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Facebook closes accounts linked to Kurdish intelligence in Iraq

The accounts were linked to the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and targeted its rival, the Kurdistan Democratic Party.
The logo of Facebook is seen in Davos, Switzerland Januar 20, 2020. Picture taken January 20, 2020. REUTERS/Arnd Wiegmann - RC2ZJE9J2LZP

Facebook closed several accounts and pages linked to Kurdish intelligence in Iraq last month. The pages were used by the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) in its political rivalry with the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), according to findings from a report released by Facebook today.

In May, Facebook closed 324 pages, 71 accounts, five groups and 31 Instagram accounts that it linked to the Zanyari agency, according to a Facebook statement. The intelligence agency is controlled by the PUK, which is the second largest party in Iraqi Kurdistan and dominates Sulaimaniyah province. The strongholds of the largest party, the KDP, are in Erbil and Dahuk provinces. The PUK is historically close to Iran, while the KDP has an economic relationship with Turkey.

The users engaged in what Facebook describes as “coordinated inauthentic behavior.” This is defined as “coordinated efforts to manipulate public debate for a strategic goal where fake accounts are central to the operation,” the Facebook statement read.

The accounts and pages in question impersonated local politicians and posed as news agencies. Around $270,000 was spent on advertisements promoting the content and more than 4 million people followed at least one of the pages, according to Facebook’s May report for coordinated inauthentic behavior released today.

They content they pushed advanced anti-KDP narratives involving the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). Some of the posts were about alleged ties between some Kurdish politicians and Turkey, according to the report. The KDP is often criticized for its economic relationship with Turkey due to Turkey’s military conflict with Kurdish groups in Iraq, Syria and Turkey.

The Facebook report also included a post showing the late Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s picture next to the KDP’s logo. The Kurdish-language caption claimed his wife was in the KDP stronghold of Erbil, reading “Confirmed by evidence: Abu Bakr El-Baghdadi's wife is in Erbil. If false, Let Erbil airport deny it.”

The social network research firm Graphika likewise found that the posts targeted the KDP. A report Graphika released today on Facebook’s findings showed that the accounts criticized KRG Prime Minister and senior KDP figure Masrour Barzani for his speech on the KRG’s financial crisis last month, for example. The posts alleged that Masrour sought to blame the region’s economic situation on his cousin, KRG President Nechirvan Barzani, according to Graphika.

The Zanyari intelligence agency could not be reached for comment. One KRG official said that the scenario laid out by Graphika is “very accurate” and that the PUK sought to criticize Masrour Barzani in particular.

“A certain group within PUK has made a significant investment in cyberspace to target the KRG for one specific reason, namely the head of government, the prime minister,” the official, who declined to give his name because of the potential political fallout, told Al-Monitor.

The findings also received significant attention on Kurdish social media. Some PUK-affiliated politicians frequently criticize the KRG on Twitter and other platforms.

This is not the first time Facebook has sought to limit information tied to Middle Eastern governments. In April, Facebook closed hundreds of pages and accounts after concluding they were linked to the Iranian government and were engaged in coordinated inauthentic behavior.

Facebook also began applying “state-controlled” labels to media outlets in Iran, Algeria, Russia and other countries yesterday. The company’s head of cybersecurity policy said the labels will help inform users of the news they are consuming.

“They combine the influence of a media organization with the strategic backing of a state,” Facebook cybersecurity chief Nathaniel Gleicher said in a press release. “People should know if the news they read is coming from a publication that may be under the influence of a government.”

The list of news sites that now have the label includes Press TV and the Tasnim News Agency from Iran. In Algeria, Algerie Presse Service carries the designation, as does Agence Tunis Afrique Presse in Tunisia. In the Russian media, RT Arabic is also now designated as “state-controlled.” There are other outlets with the label as well, including Chinese and North Korean ones, a Facebook representative told Al-Monitor.

The aforementioned outlets all had the “state-controlled media” label as today. Clicking on the label opens up a window that says the outlet is “is partially or wholly under the editorial control of a state.”

Facebook did not label some other state media outlets in the region as such, including TRT World in Turkey and SANA in Syria.

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