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Facebook shuts down influence campaigns linked to Saudi government, UAE, and Egypt

Tyrone Stewart

Facebook shadowsFacebook has removed hundreds of accounts and pages involved in ‘coordinated inauthentic behaviour’ from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Egypt.

The misinformation being spread from these nations was discovered in two separate, unconnected operations – one originating in Saudi Arabia, and the other in UAE and Egypt.

The coordinated effort out of Saudi Arabia focused on countries including Qatar, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain, Egypt, Morocco, Palestine, Lebanon, and Jordan. 217 Facebook accounts, 144 pages, five groups, and 31 Instagram accounts were deleted.

About 1.4m accounts followed one or more of the pages, while 26,000 accounts joined at least one group, and 145,000 people followed one or more of the Instagram accounts. $108,000 was spent on Facebook and Instagram ads.

This network posed as locals and created personas to run the accounts and spread misinformation. The pages they managed pretended to be local news organisations and typically posted in Arabic about regional news and political issues including topics like the Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, his economic and social reform plan ‘Vision 2030’, and successes of the Saudi Armed Forces. The accounts shared criticism of neighbouring countries including Iran, Qatar, and Turkey, and also criticised Al-Jazeera and Amnesty International.

Facebook’s investigation uncovered people with links to the Saudi Arabian government were the ones behind the accounts.

From the UAE/Egypt network, Facebook purged 259 accounts, 102 pages, five groups, four events, and 17 Instagram accounts which focused on countries including Libya, Sudan, Comoros, Qatar, Turkey, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and Morocco.

Over 13.7m accounts followed one or more of the pages, with around 9,000 accounts joining at least one of the groups and 65,000 accounts following at least one of the Instagram accounts. The network spent $167,000 on Facebook ads.

They used a combination of compromised and fake accounts to spread their misinformation, often posing as public figures and local news organisations in the targeted countries and promoting content about UAE. Facebook uncovered that these accounts were being run by a pair of marketing firms: New Waves in Egypt and Newave in UAE.

Admins posted about non-country specific topics such as fashion, animals, humour, and crafts, but also posted local news, politics, elections, and topics relating to terrorist groups, Iran’s activity in Yemen, the conflict in Libya, successes of the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, and the independence of Somaliland.

“We’re constantly working to detect and stop this type of activity because we don’t want our services to be used to manipulate people. We’re taking down these pages, groups and accounts based on their behaviour, not the content they posted. In each of these cases, the people behind this activity coordinated with one another and used fake accounts to misrepresent themselves, and that was the basis for our action,” said Nathaniel Gleicher, head of cybersecurity policy at Facebook, in a blog post.

“We are making progress rooting out this abuse, but as we’ve said before, it’s an ongoing challenge. We’re committed to continually improving to stay ahead. That means building better technology, hiring more people and working more closely with law enforcement, security experts and other companies.”

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