By Harper Neidig
Facebook said Thursday that it had removed an online disinformation campaign with ties to the Saudi government that was aimed at spreading propaganda across the Middle East.
It’s the first time Facebook has revealed any Saudi-linked efforts to spread disinformation on its platform.
The company has previously taken action against countries such as Russia and Iran.
The company’s head of cybersecurity policy, Nathaniel Gleicher, said in a blog post on Thursday that it had taken down hundreds of Facebook and Instagram accounts linked to the Saudi disinformation network.
“The individuals behind this activity posed as locals in countries targeted by this campaign — often using fake accounts — and created fictitious personas to run Pages and Groups, disseminate their content, increase engagement and drive people to an off-platform domain,” Gleicher wrote. “They managed Pages that masqueraded as local news organizations.”
He added that the overall message of the disinformation network was one of support for the Saudi royal family, particularly Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman; the Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen; and “Vision 2030,” the country’s ambitious social and economic reform program.
Gleicher said Facebook found that individuals behind the disinformation campaign were linked to the Saudi government, and focused their efforts in countries like Qatar, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Egypt, Morocco, Palestine, Lebanon and Jordan. They spent about $108,000 on Instagram and Facebook ads.
Facebook also announced Thursday that it had discovered and taken down a similar campaign originating in Egypt and the United Arab Emirates.
“The Page admins and account owners posted about non-country specific topics like fashion, animals, humor and crafts,” Gleicher wrote.
“They also frequently posted about local news, politics, elections and topics including alleged support of terrorist groups by Qatar and Turkey, Iran’s activity in Yemen, the conflict in Libya, successes of the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, and independence for Somaliland.”
The network spent about $167,000 on Facebook and Instagram ads.
“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.
We have shared information about our findings with law enforcement, industry partners and policymakers,” Gleicher said.
”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.”