March 2, 2020 / 7:28 PM / a month ago

Facebook removes two Middle East-focused fake account networks

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Facebook Inc (FB.O) said on Monday it had removed two networks of fake accounts linked to digital marketing firms in Egypt and India which were pushing dueling narratives about countries in the Gulf on the Facebook and Instagram platforms.

FILE PHOTO: A Facebook logo is displayed on a smartphone in this illustration taken January 6, 2020. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration/File Photo

Facebook, in its first monthly report on information operations, said both networks violated its policies on foreign interference, although the world’s biggest social network did not name any state actors suspected to be behind those efforts.

The operations disseminated content sympathetic to each side of a diplomatic row that has divided the Middle East since 2017, pitting the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Egypt against Qatar. Those countries accuse Qatar of supporting terrorism, which it denies.

Facebook said one network had been posting criticism of Qatar and positive commentary about the UAE. It linked the activity to New Waves and Flexell, two companies in Egypt, which it had already accused of seeding similar narratives last year.

Accounts connected to that operation spent around $48,500 on ads boosting their content and had more than 6 million followers across Facebook and Instagram, a popular photo-sharing app.

Citing the repeated violations, Facebook said it was banning both firms from its platforms.

Graphika, a social media research company which works with Facebook to analyze influence operations, said the operations appeared to be carried out by commercial marketing firms acting at the behest of geopolitical actors with interests in the Gulf, making them part of a pattern of “online influence for hire.”

A smaller network linked to Indian digital marketing firm aRep Global had been using fake accounts to post praise for Qatar and critiques of Saudi Arabia and the UAE, Facebook said in its report.

The accounts posed as local journalists and activists and drove traffic to websites masquerading as local news outlets, Facebook said. It spent less than $450 on ads and had around 100,000 followers across Facebook and Instagram.

Facebook previously released information about individual operations as they were discovered, but it is shifting to a more regular reporting mechanism.

Reporting by Katie Paul; Editing by Richard Chang and Paul Simao

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