16 million hits and 1.6 million audiences in four months. Facebook closed all 18 pages in March, but new clusters continue to grow while others remain.
As far as Rio knows, these Vietnamese and Cambodian actors do not speak Burmese. Most likely they do not understand Burmese culture or the country’s politics. The bottom line is that they are not needed. Not when they steal their content.
Since then, Rio has found several private Cambodian groups on Facebook and Telegram (one of which has over 3,000 people) where they exchange tools and advice on the best money-making strategies. MIT Technology Review reviewed the documents, images and videos it collected and hired a Khmer translator to interpret the instructional video that guides viewers through the clickbait workflow step by step.
The materials show how Cambodian operators collect research on the most effective content in each country and plagiarize them for their decoy sites. One community-wide Google Drive folder contains two dozen spreadsheets with links to the most popular Facebook groups in 20 countries, including the US, UK, Australia, India, France, Germany, Mexico and Brazil.
The tutorial video also shows how they find the most viral YouTube videos in different languages and use an automated tool to convert each one into an article for their site. We found 29 YouTube channels spreading political misinformation about the current political situation in Myanmar, for example, converted into click-bait articles and circulated to new audiences on Facebook.
After we brought his attention to the channels, YouTube removed all of them for violating Community Guidelines, including 7 of which he identified were part of coordinated influence operations involving Myanmar. Choi noted that YouTube has previously also stopped serving ads for nearly 2,000 videos on those channels. “We continue to actively monitor our platforms to prevent malicious attempts to exploit our network for profit,” she said.
Then there are other tools, including one that allows pre-recorded videos to appear as fake Facebook Live videos. Another randomly generates profile data for US menincluding picture, name, birthday, social security number, phone number and address, so another tool can massively create fake Facebook accounts using some of that information.
Now it is so easy that many Cambodian actors work solo. Rio calls them microentrepreneurs. In the most extreme scenario, she saw people self-managing up to 11,000 Facebook accounts.
Successful microentrepreneurs also train others to do this work in their community. “It will only get worse,” she says. “Any Joe in the world can influence your information environment without you knowing.”