Creating new perspectives since 2009

Facebook says it dismantles covert influence campaign tied to Saudi government

August 1, 2019 at 5:02 pm

Facebook logo [West McGowan/Flickr]

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

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

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.

Saudi Arabia has repeatedly denied any involvement in Khashoggi’s death and not responded to previous allegations about its activity on social media. Along with allies, it has imposed a trade and diplomatic boycott on Qatar, accusing it of supporting terrorism, which Qatar denies.

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

READ: Facebook defeats appeal in US claiming it aided Hamas attacks in Israel

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

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

Facebook also said on Thursday it had 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 and Palestine.

The operation used fake accounts posing as those countries’ citizens and pages designed to look like local news outlets. More than $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.