Blog August 6, 2020

The Ministry of Made-Up Pages: Yemen-Based Actors Impersonate Government Agencies to Spread Anti-Houthi Content

We analyzed a now-suspended network of Facebook Pages, Groups, and profiles linked to individuals in Yemen. We found accounts that impersonated government ministries in Saudi Arabia, posts that linked to anti-Houthi websites, and pro-Turkish Pages and Groups.
graphic illustration of facebook posts from yemen

Download Report: "The Ministry of Made-Up Pages"
Read Facebook Blog: "July 2020 Coordinated Inauthentic Behavior Report"

On August 6, 2020, Facebook suspended 28 Pages, 15 Groups, 69 Facebook accounts, and ten Instagram accounts for engaging in coordinated inauthentic behavior. As noted in its takedown report, Facebook attributed this network to individuals in Yemen. Facebook shared a portion of this network with the Stanford Internet Observatory on July 28. In our investigation, we find that this was a small operation that targeted Yemenis and shared narratives critical of the Houthis. In total, the Pages we analyzed posted only 1,489 times. Notable tactics of the network included the use of fake Saudi ministry Pages that ran apolitical engagement contests. Across Pages, Groups, and a linked channel on the Telegram messaging app, the network posted contests with cash prizes; eligibility depended on liking Pages or joining Groups or the Telegram channel. Of the limited engagement the Pages received, an overwhelming majority stemmed from these contests. The takedown also included a number of pro-Turkey Pages and a pro-Turkey Group. 

four screenshots of facebook pages showing affiliation with the government of Saudi Arabia
The four Pages pretending to be official Saudi Arabian government Pages. Top left: “Ministry of Labor in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia” (translated), top right: “Saudi Ministry of Finance” (this Page uses the actual Ministry of Finance logo), bottom left: “Saudi Ministry of Labor,” bottom right: “Saudi Passports - Instructions.” 

Key Takeaways:

  • One cluster of Pages pretended to be the official Pages of the Saudi Ministry of Finance and the Ministry of Labor and were linked to a Telegram channel that self-described as the official channel for the Saudi Ministry of Finance. These Pages were created in the last two months and had only a small following. It appears their intent was ultimately to push readers toward domains supportive of Yemeni President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi and critical of the Houthis. More generally, we observed a large amount of content that was critical of the Houthis across this network.

  • Pages – particularly those assuming the identity of Saudi ministries – ran contests which we believe were designed to increase engagement across the network.

  • A cluster of Pages and Groups were fan Pages for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The Pages had content critical of Libyan strongman Khalifa Haftar and praised Erdoğan’s role in fighting Haftar’s forces. 

  • Another cluster of Groups had titles suggesting they were fan Groups for members of the Yemeni government. 

  • We observed a puzzling mix of anti-Saudi Arabia and pro-Saudi Arabia sentiments throughout the suspended Pages, Groups, and profiles.

  • Clickbait-style posts frequently linked to news domains that may have been related to the larger Facebook network, including newsweb.news, ahdathnet.net, yemen-now.com, yemen-now.net, and al-ahrar.net. These websites shared tabloid-style news about Saudi Arabia and pro-Hadi Yemeni news.

  • The suspended Pages, Groups, and profiles form a densely connected network. Many of the profiles were members of the Groups and a majority of the administrators of these Groups were among the profiles Facebook suspended.

screenshot of a pro-Turkey facebook page in yemen
A pro-Turkey/Erdoğan Page.