Facebook Analysis: Pro-Indonesian Government Propaganda Bots Use Facebook Ads To Target Europe

There is an ongoing disinformation campaign to distort the truth of what is happening in West Papua, which has peaked recently amidst a conflict of racism and struggle for independence from Indonesia.

Benjamin Strick
Sep 11 · 9 min read

Censorship has surged in West Papua with targeted internet disruption, banning of counter-narrative YouTube content, and disinformation.

In this post, I will identify how the information is dispersed on Facebook, and how Facebook Ads are used to promote the pro-Indonesian Government propaganda to European countries.

This post is a continuation of an investigation I published on the pro-Indonesian bot network which used Twitter, as well as other social media platforms, to distort the truth about what what is happening in West Papua. The campaign does this through posting infographic propaganda to audiences in English and Indonesian. You can read more on this on the Bellingcat blog, or Twitter.

Identifying the Pro-Indonesian Bot Network

In my previous investigation, the bot network was identified by capturing tweets using the #WestPapua and #FreeWestPapua tags. This data was streamed directly into a visualised data table in the open source platform Gephi.

The finals visualisation of the tweets captured and their user networks can be seen below.

Using a basic network analysis of the influencer nodes, it was evident that unusual activity was occurring by a ‘cluster’ of nodes. In the circumstances of that investigation, the nodes were Twitter accounts.

Since publishing the work, the accounts in that bot network have since been suspended by Twitter.

I found that the accounts performing the unusual activity were bots from the following indicators:

  • The accounts were using the same text and videos in their posts
  • The accounts were retweeting only each other, and were not interacting with ‘human operated’ accounts
  • The profile pictures, upon image-reverse search, were from celebrities or other people
  • The timestamps of their posts were working in an automated pattern with repetitive signs

All of this work can be seen in the Twitter thread below:

Now that I have provided a background as to how the bot accounts were identified, I will turn to their Facebook-led activity.

Propaganda Facebook Pages On West Papua

The focus of this post will be based on three Facebook Pages that I have identified are part of a much larger pro-Indonesian propaganda network being used to distort information about West Papua on large social media platforms.

The Facebook pages are:

How are these pages identified as part of the network?

As seen in the Twitter bot analysis, there was a network of bots identified. They linked to larger ‘influencer accounts’. Those accounts have since been suspended by Twitter, but are PapuaWestCom, WestPapuaID and Info_WestPapua.

Those accounts linked to standalone websites where the same media and text was repeated. Those websites are here, here and here. I have used archive.org links for them, so that they may remain for research purposes.

In the social bars of those sites are links to their respective social accounts Twitter, YouTube, Instagram and Facebook. The latter of which has been used for the purpose of this research.

Propaganda Facebook Page #1: WestPapuaID

The following is the ‘about’ section of the West Papua ID page, it identifies the purpose of the page.

The page states its aim as “the leading platform in proliferating non-partisan knowledge regarding ethnic and global political issues in West Papua”.

This page provides pro-Indonesian government propaganda about West Papua. It does this in the form of infographic videos and text in English and Indonesian that use tags such as #WestPapuaIndonesia #WestPapua #PapuaIndonesia #LovePapua #WestPapuaFreedom #Indonesian #AsiaPacificInfo #EastIndonesia.

The content of the of the videos and text is counter-narrative to what human rights organisations, and news agencies have been reporting. Much of the content labels independence groups as ‘extremist’ and claims ‘foreign intervention’ is behind the trouble.

The two images below are an illustration of this, showing the narrative of the page and its video content, and the comments under the video.

Now that we have taken a look at the page itself, let’s use Facebook’s ‘accountability’ features to see who is behind the posts and where they are coming from.

Facebook Page Transparency

Facebook introduced a feature on ‘Page Transparency’ in April, 2018.

In the initial announcement, Facebook stated “…when you visit a Page or see an ad on Facebook it should be clear who it’s coming from”, and the introduction was “designed to increase transparency and accountability, as well as prevent election interference”.

Finding that Page Transparency tab is easy, it is at the bottom of the right sidebar.

So what information does this give us? We can tell a lot, for instance:

  • Location of the managers of the page
  • How many people have access to it
  • Exactly when the page was created
  • And the ads ran by the page

The information about the WestPapuaID page is quite interesting.

We can see that the people who manage the page come from Indonesia, and that it was created on August 14, 2018.

The page has also ran a number of advertisements on Facebook’s platform.

Some of these advertisements were successful in passing Facebook’s Advertising Policies, some were not.

The advertising details tab gives a breakdown of exactly what was advertised, for how much and the impressions that ad made.

The audience breakdown becomes quite interesting for this advertisement, which has been primarily advertised in the Netherlands. Considering the demographic of this page, the advertising may have been targeting audiences in The Netherlands. In the analysis of the other two Facebook pages, The Netherlands was targeted the most.

The following is a breakdown of the locations the 1000–5000 impressions this ad hit:

The next advertisement, on the context of how ‘supporting a free West Papua could be bad for the UK’ ran between March 7 — March 10, 2019. A majority 88% of this ad was shown in England. The text uploaded with the ad stated “Indonesia-UK Cooperation”.

The conversion of the currency works out to be small, with the above ad costing a maximum USD$8. While that is minute in comparison to larger advertising campaigns, the reach of the page is large, with more than 152,000 people that have liked it.

Propaganda Facebook Page #2: Papua West

The Papua West Facebook page has the aim of presenting “updated information related to discrepancy issues on West Papua” and has more than 56,000 likes.

The page is very similar to WestPapuaID in that it has a similar cover photo, and a professional logo. It has an about statement and an unusually large amount of followers for a one-year-old page.

Another notable similarity between the pages is in the page transparency details. They were created on the same day, and have the same location and number of page managers — see below for a comparison between the two.

The ads running from the Papua West account had similar success rates, in that some were successful, while others were taken down due to Facebook Advertising Policies.

A similar feature between Papua West and West Papua Indonesia is the targeting of those ads. For example, the following text was advertised in European countries (it was removed after two days):

“This is a message from the West Papuans for the President of Indonesia: the differences that make Indonesia great.”

There were five versions of this ad which varied in costs (less than USD$5). The variations of the ads targeted areas in: The Netherlands, Germany, Sweden and Denmark.

A third Facebook page shows a pattern as to the standard operating procedures of the people creating these pages. However, it’s advertising revenue was much larger, and is still running ads at the time of publishing this.

Propaganda Facebook Page #3: Info West Papua

Info West Papua’s Facebook page has more than 41,000 likes and was created on August 14, 2018 (the same day as the above two). It also has an about section which states:

We promote the values of non-violent, diplomatic forms of resolutions to end conflicts in West Papua.

We provide balanced information in adressing root consists of conflicts assessing these results and their possible implications for the future of Papua.

Despite the pro-Indonesian Government nature of the posts, an interesting feature of this page is that many of its posts hijack the #FreeWestPapua and #WestPapuaGenocide tags with pro-Government disinformation, such as the post below.

The page transparency feature also reveals the pattern of who runs the page (number of people), where it is run from, and when it was created. Here are all three pages, lined up, with details in red boxes.

Info West Papua’s page has been active with advertising, with ads running at the time of publication of this post.

Note the ad on the left, it is a video with text about Indonesia’s President making a promise for 1,000 Papuan students to become BUMN employees and private companies. It is an advertisement ran with the #freewestpapua #fwpc and #westpapuagenocide tags — which shares no relevance to the post.

The more recent ads have not yet fully generated the statistics for me to look at, but the past ads have had a significant amount more funding than the other pages. For instance, the following post was advertised to users in The Netherlands between May 13 — May 26, 2019 for IDR 1Million (USD$71).

Evidence Of Pro-Indonesian Government Bots Advertising West Papuan Propaganda

There is evidence that these accounts are part of a much larger propaganda network identified through a Twitter network analysis that are using pro-Indonesian Government content to distort the truth about what is happening in West Papua.

What has also been proved here is that Facebook pages, associated with this bot network, are using the social platform to share the same content and bypass Facebook’s Advertising Policies to mislead and distort truths.

Benjamin Strick

Written by

Open-source investigator. I use open source research methods, command line scripts, geospatial and imagery analysis to find where, when and who.

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