The West’s infatuation with alleged progressive reformist Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman appears to have come to an end.
Following Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi’s death, the Saudi regime is exposing itself as what it really is: A ruthless web of retrograde mechanisms causing death, destruction, and silencing dissidents and critics of the state.
According to a New York Times report published Saturday, Saudi Arabia’s online propaganda efforts are sophisticated, orchestrated, and coordinated, designed and directed by the crown prince himself.
The government of Saudi Arabia has not only managed to weaponize an army of online trolls, and it has also infiltrated Twitter. In late 2015, Western intelligence officials approached Twitter with information that the Saudis were grooming one of the company’s employees, Ali Alzabarah.
Ali Alzabarah had joined Twitter two years earlier, rapidly climbing up the company’s hierarchical ladder, subsequently reaching an engineering position. A position which gave him access to user accounts. At the direction of the Saudi government and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman himself, Alzabarah accessed dozens of Twitter accounts.
“As a precaution, we are alerting you that your Twitter account is one of a small group of accounts that may have been targeted by state-sponsored actors,” Twitter emails sent to owners of accessed accounts read.
Saudi Arabia’s Twitter insider accessed accounts of journalists, policy academics, privacy advocates, and surveillance specialists. Once contacted by Western intelligence officials, Twitter questioned Alzabarah and subsequently put him on administrative leave. He was fired in December 2015.
Alzabarah returned to Saudi Arabia shortly after and now works for the Saudi government, according to the New York Times.
Saudi Arabia silences dissent online by swarming critics like Jamal Khashoggi with trolls. It also appeared to groom a Twitter insider to spy. https://t.co/3Z3BjBSsp4
— The New York Times (@nytimes) October 20, 2018
Although crucial, Alzabarah’s role in Saudi Arabia’s internet propaganda efforts is merely the tip of the iceberg. In an effort to revamp the country’s image, the regime has hired Saudis living in Canada and other countries to coordinate online campaigns.
For years, Saudi Arabia’s capable army of Twitter trolls would silence and ridicule critics, and spread pro-regime propaganda on social media. Some of them were volunteers — they called themselves “Electronic Bees.”
In one of his final Twitter messages, now-deceased journalist Jamal Khashoggi wrote, “The Bees are coming.”
This message was in reference to Twitter troll-lead smear campaigns Khashoggi and other Saudi dissidents were often targets of.
In his final interview published by Newsweek, Khashoggi discussed the crown prince’s alleged reform efforts, observing that Mohammed bin Salman “wants to enjoy the fruits of First World modernity and Silicon Valley and cinemas and everything, but at the same time he wants also to rule like how his grandfather ruled Saudi Arabia.”