Technology

Twitter and Facebook remove accounts in interference crackdown

Twitter said removed Saudi accounts were amplifying messages favourable to Saudi authorities.

Twitter has identified and removed nearly 6,000 accounts it said were part of a co-ordinated effort by Saudi government agencies and individuals to advance the country’s geopolitical interests.

Separately, Facebook said it removed hundreds of Facebook accounts, groups and pages linked to inauthentic behaviour from two separate groups, one originating in the country of Georgia and one in Vietnam.

The latest crackdowns on state-backed social media campaigns came as tech companies step up efforts to tackle misinformation on their services ahead of next year’s US presidential elections.

The logo of social networking site Facebook is displayed on a laptop
Facebook also said it had removed hundreds of accounts (Dominic Lipinski/PA)

The efforts followed revelations that Russians bankrolled thousands of fake political ads during the 2016 elections to sow dissent among Americans.

In a blog post on Friday, Twitter said the removed Saudi accounts were amplifying messages favourable to Saudi authorities, mainly through “aggressive liking, retweeting and replying”.

While the majority of the content was in Arabic, Twitter said the tweets also amplified discussions about sanctions in Iran and appearances by Saudi government officials in Western media.

Twitter’s announcement underscores the fact that misinformation concerns are not limited to the US and Russia.

“Governments have started to launch influence campaigns the same ways commercial enterprises launch campaigns to sell detergent or cars,” said James Ludes, a national defence expert who teaches international relations and public policy at Salve Regina University in Rhode Island.

He said the Russian efforts in 2016 showed it was possible to “actually change public attitudes through the targeted use of social media”.

While the attempts to root out the campaigns may seem like a game of whack-a-mole, he said companies have at least shown progress in taking steps to identify and root out manipulation campaigns run by foreign powers.

Twitter began archiving tweets and media it deems to be associated with known state-backed information operations in 2018. It shut 200,000 Chinese accounts that targeted Hong Kong protests in August.

The 5,929 accounts removed and added to the archives are part of a larger group of 88,000 accounts engaged in “spammy behaviour” across a wide range of topics. But Twitter is not disclosing all of them because some might be compromised accounts.

The Twitter accounts were linked to a social media marketing firm in Saudi Arabia called Smaat that managed many government departments in Saudi Arabia. The accounts used third-party automated tools in order to amplify non-political content at high volumes. Twitter said that activity was used to mask the political manoeuvrings of the same accounts.

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Technology