Twitter removes over 8,000 fake accounts tied to Saudi, Egyptian governments

Twitter removes over 8,000 fake accounts tied to Saudi, Egyptian governments

Social media company says pages linked to Riyadh promoted country’s leadership, criticized Qatar and Turkey with over 36 million tweets

Luke Tress is a video journalist and tech reporter for the Times of Israel

Illustrative. A phone showing the Twitter icon, July 10, 2019. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)
Illustrative. A phone showing the Twitter icon, July 10, 2019. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

Twitter on Thursday said it removed over 8,000 accounts linked to the governments of Egypt and Saudi Arabia for disseminating pro-government propaganda.

As part of the same effort, the social media company took down 12,000 fake accounts tied to the governments of Indonesia, Honduras, and Serbia.

The accounts, which Twitter said violated its policies and were “a targeted attempt to undermine the public conversation,” were part of distinct campaigns aimed at bolstering the government positions of the countries involved.

Twitter shut down a network of 5,350 accounts linked to the Saudi government. The pages operated out of countries including Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the UAE, publicizing content praising the Saudi leadership and criticizing Qatar and Turkey.

The Stanford Internet Observatory, a cyber policy center which assisted Twitter in the effort, said the pro-Saudi network issued over 36 million tweets. The accounts pushed articles from a group of fake news sites which were all created on the same day.

The network leveraged the coronavirus pandemic to bolster their positions, for example, by amplifying criticism of Qatar’s response to the virus outbreak.

An Egypt-based group called the El Fagr network used 2,541 fake accounts to criticize Iran, Qatar, and Turkey. Twitter said the network was directly guided by Egypt’s government. El Fagr is an Egyptian tabloid that was apparently connected to the social media campaign.

The Stanford Internet Observatory said the Egyptian network had issued nearly 8 million tweets, mostly pushing content from both real and fake news outlets.

Twitter took down 3,104 accounts created by a government worker in Honduras to promote the country’s president, 795 fake accounts in Indonesia attacking the West Papua independence movement, and 8,558 accounts promoting Serbia’s ruling party and leader.

Yoel Roth, the social media company’s head of site integrity, said the effort was part of Twitter’s “work to detect and investigate state-backed information operations.”

In December 2019, Twitter deleted 5,929 accounts that it said were part of a coordinated effort by the Saudi government to advance the country’s geopolitical interests.

Social media companies have come under heavy pressure in recent years to curb fake news on their platforms, including throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, which has seen misinformation run rampant online.

The firms, and some global tech leaders, have also used the crisis to try to rehabilitate their images.

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey testifies before the House Energy and Commerce Committee in Washington, on September 5, 2018. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana, File)

Twitter said last month that it would stringently enforce its safety policies amid the pandemic, including by using machine learning, automation and manual reviews to remove abusive and manipulative content.

The social media company said it would “address content that goes directly against guidance from authoritative sources of global and local public health information,” and “prioritize removing content when it has a clear call to action that could directly pose a risk to people’s health or well-being.”

The platform has seen unprecedented traffic since the outbreak began, Twitter said.

Some of the world’s leading online platforms — Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Microsoft, Reddit, Twitter and YouTube — last month issued an unprecedented joint statement saying they would work “closely together on COVID-19 response efforts.”

Global tech leaders, including Facebook head Mark Zuckerberg and Twitter founder and CEO Jack Dorsey, have sought to play a prominent role combating the crisis by pledging donations, fielding public questions, and vowing to police harmful content online.

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