Facebook says it dismantled Saudi-linked influence campaign

August 02, 2019 09:53
File picture of Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (right) meeting with Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg at the tech giant's headquarters in Silicon Valley on June 22, 2016. Saudi Royal Court/Handout via Reuters

People connected to the government of Saudi Arabia have run a network of fake accounts and pages on Facebook Inc. to promote state propaganda and attack regional rivals, the social media giant said.

Facebook said it has suspended more than 350 accounts and pages with about 1.4 million followers, the latest takedown in an ongoing effort to combat “coordinated inauthentic behavior” on its platform, and the first such activity it has linked to the Saudi government, Reuters reports.

“The government of Saudi Arabia has no knowledge of the mentioned accounts and does not know on what basis they were linked to it,” the Center for International Communication, the government’s media office, said in a statement sent to Reuters on Thursday.

Countries in the Middle East have increasingly turned to websites such as Facebook, Twitter and Google’s YouTube to peddle covert political influence online.

Reuters detailed an expansive Iranian-backed campaign last year and Riyadh has been accused of using the same tactics to attack regional rival Qatar and spread disinformation following the murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Facebook announces takedowns of “inauthentic behavior” as often as multiple times a month, but statements that directly link such behavior to a government are rare.

“For this operation, our investigators were able to confirm that the individuals behind this are associated with the government of Saudi Arabia,” Nathaniel Gleicher, Facebook’s head of cybersecurity policy, said on Thursday.

“Anytime we have a link between an information operation and a government, that’s significant and people should be aware.”

Facebook also said it has suspended a separate network of more than 350 accounts linked to marketing firms in Egypt and the United Arab Emirates. In that case it did not directly link the activity to a government.

Gleicher said the Saudi campaign operated on Facebook and its Instagram photo-sharing platform, primarily targeting countries in the Middle East and North Africa, including Qatar, the UAE, Egypt Palestine.

The operation used fake accounts posing as those countries’ citizens and pages designed to look like local news outlets. More than US$100,000 was spent on advertisements, Facebook said.

“They would typically post in Arabic about regional news and political issues. They would talk about things like Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman – his internal and economic social reform plan, the successes of the Saudi armed forces, particularly during the conflict in Yemen,” said Gleicher.

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