Twitter Bans Bots Spreading Saudi Propaganda On Jamal Khashoggi

Billboards across Saudi Arabia tout progress made by the crown prince.
Chris J Ratcliffe / Getty Images

Twitter confirms that it has moved to suspend scores of suspected bot accounts that began dispensing an unusually high volume of tweets that were determined to have spread disinformation and promoted allegiance to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the wake of journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s disappearance.

Many of the those removed from the Jack Dorsey-run social media platform reportedly came from a list of hundreds of handles that was compiled and passed over by IT sources of NBC News last week. Twitter has revealed that it was aware of the suspicious accounts prior to Thursday’s, October 18, announcement. The company’s decision to finally come down on the alleged coordinated operation followed a weekend that saw some of the Arabic hashtags included in the posts trending worldwide.

While a percentage of those who wound up pushing the Saudi-bias campaign is believed to be comprised of credible users, analysts are calling attention to the nature of some of the more active accounts that the data points to as causing doubt that the spike in activity was completely organic. Researchers such as Josh Russell and Ben Nimmo informed Newsweek that there had specifically been an explosion of retweets being simultaneously pumped out to spread content in the kind of uniform fashion that would suggest semi-automation tactics to have been at work.

“There are multiple bot networks, and the main aim appears to be to manipulate trends to hide negative information about Saudi’s involvement in Khashoggi’s disappearance. The sheer amount of bots drives down critical trends while promoting banal information or pro-MBS [Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman] propaganda,” researcher Marc Owen Jones told the publication.

Some of the propaganda going around reportedly aimed to discredit the Al Jazeera news network as a Qatar-owned opponent of the Saudi royal family, while other narratives that the tweets promoted sought to defame Khashoggi as an alleged proponent of the Muslim Brotherhood and question the validity of his fiancee Hatice Cengiz’s relationship to him. Meanwhile, a great deal of spin was put on the allegations with the intention of generating a wave of support for the Saudi prince, according to reports.

Khashoggi has been missing for over two weeks. He was last seen entering the Saudi consulate in Turkey on October 2. Cengiz vouches that he had gone to obtain paperwork proving that he was effectively divorced from his last marriage so that they could marry. But he was never seen again, and with him having lived in exile as a critic of the Saudi royal regime, it is suspected that he may have been murdered and disposed of on that day.

Twitter thus far claims to have no evidence that would prove the botnet activity it took action to stifle was directly facilitated by the Saudi government.