Facebook Dismantles Saudi-Linked Network of Fake Accounts

(MEE— Facebook said on Thursday it had dismantled a network of fake accounts and pages linked to the Saudi government that promotes propaganda and targets Riyadh’s adversaries.

More than 350 accounts and pages with some 1.4 million followers had been taken down, the social media site said. It is the first time such action has been linked to the Saudi government.

Like Russia and Iran, Saudi Arabia has sought to influence public opinion through social media.

Under the direction of Saud al-Qahtani, a close aide to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman who has been heavily implicated in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a network of pro-Saudi social media accounts known as “the flies” has been set up in recent years.

The accounts on platforms such as Facebook and Twitter seek to laud the crown prince and pour scorn on the kingdom’s adversaries and detractors.

Many target Qatar, a neighbouring emirate that Riyadh and its allies have placed under a blockade in an attempt to alter its policies. The accounts were also responsible for spreading disinformation following Khashoggi’s murder by a team of Saudi agents in Istanbul in October.

“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.”

The Saudi operation was pursued on both Facebook and photo-sharing platform Instagram, and primarily targeted countries in in the Middle East, such as Qatar, Palestine and Saudi allies the UAE and Egypt.

Some accounts posed as those countries’ citizens, while others were designed to appear as local news outlets. Facebook said over $100,000 was spent on advertisements.

“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.

A separate network of over 350 accounts linked to marketing companies in the United Arab Emirates and Egypt was also dismantled, Facebook said, though the social media giant did not link it to any government in particular.

That network was separate from the Saudi one, Facebook said, though it targeted similar countries. The accounts reportedly promoted the United Arab Emirates.

“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,” Ben Nimmo of the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensics Lab, which works with Facebook to analyse influence campaigns, told the Reuters news agency.

“This is almost becoming normalised,” 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.”

By MEE and agencies Republished with permission / Middle East Eye / Report a typo

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