Advertisement
Politics

Facebook shuts 350 accounts it says were run by people linked to Saudi government

Facebook suspended several fake accounts and pages on Thursday after they say they were run by people connected to the Saudi Arabia government and were promoting propaganda and attacking regional rivals like Qatar.

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 on Thursday.

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 behavior” on its platform, and the first such activity it has linked to the Saudi government.

WATCH: Dec. 7, 2018 — The first 24 hours of the Saudi-Canada tweet feud left Canadians reeling

The first 24 hours of the Saudi-Canada tweet feud left Canadians reeling
The first 24 hours of the Saudi-Canada tweet feud left Canadians reeling

“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.

Story continues below advertisement

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.

READ MORE: Trump calls Saudi crown prince ‘a friend of mine’

Saudi Arabia has repeatedly denied any involvement in Khashoggi’s death. Along with allies, it maintains a trade and diplomatic boycott of Qatar, accusing it of terrorism which Qatar denies.

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,” said Nathaniel Gleicher, Facebook’s head of cybersecurity policy.

WATCH: Oct. 18, 2018 — Facebook unveils its ‘war room’ — an attempt to stop election meddling ahead of midterms

Facebook unveils its ‘war room’ — an attempt to stop election meddling ahead of midterms
Facebook unveils its ‘war room’ — an attempt to stop election meddling ahead of midterms

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

Story continues below advertisement

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.

‘Wounded soldier’

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 $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.

Tweet This

Andy Carvin, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensics Lab, which worked with Facebook to analyze the Saudi campaign, said some of the accounts dated back to early 2014 but the majority had been created in the last two years.

More than 90% of the content was in Arabic, Carvin said, with some of the accounts “essentially operating as fan pages for the Saudi government and military.”

Story continues below advertisement

A copy of one of the Saudi posts released by Facebook on Thursday showed the crown prince kissing the bandaged head of a patient in a hospital bed. The Arabic caption reads: “His Royal Highness Prince Mohammed bin Salman kisses the head of a wounded soldier.”

Online battleground

Social media companies are under mounting pressure to help stop illicit political influence online.

U.S. intelligence officials have said that Russia used Facebook and other platforms to interfere in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and are concerned it will do so again in 2020. Moscow denies such allegations.

The Atlantic Council’s Ben Nimmo said online information operations were becoming increasingly visible as more governments and political groups adopt the tactics and the social media companies step up efforts to take them down.

WATCH: Jan. 15 — Saudi teen who was granted asylum in Canada speaks to media

Saudi teen who was granted asylum in Canada speaks to media
Saudi teen who was granted asylum in Canada speaks to media

Facebook has made at least 14 public announcements about takedowns of “inauthentic behavior” stemming from 17 different countries this year. The most recent announcement before Thursday included accounts run by people in Thailand, Russia, Ukraine and Honduras.

The network based in the UAE and Egypt that was also dismantled on Thursday was separate from the Saudi campaign, Facebook said, although it targeted some of the same countries in the Middle East and Africa with messages promoting the UAE.

Story continues below advertisement

“This shows how much social media has become a battleground, particularly in the Gulf, where you’ve got very strong regional rivalries and you’ve got a long tradition of working through proxies,” Nimmo said.

READ MORE: EXCLUSIVE — Canada spent months on Saudi diplomacy before embassy suggested tweet behind firestorm

“This is almost becoming normalized,” he added. “Where you get geopolitical tensions, you get stuff like this going on, and we’re moving into a space where the platforms are dealing with this almost as routine.”