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Twitter closes thousands of fake news accounts for spreading misinformation

CALIFORNIA: A Facebook sign is seen at the main entrance of Facebook’s new headquarters in Menlo Park in California. _ AFP

WASHINGTON: Twitter has shut down thousands of accounts worldwide for spreading misinformation, including some artificially amplifying pro-Saudi messaging as part of a regional propaganda war. The move affected pro-Saudi accounts coming from Egypt and the United Arab Emirates directed at Qatar and Yemen, Twitter said, as well as others from China seeking to sow discord among protesters in Hong Kong.

Additional fake accounts were suspended in Spain and Ecuador, Twitter’s safety team said. The move is the latest in a series of actions by social media giants such as Facebook and Twitter cracking down on manipulation, often by state-controlled entities disguising their identities. It follows similar moves by Facebook last month removing fake accounts based in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE for posting misinformation about Middle East hotspots and others involved in “coordinated inauthentic behavior” focused on Hong Kong.

Royal Saudi account canceled

Twitter removed 273 accounts working in concert in “a multi-faceted information operation” to target Saudi rivals Qatar and Iran among other countries, as well as amplify pro-Saudi government messaging.  These accounts were “created and managed” DotDev, a technology company based in the UAE and Egypt. DotDev did not respond to an AFP request for comment.

Saudi Arabia, along with the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt, has enforced an economic boycott of Qatar since June 2017, accusing the Gulf nation of links to extremist groups and being too close to Iran. Twitter also notably shut down the account of Saudi royal court adviser Saud al-Qahtani. The close confidante of Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who ran Riyadh’s media center and managed an electronic army unabashedly defending its image, was implicated in the killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in October 2018 but was never formally charged.

Twitter also suspended a separate group of 4,258 accounts operating from the UAE, with messaging mainly targeting Qatar and Yemen. “These accounts were often employing false personae and tweeting about regional issues,” such as the war in Yemen and main agitators in the conflict, Iran-linked Houthi rebels, Twitter’s statement said.

The UAE is a key partner in the Saudi-led military coalition fighting the Houthis in Yemen in a five-year conflict that has devastated the country. Six accounts linked to Saudi Arabia’s state-run media were also flagged by Twitter for being “engaged in coordinated efforts to amplify messaging that was beneficial to the Saudi government,” Twitter said. Twitter noted the accounts had posed as “independent journalistic outlets while tweeting narratives favorable to the Saudi government”.

Hong Kong protests targeted

Twitter identified 4,302 accounts based in China “attempting to sow discord about the protest movement in Hong Kong.” This follows the identification in August of more than 200,000 fake accounts in China engaged in fueling public discord in Hong Kong. Twitter and Facebook are both banned in mainland China. Hong Kong has seen months of unrest as citizens protest what they say is an erosion of freedoms under Beijing’s tightening grip. While Beijing has not intervened directly, its powerful media machine has steadily ramped up a war of words.

The moves to silence Chinese-run accounts on Twitter and Facebook were greeted with protests and claims of hypocrisy in the mainland, with posters taking to the authorized-and tightly controlled-Weibo platform. Twitter said it removed 259 accounts operated by the conservative Partido Popular that were “active for a relatively short period, and consisted primarily of fake accounts engaging in spamming or retweet behavior to increase engagement.” And in Ecuador, 1,019 accounts tied to the ruling center-left PAIS Alliance “composed largely of fake accounts” were deleted.

Facebook suspends apps

In another development, Facebook said it suspended “tens of thousands” of apps on its platform as a result of a privacy practices review launched following a scandal involving Cambridge Analytica. The review started in 2018 after revelations that the political consultancy hijacked personal data on millions of Facebook users, and it included attorneys, external investigators, data scientists, engineers, policy specialists and others, according to a Facebook statement.

The suspensions are “not necessarily an indication that these apps were posing a threat to people,” said vice president of partnerships Ime Archibong, adding that some developers “did not respond to our request for information.” Archibong said the investigation “has addressed millions of apps. Of those, tens of thousands have been suspended for a variety of reasons while we continue to investigate.”

The suspected apps were associated with about 400 developers, and many of the software programs were still in testing phases, according to Facebook. The huge social network became the subject of intense scrutiny after acknowledging in 2018 that Cambridge Analytica misappropriated personal data on tens of millions of Facebook users as part of its work for Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.

Subsequently, Facebook said it would review all apps on the platform to determine how they used data and if they respect its privacy rules. “In a few cases, we have banned apps completely,” Archibong said. Bans can be caused by violations including inappropriately sharing data obtained from Facebook or making data publicly available without protecting people’s identities, according to the social network.

App crackdown

“One app banned was called myPersonality, which shared information with researchers and companies with only limited protections in place, and then refused our request to participate in an audit,” Archibong said. A year ago, Facebook said it had banned some 400 apps including one called myPersonality, which according to Archibong “shared information with researchers and companies with only limited protections in place,” and refused to accept an audit.

Facebook said a recent agreement on privacy with the US Federal Trade Commission – which included a record $5 billion fine — calls for additional oversight on app developers. It “requires developers to annually certify compliance with our policies,” Archibong said. “Any developer that doesn’t go along with these requirements will be held accountable.” Facebook earlier this year filed a lawsuit against South Korean data analytics firm Rankwave in California to make sure it isn’t breaking the leading social network’s rules.

Revamping controls

Along with slapping Facebook with a record fine for data protection violations, the settlement in July called for Facebook to create a privacy committee within its board of directors to be appointed by an independent nominating committee. This would end “unfettered control” of decisions on privacy by Facebook’s chief executive Mark Zuckerberg, the FTC statement said. Facebook also will be required to conduct privacy reviews of every new or modified product, service or practice before it is implemented, including for its WhatsApp and Instagram services.- Agencies 

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