Washington: Facebook has removed 784 Pages, Groups and Accounts with over 15 million followers on its platform that originated from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Egypt, and were involved in covert propaganda campaigns.
The announcement is first public disclosure from Facebook of a covert influence campaign linked to the Saudi government.
"Although the people behind this activity attempted to conceal their identities, our review found links to individuals associated with the Government of Saudi Arabia," Nathaniel Gleicher, Head of Cybersecurity Policy at Facebook, said in a statement late Thursday.
The social networking platform found two separate operations: one of which originated in the UAE and Egypt, and another in Saudi Arabia.
"The two campaigns we removed were unconnected, but both created networks of Accounts to mislead others about who they were and what they were doing," said Gleicher.
Facebook removed 217 Facebook Accounts, 144 Facebook Pages, five Facebook Groups and 31 Instagram Accounts originating from Saudi Arabia that focused primarily on the Middle East and Northern Africa, including Qatar, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain, Egypt, Morocco, Palestine, Lebanon and Jordan.
The Page admins and Account owners 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, particularly during the conflict in Yemen," Facebook informed.
They also frequently shared criticism of neighbouring countries including Iran, Qatar and Turkey, and called into question the credibility of Al-Jazeera news network and Amnesty International.
About 1.4 million Accounts followed one or more of these Pages and around $108,000 spent on Facebook and Instagram ads paid for in Saudi riyal and US dollars, said Facebook.
Facebook also removed 259 Facebook Accounts, 102 Facebook Pages, five Facebook Groups, four Facebook Events and 17 Instagram Accounts from the UAE and Egypt for engaging in coordinated inauthentic behaviour focused on a number of countries, primarily in the Middle East and some in North and East Africa.
"The people behind this network used compromised and fake accounts -- the majority of which had already been detected and disabled by our automated systems -- to run Pages, disseminate their content, comment in Groups and artificially increase engagement," informed Gleicher.
These accounts also impersonated public figures and managed Pages -- some of which changed names and admins -- posing as local news organisations in targeted countries and promoting content about UAE.
"Although the people behind this activity attempted to conceal their identities, our investigation found links to two marketing firms -- New Waves in Egypt and Newave in the UAE," said Facebook.
More than 13.7 million Accounts followed one or more of these Pages. "About $167,000 spent on Facebook ads were paid for primarily in US dollars and Emirati dirhams," said Facebook.
The removed Accounts also included 48 Instagram Accounts involved in coordinated inauthentic behaviour.
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