Social media giant Facebook announced on Thursday that it took down multiple accounts, pages, and groups engaging in what it calls “coordinated inauthentic behavior” on both Facebook and the Facebook-owned platform Instagram.
Nathaniel Gleicher, Facebook’s head of cyber-security policy, said that the company found two separate operations, one originating in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Egypt and the other in Saudi Arabia.
In the operation linked to the UAE and Egypt, Facebook has so far removed 259 Facebook accounts, 17 Instagram accounts, and 102 Facebook pages, as well as some Facebook groups and events. The content published by these accounts focused primarily on countries in the Middle East and North Africa—including Lebanon, Libya, Qatar, Syria, and Turkey.
Facebook alleges that accounts associated with the network posed as local news outlets and promoted content favorable to the UAE and often highlighted alleged support of terrorist groups by Qatar and Turkey, both of which are strategic rivals of Abu Dhabi. Two marketing companies reportedly spent around $167,000 on Facebook advertisements as part of this operation.
The second network, emanating from Saudi Arabia, spent around $108,000 in Facebook advertising to promote Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s “Vision 2030” reform plan and attack critics and rivals of Riyadh—including the Qatari-based Al Jazeera news network, Amnesty International, and the governments of Iran, Qatar, and Turkey.
In March and May of this year, Facebook also took down accounts it alleges were controlled by Iran. These accounts, Facebook claims, amplified content from Iranian state media outlets, including on the wars in Syria and Yemen.
The Facebook campaigns run by rival states in the Middle East are part of a broader information war that has involved the use of state-backed media outlets, hacking networks, and powerful lobbyists and strategic communications firms in Washington, DC.
The great Middle East information war effectively began in May 2017, when the website of Qatar’s official news agency was hacked and a speech falsely attributed to Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, the country’s ruler, was posted on to the site. In the fake speech, al-Thani praised Hamas, Hezbollah, and Iran. Qatar accused the UAE of hacking the site.
The next month, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates cut diplomatic and economic ties with Qatar. They were joined by Bahrain and Egypt. A cold war between Doha and the Abu Dhabi-Riyadh-led coalition has ensued since, though according to one report, Saudi Arabia had considered invading Qatar.
The Gulf Arab states are also engaged in proxy wars throughout the region, including in the Horn of Africa. The Emirati-run Facebook accounts, for example, called for the independence of Somaliland, an autonomous region of Somalia that has received significant investment from the UAE. The Federal Government of Somalia, in contrast, has had close relations with Qatar and Turkey.
These information wars largely involve low-cost, low-risk operations for wealthy Gulf Arab states. They’re likely to endure as long as the broader geostrategic rivalries that underpin them persist.