It appears that using social media to influence international politics isn’t just for the Russians. Facebook recently announced that its cybersecurity apparatus detected an online scheme to spread foreign propaganda using the social media platform.
In a statement, the tech giant revealed that Saudi Arabia’s government could be involved in an effort to disseminate messages designed to benefit the country while damaging its enemies. If Facebook’s allegations are true, they might carry serious ramifications for the state’s role in tech companies’ activities.
Saudi Arabia’s Sneaky Propaganda Campaign
The operation involved hundreds of accounts and pages that were used to create fake personas. Facebook estimated the group spent more than $100,000 on advertising, and the pages and accounts it created earned more than one million followers.
The alleged Saudi operatives disguised pages as local news outlets, directing their attention to individuals in the Middle East and North Africa. Other profiles portrayed personas that supposedly lived in these regions. The group wrote complimentary posts about Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s policies and praised the country’s military action in Yemen. Nathaniel Gleicher, Facebook’s cybersecurity policy head, said the group “frequently shared criticism of neighboring countries including Iran, Qatar and Turkey, and called into question the credibility of Al-Jazeera news network and Amnesty International.”
Both Al Jazeera and Amnesty International have publicly maligned the Saudi government for its alleged assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Riyadh has denied involvement in the reporter’s slaying, but the incident jeopardized its relationship with the United States.
Not surprisingly, Riyadh claims it was unaware of the social media campaign, saying in a statement that “The government of Saudi Arabia has no knowledge of the mentioned alleged ‘extensive covert information operation’ and does not know on what basis such an operation was linked to it.”
Facebook removed the offending material, including 217 accounts, 144 pages, five groups, and 31 Instagram accounts. Gleicher said: “We have shared information about our findings with law enforcement, industry partners, and policymakers.” Along with the Saudi-linked pages, the company purged a network of covert propaganda accounts that was being run from the United Arab Emirates and Egypt.
Social Media and Foreign Propaganda
When one thinks of a foreign power using social media to spread propaganda, Russia’s interference in the 2016 election likely comes to mind. But the Kremlin is not the only bad actor engaging in these activities. Riyadh’s use of Facebook demonstrates that almost any country or entity can perform similar operations to sway public opinion on a variety of issues.
This possibility is often overlooked in the debate over the government’s role in regulating tech companies. Federal authorities found that Russia’s meddling on social media had a negligible impact on the result of the 2016 election, but in the longer term, Moscow has caused no small amount of political upheaval in the United States. Apparently, other countries are applying the same strategies, albeit to other ends.
It remains to be seen whether or not companies like Facebook have the necessary infrastructure and staff in place to crack down on nefarious propagandizing on the part of agenda-driven governments around the world. If Big Tech is unable to adequately curb these campaigns, the state could step in, which may lead to regulation of the industry in the name of national security.