People connected to the Saudi Arabia government ran a network of fake accounts and pages on Facebook to promote state propaganda and attack regional rivals, the social media giant said.
Facebook suspended more than 350 accounts and pages with about 1,4 million followers, the latest takedown in an ongoing effort to combat “co-ordinated inauthentic behaviour” on its platform and the first activity linked to the Saudi government.
“The government of Saudi Arabia has no knowledge of the accounts and does not know on what basis they were linked to it,” the Centre for International Communication, government’s media office, said in a statement sent to Reuters.
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 is accused of using the same tactics to attack regional rival Qatar and spread disinformation following the murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Saudi Arabia 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 behaviour” multiple times a month, but statements directly linking behaviour to a government are rare.
“For this operation, our investigators confirmed individuals behind this are associated with the government of Saudi Arabia,” said Nathaniel Gleicher, Facebook head of cybersecurity policy.
“Anytime we have a link between an information operation and a government, that is significant and people should be aware.”
Facebook also suspended a separate network of more than 350 accounts linked to marketing firms in Egypt and the United Arab Emirates. The activity was not linked to any government.
Gleicher said the Saudi campaign operated on Facebook and its Instagram photo-sharing platform, primarily targeting the Middle East and North Africa, including Qatar, the UAE, Egypt and Palestine.
The operation used fake accounts posing as 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 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.
Andy Carvin, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensics Lab, which worked with Facebook analysing the Saudi campaign, said some accounts dated back to early 2014 but the majority were created in the last two years.
More than 90% of content was Arabic, Carvin said, with some accounts “essentially operating as fan pages for the Saudi government and military.”
A copy of one Saudi post released by Facebook 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.”
Social media companies are under mounting pressure to stop illicit political influence online.
US intelligence officials said Russia used Facebook and other platforms to interfere in the 2016 US presidential election and are concerned it will do so again in 2020. Moscow denies the allegations.
The Atlantic Council’s Ben Nimmo said online information operations were increasingly visible as more governments and political groups adopt the tactics and social media companies step up efforts to take them down.
Facebook made at least 14 public announcements about takedowns of “inauthentic behaviour” stemming from 17 different countries this year. The most recent announcement before Thursday included accounts in Thailand, Russia, Ukraine and Honduras.
The network based in the UAE and Egypt 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.
“This shows how much social media is a battleground, particularly in the Gulf, where you’ve got strong regional rivalries and a long tradition of working through proxies,” Nimmo said.
“This is almost normalised,” he added. “Where you get geopolitical tensions, you get stuff like this and we’re moving into a space where the platforms are dealing with this almost as routine.”