Facebook claims influence operation had ties to the Saudi government

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Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg at the F8 Developer Conference in 2017.

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Facebook said on Thursday it shut down an influence campaign that it claims was created by people with links to the government of Saudi Arabia.

Facebook regularly reports updates on its efforts to remove what it calls coordinated inauthentic behavior from its services. This time, according to a blog post, Facebook found two unconnected operations that “created networks of accounts to mislead others about who they were and what they were doing.” One of the operations originated in the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, Facebook said, while the other was from Saudi Arabia.

The company said it removed more than 300 Facebook accounts and pages, five Facebook groups and 31 Instagram accounts linked to the Saudi-based operation. The Facebook pages had a combined following of about 1.4 million accounts and the operation spent about $108,000 on Facebook and Instagram ads, the company said.

In an effort to clamp down on the spread of misinformation on its site following the 2016 U.S. presidential election, Facebook has taken steps to remove inauthentic content and increase transparency by providing regular updates to the public and installing a searchable ad library. The changes followed reporting that U.K.-based marketing firm Cambridge Analytica had used Facebook data to target U.S. voters.

Facebook said in the latest incident that, behind the accounts, it discovered links to people tied to the Saudi government who had tried to conceal their identities. The creators made pages that mimicked local news organizations and posted about topics like Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s economic and social reform plan and Saudi Arabia’s successes in the conflict in Yemen. The pages also shared criticism of nearby countries like Iran, Qatar and Turkey.

In the UAE and Egypt-based operation, Facebook said it found links to two marketing firms — New Waves in Egypt and Newave in the UAE. Facebook said it removed more than 300 accounts and pages as well as several Instagram accounts, Facebook groups and events that engaged in the coordinated inauthentic behavior. The pages had a combined following of more than 13.7 million accounts and the operation spent about $167,000 on Facebook ads.

Newaves and the Saudi Embassy in Washington, D.C., did not immediately respond to requests for comment. A contact for a New Waves in Egypt could not be found.

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