Both Twitter and Facebook announced today that they were removing hundreds of inauthentic accounts that Facebook says have links to the Falun Gong spiritual movement — of Shen Yun fame. But in addition to those, Twitter quietly admitted it just had to remove 88,000 fake accounts linked to a Saudi social media marketing agency.
The fake accounts out of Vietnam and the U.S. were all promoting content for a website that launched in 2016 called TheBL.com, short for "Beauty of Life." Snopes first connected the site, which is heavily populated with pro-Trump propaganda and misinformation, with the Falun Gong media empire that also includes the conservative site The Epoch Times (note the exclusive Shen Yun content on the right hand side of the front page). And earlier this year, Facebook banned ads promoting Epoch Times content after NBC News and others found it was promoting conspiracy theories like QAnon, among other content favorable to the president.
According to Snopes, the editors at Epoch Times have denied any connection to TheBL.com, not it's notable that there was an apparent uptick in activity promoting TheBL content after Epoch Times was censured by Facebook.
Disturbingly, according to disinformation experts, many of the Falun Gong-backed fake accounts had photo avatars that were created using AI — marking a new development in the war on fake accounts, because they trick the platforms' AI into thinking they are real people.
As Facebook researchers told the Washington Post this week, the Epoch Times and BL accounts amounted to "a large-scale artificial amplification factory," primarily based in the U.S. Facebook and Twitter were careful to say that the content being posted was not the reason for the shutdowns, but rather that the fakery violated rules prohibiting misrepresentation and "coordinated inauthentic behavior."
TheBL's own Facebook page was removed Friday, and Facbook's head of security policy Nathaniel Gleicher told the Post, "The BL is now banned from Facebook. We are continuing to investigate all linked networks, and will take action as appropriate if we determine they are engaged in deceptive behavior."
In separate news also curiously timed on a Friday before a big holiday week, Twitter said that it had just shut down the largest state-backed misinformation campaign it had ever seen, this one linked to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
In a blog post this morning, Twitter said it had identified and banned 88,000 accounts that were primarily posting in Arabic with positive messages about the Saudi government, but which also posted content aimed at Western audiences as well. The accounts were traced back to a Saudi social promotion agency called Smaat, which also manages social accounts for Saudi royals, as Business Insider reports.
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salmon (MBS) appears to have an obsession with social media and its ability to sway public opinion — which is perhaps wise given the events of the Arab Spring eight years ago. Last month, federal prosecutors arrested and charged two former Twitter employees for using their credentials at the company to access sensitive information and do other work on behalf of MBS.
Both cases highlight the grave implications of continued misinformation on social media for the 2020 election — something all platforms have referred to as being like "Whack-a-Mole." Snopes claims that it brought TheBL's inauthentic activity to Facebook's attention in mid-October, but the company is only now acting.