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Facebook pressed to return money from ads promoting Syrian president

A photo on the Syrian Presidency Facebook page of Asma al-Assad with relatives of martyrs in Damascus on October 1, 2013.
A photo on the Syrian Presidency Facebook page of Asma al-Assad with relatives of martyrs in Damascus on October 1, 2013.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The site has taken down ads for a page promoting Bashar al-Assad's presidential campaign
  • Group accuses Facebook of accepting money from a regime "at the heart" of a brutal conflict
  • "We comply with all relevant Syrian sanctions," a Facebook spokesman says
  • The site typically allows heads of state to have a presence, regardless of their standing

Editor's note: Read a version of this story in Arabic.

(CNN) -- Facebook is facing pressure to return money it accepted to run ads promoting its page for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's presidential campaign.

The social media network has pulled the ads, which directed users to the campaign page, but it has refused to say whether it will return the money it took in exchange for them.

"By accepting money for 'promoted posts,' Facebook has provided a platform for the propaganda of a regime that has been at the heart of one of the world's most brutal conflicts," Anna Nolan of The Syria Campaign said Monday. The group has created an online petition, multiple YouTube videos and launched website called AdsForDictators.org calling on Facebook to return the money and take down the Assad campaign page.

Launched in May, the Facebook page is called "Sawa al-Assad" (Sawa means "together") and has more than 230,000 likes. It is regularly updated with photos from the Assad campaign, including pictures of Bashar al-Assad and his wife, Asma, going to a polling station to vote Tuesday.

A Syrian rebel fighter keeps an eye on government troops in Aleppo, Syria, on Wednesday, December 17. The United Nations estimates nearly 200,000 people have been killed in Syria since an uprising in March 2011 spiraled into civil war. A Syrian rebel fighter keeps an eye on government troops in Aleppo, Syria, on Wednesday, December 17. The United Nations estimates nearly 200,000 people have been killed in Syria since an uprising in March 2011 spiraled into civil war.
Syrian civil war in 2014
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Photos: Syrian civil war in 2014 Photos: Syrian civil war in 2014
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Polls for the Syrian presidential election opened against the backdrop of a bloody and protracted civil war, and al-Assad is almost guaranteed to emerge victorious in a vote that opposition groups and many Western countries say has been be rigged from the start.

"We have looked onto this thoroughly, including reviewing IP address and payment information, and we have no evidence that these ads were ordered from Syria," a Facebook representative said. An IP address indicates an Internet user's location, though users can easily mask real IP addresses to make it appear they're in another country.

"We comply with all relevant Syrian sanctions and we do not permit ads originating from or targeting Syria," the Facebook representative added.

Even though it removed the ads promoting the page, Facebook says it is not considering taking down the Assad campaign page.

"You'll find a range of voices debating events in Syria on Facebook," according to the Facebook representative.

Users don't have to pay to open an account on social media, so the social network typically allows political leaders and heads of state to maintain a presence on its platforms, regardless of their standing. Social media networks often prefer not to decide which leaders deserve and don't deserve the ability to have a presence on their sites.

The campaign to reelect al-Assad has maintained an active presence on Facebook and other social media with additional accounts on Twitter, Instagram and YouTube, which are all regularly updated.

READ: Voting begins in war-torn Syria; Bashar al-Assad expected to win

READ: Syria's presidential election: How fair can a vote be in a war zone?

READ: U.N. chief to Syria: Please don't hold presidential elections

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