2020-06-15

An Iraqi terrorist group is transferring huge amounts of money directly to Facebook to boost the exposure its fake news posts receive.

After all the scrutiny Facebook has had over recent years – it is still receiving direct payments worth millions of dollars from political disinformation groups that include a listed terrorist entity.

One of the biggest groups in Iraq that is paying large sums of money to Facebook to boost the profile of its messages through networks of false accounts is Kata'ib Hezbollah, which is listed as a terrorist organisation by Japan and the US.

Sources that have worked with Kata'ib Hezbollah told the journalists that it has around 400 individuals working in its digital propaganda team – and it controlled thousands of fake accounts and pages.

In May 2020, Facebook removed 324 pages, 71 accounts, 5 Groups and 31 Instagram accounts, which had spent a total of $270,000 on Facebook ads. The pages were followed by about 4.4 million accounts, according to Facebook.

The network that was removed in May focussed on Iraqi Kurdistan and used fake accounts to post online, impersonate local politicians and political parties as well as managing pages that masqueraded as news outlets.

This network had links with individuals associated with Zanyari Agency, part of the intelligence services of the Kurdistan Regional Government that is affiliated with the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) political party, according to Facebook.

As well as using Facebook ads, Iraq’s “electronic armies” are using Facebook’s “Boost Post” function to amplify the exposure that their messages receive online. This function allows users to reach a wider audience with a message in return for making a direct payment to Facebook.

Facebook declined to provide the journalists with the amount of money spent on the “Boost Post” function by networks that have already been taken down.

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

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

Fadi al-Shimari, a leader of Ammar al-Hakim's Al-Hekma party: “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.”

When the journalists told Facebook that Kata'ib Hezbollah was using fake pages to amplify its messages 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.”

The impact of Iraq’s “electronic armies” and mass manipulation of Facebook networks shouldn’t be underestimated. Failure to clamp down on these networks is hugely damaging to efforts to stabilise Iraq and negatively impacts the lives of millions of Iraqis.

(c) Wil Crisp

Wil Crisp

Wil Crisp is a freelance journalist that has worked for news organisations including Bloomberg, The Times, The Independent, the BBC, Sky News and The Guardian.

Wil Crisp

Suadad al-Salhy

Suadad al-Salhy is a freelance journalist that has worked for global news organisations covering politics and security in Iraq.

Suadad al-Salhy
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