People connected to the government of Saudi Arabia have run a network of fake accounts and pages on Facebook to promote state propaganda and attack regional rivals, the social media giant said on Thursday.
Facebook said it had suspended more than 350 accounts and pages with about 1.4 million followers, the latest takedown in an ongoing effort to combat "coordinated inauthentic behaviour" on its platform, and the first such activity it has linked to the Saudi government.
"The government of Saudi Arabia has no knowledge of the mentioned accounts and does not know on what basis they were linked to it," the Center for International Communication, the government's media office, said in a statement sent to Reuters.
Countries in the Middle East have increasingly turned to websites such as Facebook, Twitter and Google's YouTube to peddle covert political influence online.
Reuters detailed an expansive Iranian-backed campaign last year and Riyadh has been accused of using the same tactics to attack regional rival Qatar and spread disinformation following the murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Saudi Arabia has repeatedly denied any involvement in Khashoggi's death. Along with allies, it maintains a trade and diplomatic boycott of Qatar, accusing it of terrorism which Qatar denies.
Facebook announces takedowns of "inauthentic behaviour" as often as multiple times a month, but statements that directly link such behaviour to a government are rare.
"For this operation, our investigators were able to confirm that the individuals behind this are associated with the government of Saudi Arabia," said Nathaniel Gleicher, Facebook's head of cybersecurity policy.
"Anytime we have a link between an information operation and a government, that's significant and people should be aware."
Facebook also said on Thursday it had suspended a separate network of more than 350 accounts linked to marketing firms in Egypt and the United Arab Emirates. In that case it did not directly link the activity to a government.
Gleicher said the Saudi campaign operated on Facebook and its Instagram photo-sharing platform, primarily targeting countries in the Middle East and North Africa, including Qatar, the UAE, Egypt Palestine.
The operation used fake accounts posing as those countries' citizens and pages designed to look like local news outlets. More than $100,000 was spent on advertisements, Facebook said.
"They would typically post in Arabic about regional news and political issues. They would talk about things like Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman - his internal and economic social reform plan, the successes of the Saudi armed forces, particularly during the conflict in Yemen," said Gleicher.
Andy Carvin, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council's Digital Forensics Lab, which worked with Facebook to analyse the Saudi campaign, said some of the accounts dated back to early 2014 but the majority had been created in the last two years.
More than 90% of the content was in Arabic, Carvin said, with some of the accounts "essentially operating as fan pages for the Saudi government and military."
A copy of one of the Saudi posts released by Facebook on Thursday showed the crown prince kissing the bandaged head of a patient in a hospital bed. The Arabic caption reads: "His Royal Highness Prince Mohammed bin Salman kisses the head of a wounded soldier."
Social media companies are under mounting pressure to help stop illicit political influence online.
U.S. intelligence officials have said that Russia used Facebook and other platforms to interfere in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and are concerned it will do so again in 2020. Moscow denies such allegations.
The Atlantic Council's Ben Nimmo said online information operations were becoming increasingly visible as more governments and political groups adopt the tactics and the social media companies step up efforts to take them down.
Facebook has made at least 14 public announcements about takedowns of "inauthentic behaviour" stemming from 17 different countries this year. The most recent announcement before Thursday included accounts run by people in Thailand, Russia, Ukraine and Honduras.
The network based in the UAE and Egypt that was also dismantled on Thursday was separate from the Saudi campaign, Facebook said, although it targeted some of the same countries in the Middle East and Africa with messages promoting the UAE.
"This shows how much social media has become a battleground, particularly in the Gulf, where you've got very strong regional rivalries and you've got a long tradition of working through proxies," Nimmo said.
"This is almost becoming normalised," he added. "Where you get geopolitical tensions, you get stuff like this going on, and we're moving into a space where the platforms are dealing with this almost as routine."
(Additional reporting by Katie Paul in SAN FRANCISCO and Ghaida Ghantous in DUBAI; Editing by Peter Graff and Richard Chang)