May 21, 2024


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Iraqi groups paying Facebook millions to churn out fake news

Facebook is receiving millions of dollars from Iraqi “electronic armies” which boost the profile of fake news stories, The Telegraph has learnt.

These mostly political groups are setting up large networks of thousands of fake accounts and pages and using Facebook ads as well as the company’s “Boost Post” to amplify the exposure that the messages receive online.

Facebook ads allow users to target specific demographics with ads and the “Boost Post” function allows users to reach a wider audience with a message or video in return for making a direct payment to Facebook.

In May, Facebook removed 324 pages, 71 accounts, five groups and 31 Instagram accounts, which had spent a total of $270,000 (£213,000) on Facebook ads. The pages were followed by about 4.4 million accounts, according to Facebook.

This network, which focused on Iraqi Kurdistan, used fake accounts to post online, impersonate local politicians and parties as well as managing pages that masqueraded as news outlets.

“What has been exposed here is just a tiny fraction of what is actually going on in Iraq,” said Ruwayda Mustafah, a transparency campaigner. “Political organisations are spending millions with Facebook in order to present fake news using fake accounts.

“Facebook needs to publish exactly how much money it is receiving and who from. Because as things stand, the platform profiting from activities is undermining democracy and security in the Middle East.”

Iraq – Scott Peterson/Getty Images Europe

One of the biggest groups paying large sums to Facebook to boost the profile of its messages is Kata’ib Hezbollah, according to sources that know the group.

Iraq’s Kata’ib Hezbollah is a Shia paramilitary group and is listed as a terrorist organisation by Japan, the United Arab Emirates and the US.

“Kata’ib Hezbollah has around 400 individuals working in its digital propaganda team,” said one source that has experience working with the group. “They are very skilled and control an extensive network of fake Facebook accounts and pages.

“Kata’ib Hezbollah was quick to understand the power of social media and has spent more money in this area than anyone else – easily running into millions of dollars if you include paying salaries and equipment.

“Each team member needs to be provided with a mobile, an iPad and a Visa card to pay for boosts.” Its digital propaganda unit promotes messages and videos that attack the reputation of rival politicians, often using fabricated stories. It also runs internal training sessions that teach team members how to avoid censorship.

“One of the problems the electronic armies face are the changing standards of Facebook,” said one source. “When key words are used in posts like ‘Hezbollah’ or the name of prominent leaders – it can lead to accounts being shut down. The electronic armies are constantly inventing ways to get around this – and usually the solutions are very simple, such as putting spaces to separate certain letters or inserting an emoji in the right place.”

Iraq’s domestic newspapers and television channels are controlled by political parties and their allies, and are often accused of political bias.

Due to the lack of reliable news sources, the influence of online “electronic armies” has soared in Iraq, said Dr Mazin Sameer, the head of computer science at Al-Mustafa University College in Baghdad.

“Initially people turned to social media to find out information that the television news wasn’t telling them,” he said. “But now the social media landscape is distorted by ‘electronic armies’, with their own agendas.”

Fadi al-Shimari, a leader of Ammar al-Hakim’s Al-Hekma political party told The Telegraph: “Even ministers and officials have their own electronic armies. It’s like an arms race. Whoever pays more will get the most skilled operators to either promote them or to attack their enemies.”

One former member of an Iraqi electronic army that focused on blackmailing individuals told The Telegraph that he paid around $18,000 to Facebook over six months in order to boost fake news posts made on fake accounts that he controlled.

“I was in a team of nine people and my main job was to change the IP addresses for the accounts so they could not be traced,” he said.

“We successfully controlled between 1,500 and 2,000 Facebook pages most of the time. We were employed to attack powerful people in the media and in government with fake news and negative messages.

“There are many groups like ours in Iraq. Together, they are paying millions of dollars to Facebook.”

Over the last decade, Facebook has made repeated pledges to crackdown on disinformation on its social network, but critics say it continues to profit from users spreading fake news.

Facebook declined to reveal how much it had been paid. A spokesman said: “When we take down information operations, we are taking action based on the behaviour we see on our platform, not based on who the actors behind it are or what they say.”

This story was developed with the support of the Money Trail Project

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