Tuesday April 6, 2021
Coordinated Inauthentic Bee-havior
Jack Stubbs, C. Shawn Eib
The Thin Line Between Marketing and Political Propaganda: How an Egyptian Firm Ran Fake News Pages Targeting Ethiopia, Sudan and Turkey
On April 6, Facebook announced the removal in March of a network of accounts and pages that it said originated in Egypt and violated its policy against foreign interference. The set consisted of six pages, 17 Facebook accounts, and three Instagram accounts, which posted about news and political events in Amharic, Arabic, and Turkish to target audiences in Ethiopia, Sudan, and Turkey. “The people behind this network relied on a combination of authentic, duplicate, and fake accounts, some of which used stock photos and went through significant name changes. These accounts were used to create and manage Pages posing as entities located in the countries they targeted,” Facebook said.
Facebook said the network was particularly active in mid-2020 and posted content supporting the Egyptian government, as well as criticism of Turkish foreign policy and Ethiopia’s construction of a dam on the Blue Nile. “Although the people behind it attempted to conceal their identities and coordination, our investigation found links to Bee Interactive, a marketing firm in Egypt,” the company said.
Facebook shared the set of accounts and pages with Graphika for further analysis before removing them from its platforms. This report details our analysis and assessments in two parts: the first examines the Facebook takedown set and its online footprint, the second looks at additional marketing campaigns we found with connections to staff at Bee Interactive.
This operation illustrates the role commercial marketing firms play in political influence campaigns, highlighting the porous border between their legitimate work and covert, inauthentic activity. While investigators have previously exposed parts of this burgeoning influence-for-hire industry - notably in Egypt, Israel, the United States and Canada - the activity identified here provides a rare in-depth look at how these operations can align and overlap with a company’s routine marketing work.
Below are our key findings:
- Five of the six pages identified by Facebook presented themselves as independent media outlets in order to target audiences in Ethiopia and Sudan. These pages republished extracts from local-language news articles and the topics they chose to cover often aligned with Egypt’s geopolitical interests. These included support for bilateral relations between Cairo and Khartoum, and criticism of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.
- A sixth page targeted audiences in Turkey with content claiming to form a record of human rights abuses in the country. The page and an accompanying website were overtly anti-government in their messaging.
- The accounts identified by Facebook included authentic personas with multiple public links to staff at a social media marketing firm in Egypt called Bee Interactive Ltd.
- Some of the activity in the set connects to other marketing and promotion campaigns conducted by Bee Interactive employees. This included running Facebook groups supporting members of the Egyptian government, promoting beauty brands, and building audiences for genuine media outlets.
- Overall, the “influence operation” aspects of the set were not particularly sophisticated. Many of the inauthentic accounts were easily identified as such, the authentic personas made little or no effort to hide their connections to Bee Interactive, and the pages mostly engaged in copy-pasting extracts of external news articles, which failed to gain significant traction with their target audiences.