Facebook takes down first covert propaganda campaign tied to Saudi government

Campaign promoted news about powerful crown prince Mohammad bin Salman

Andrew Buncombe
Thursday 01 August 2019 13:10 BST
Protest over UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia

Facebook has announced it has taken down a major online propaganda campaign believed to be linked to the government of Saudi Arabia.

The social media giant said it had detected two different operations of “inauthentic behaviour” originating from the Middle East and North Africa, one of which was tied to marketing firms in Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, and did not appear linked to any government.

The other operation, which involved hundreds accounts that had more than 1.4m followers, had been traced to the government of Saudi Arabia and promoted material that placed the kingdom in a good light, while disparaging its enemies.

“The page [administrators] 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,” Nathaniel Gleicher, Facebook’s head of cybersecurity policy, wrote in a blog post.

“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. Although the people behind this activity attempted to conceal their identities, our review found links to individuals associated with the government of Saudi Arabia.”

The powerful crown prince has become a major ally of countries such as the US, and Donald Trump has gone out of his way not to accuse him over the 2018 muder of dissident journalist, Jamal Khashoggi.

Saudi Arabia has adamantly denied the crown prince, often referred to by his initials, MBS, had anything to do with the killing, which the kingdom has blamed on a senior aide, Saud al-Qahtani, and "rogue agents".

Such has been his support for Saudi Arabia and the young royal, Mr Trump has vetoed congressional resolutions that would have ended US support for the kingdom's war against rebels in Yemen, an operation that has resulted in the deaths of thousands of civilians and triggered a humanitarian catastrophe.

However, last year it was reported the CIA had concluded the 33-year-old prince has ordered the assassination of the journalist, who was killed after entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul to apply for marriage papers.

In June, a report by Agnes Callamard, special rapporteur for the UN’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, said the prince should be investigated over the death as there was “credible evidence” linking him and other senior officials to the murder.

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There has been no immediate response to Facebook’s comments and actions from the Saudi government. Enquiries to the Saudi Embassy in Washington DC did not receive an immediate response.

Facebook has launched a series of probes into false accounts, an undertaking that has taken on mounting importance in the light of Robert Mueller's investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.

In its blog, Facebook said it had been helped in its work by the work investigative journalist site, Bellingcat.

In January, it took down 364 Facebook pages and accounts operated from Russia and targeting the Baltics, Central Asia, the Caucasus, and Central and Eastern European countries.

Also in January, it removed 783 pages, groups and accounts engaged in “coordinated inauthentic behaviour tied to Iran”, and 234 accounts, pages and groups on Facebook and Instagram operating as part of a domestic network in Indonesia.

In February, it removed 168 Facebook accounts, 28 pages and eight Instagram accounts targeting people in Moldova. In March, it removed 137 Facebook and Instagram accounts, pages and groups operating as part of a domestic-focused network in Britain.

Additional reporting by Reuters

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