On April 2, Twitter took down a pro–United Arab Emirates network of accounts that was pushing propaganda about the coronavirus pandemic and criticizing Turkey’s military intervention in Libya. Previously tied to marketing firms in the region, parts of this network were removed by Facebook and Twitter last year.
The network was made up of roughly 9,000 accounts, according to disinformation research firm DFRLab and independent researcher Josh Russell. Although it promoted narratives in line with the political stances of the governments of the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt, its origins were unclear.
The reappearance of a network that social media companies previously took down shows how misinformation campaigns persist on online platforms, undeterred by previous suspensions.
The pro-UAE network found by Russell and analyzed by DFRLab researcher Kanishk Karan had all the hallmarks of inauthentic accounts. Many Twitter handles contained alphanumeric characters instead of names, and many did not post photos. Accounts that did have profile pictures often used images of Indian models.
One video pushed by the fake accounts voiced support for the Chinese government during the peak of the coronavirus outbreak in China in February. The video remains online, but lost over 4,000 retweets and likes after the takedown. The video now has four retweets.
“The United Arab Emirates and its people are ready to help and support China to overcome this humanitarian crisis,” said a woman in the video in Chinese as upbeat music played. “We are willing to cooperate with the international community to tackle this virus.”
The video was posted by the account @uaevoiceurdu, which was created in February and remains online.
The bot network also amplified a video of a woman thanking the government of the UAE for transporting Yemeni students out of Wuhan, China. Today, that video, which is also still online, went from having nearly 4,500 retweets to having 70.
Spreading propaganda about the coronavirus didn’t seem to have been the network's focus.
“While posts related to the coronavirus hashtag were not the primary goal of the network,” the DFRLab wrote, “a close look at the accounts suggests they were used for broader political messaging, demonstrating how information ops can be repurposed for different uses.”
The accounts, some of which posed as journalists and news outlets, amplified an article about the UAE government's disapproval of the Libyan prime minister and boosted criticism of Turkey’s support of militias in Libya.
A different part of the network was taken down by Facebook in August of last year. BuzzFeed News found another part of this network active across social media channels in October. The network was operated by marketing firms in the Middle East and India.
Only previous iterations of the bot network were tied to marketing firms. A previous version of this story misstated the connections.