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Twitter removes 20,000 accounts linked to Saudi, Serbia, Honduras, Indonesia governments


Twitter has deleted 20,000 fake accounts linked to the governments of Serbia, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Honduras and Indonesia, saying that they violated company policy and were a “targeted attempt to undermine the public conversation”. Twitter’s head of site integrity Yoel Roth said the operation was part of Twitter’s ongoing work to “detect and investigate state-backed information operations”. The Stanford Internet Observatory has analysed and presented its findings in this blog post, and has also put out detailed whitepapers for each country.

Accounts removed from Serbia: The largest number of accounts removed came from Serbia, where 8,558 accounts promoting Serbia’s president Aleksandar Vučić and the ruling Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) were purged. The accounts put out 43 million tweets promoting SNS and Vučić, attacking their political opponents, and amplifying content from news outlets favourable to them. The accounts served as  “coordinated pro-Vučić brigade”, putting out 2 million tweets hashtagged #Vucic and #vucic. The tweets had 8.5 million links to SNS’s official website, and to 3 Vučić-aligned news websites.

Saudi Arabia removed accounts were associated with DotDev and Smaat: A network of 5,350 accounts associated with Saudi Arabia, but operating out of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, UAE, were promoting content praising the Saudi government, and critical of the Qatar and Turkish activity in Yemen. The accounts were linked to digital marketing firms DotDev, based out of Egypt and UAE; and to Smaat, based out of Saudi Arabia. Twitter had removed accounts associated with both firms late last year. These accounts were removed following a tip from the Stanford Internet Observatory.

  • Tweets supportive of Libyan strongman Khalifa Haftar, who heads the self-styled Libyan National Army, began in 2013. “This suggests Saudi Arabia/UAE/Egypt disinformation operations on Twitter targeting Libya began earlier than previously known,” the Stanford Internet Observatory said in their findings.
  • Recent posts on the Facebook Pages leveraged the COVID-19 pandemic to push these narratives.
  • Last year, Twitter removed 271 accounts from UAE and Egypt backed by DotDev, targeting Iran and Qatar. Another 4,248 accounts targeting Yemen and Qatar have been removed. Another 6 accounts connected with Saudi state media, posing as independent journalistic outlets, but promoting the Saudi government’s narrative, were removed.

2,541 of these accounts were from Egypt, connect to the El Fagr network, a weekly tabloid which created inauthentic accounts to amplify messages critical of Iran, Qatar, and Turkey on direction of the Egyptian government. The accounts had tweeted over 7 million tweets. Facebook had earlier removed accounts linked to El Fagr in October 2019. News properties were at the centre of this network; several appeared to be legitimate like El Fagr; others were based out of UAE and Yemen. Other handles replicated news outlets by having ‘news’ in their handles, but were not actually news organisations, given that there was no original content. An account with the handle “@Foxnewseurope_f” was posing as the regional affiliate of Fox News.

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Accounts operated by staffer of Honduras president: 3,104 of the removed accounts were created by a staffer of Honduras president Juan Orlando Hernández, and were heavily retweeting his tweets. The accounts put out 2.7 million tweets in total. Much of the tweet behaviour was targeted at drowning out negative news about Hernández, by promoting content about his initiatives, and heavily retweeting his account and news outlets favourable to him. The accounts removed include that of the state-owned television station Televisión Nacional de Honduras, several content creator accounts, accounts linked to several presidential initiatives, and some “like-for-likes” accounts likely in the follower-building stage, Stanford Internet Observatory said in its findings.

795 accounts in Indonesia were pushing content from suspicious news websites and promoting pro-government content, along with disinformation targeting the West Papuan independence movement.

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