Skip to main content

US accused over huge 'covert pro-Western' digital campaign targeting Middle East

Dozens of social media accounts operating for years in an attempt to influence people in the Middle East and Asia have been shut down. Now a major new study believes the US is likely behind it
One of the most sophisticated campaigns to influence audiences in the cyber world has been shut down by Facebook and Twitter. (Reuters)

The US government is accused of sponsoring a digital campaign on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and other social media platforms targeting Central Asia and the Middle East to promote pro-Western narratives, according to a study by the Stanford Internet Observatory.  

In July and August of this year, Twitter and Facebook took down dozens of accounts for breaking their policies on "platform manipulation and spam" and for engaging in "coordinated inauthentic behaviour," according to the study titled "Evaluating five years of pro-Western covert influence operations."

The accounts, the study found, were engaged in "deceptive tactics" to promote pro-Western narratives in the Middle East and Central Asia. 

These campaigns were part of a broader mission to promote not just the interests of the United States and its allies but also actively involved in opposing Russia, China, and Iran, the study, published 24 August, said.

The research paper was conducted jointly with Graphika, an intelligence company that maps the world’s online communities and conversations.

Stay informed with MEE's newsletters

Sign up to get the latest alerts, insights and analysis, starting with Turkey Unpacked


Most recently, several of the accounts focused on criticising Russia and civilian deaths caused by Moscow's "imperial ambitions" following the Russian invasion of Ukraine this year. 

While in the West, the information campaign regarding the Ukraine war has largely prevailed, in many major African and Asian countries, there has been suspicion of Western narratives. 

How digital authoritarianism has permeated the Middle East
Read More »

Weighed by the legacy of western colonialism and the continuing fallout of the illegal US invasion of Iraq, many countries in the global south, while not supportive of Russia, have been less than enthusiastic in buying into Western talking points. 

The main focus of these accounts was Iran, Afghanistan, and an Arabic-speaking Middle East group comprising Iraqi and Saudi subgroups. Around 45 percent of the online social media messaging was aimed at Iran, which reflects US priorities toward the country. 

The latest influence campaign also shared content from US state-funded media outlets such as the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe, in addition to links to websites sponsored by the US military. 

While neither Twitter or Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram, has attributed the information to any entity or organisation, according to the report, they would only say that the assumed countries were the US and UK. 

This is not the first time the US government has been accused of running propaganda campaigns with extensive research and reporting on how the US military is looking to shape the cyber sphere. 

What makes the latest study different is that the primary focus until now has been on digital propaganda campaigns from authoritarian regimes in countries such as Russia, China, and Iran, while this research has found what it says is the most "extensive case of covert pro-Western" propaganda that has been analysed. 

According to the report, US attempts to use "inauthentic tactics" to build online audiences have also exposed "limitations", with many of the accounts struggling to gain online traction. 

The Stanford investigation looked at almost 300,000 tweets from 146 accounts that were running between 2012 and 2022. Part of the information was overt US propaganda campaigns, while other types of messaging were covertly run.

Pro-Western Facebook propaganda campaigns were represented by 39 Facebook profiles, 16 pages, two groups, and 26 Instagram accounts active from 2017 to July 2022.

Past operations

In the past, a Middle East Eye investigation found that the parent company of Cambridge Analytica, the political consultancy firm accused of harvesting the data of tens of millions of Facebook users without authorisation, had run counter-extremism campaigns targeting potential Islamic State (IS) recruits for the US and UK governments.

Cambridge Analytica, set up in 2013, claimed credit for swaying voters during US President Donald Trump's 2016 election campaign and during the UK's Brexit referendum in the same year.

The counter-extremism campaign primarily targeted young men in countries including Tunisia, Morocco, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and France, while other targeted countries "remain secret to protect partnerships with their governments".

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

Middle East Eye delivers independent and unrivalled coverage and analysis of the Middle East, North Africa and beyond. To learn more about republishing this content and the associated fees, please fill out this form. More about MEE can be found here.