Before his death, Jamal Khashoggi was repeatedly attacked by an army of Twitter trolls that had been ordered to target him as part of a broader campaign against Saudis who were critical of the kingdom. Yet the attacks went far beyond a trolling campaign. The New York Times reveals that Saudi Arabia worked to groom a high-ranking Twitter Saudi employee to spy on user accounts. Western intelligence officilas suspected the employee used his access in the company to spy on accounts for the Saudi government. The intelligence officials warned Twitter about the employee, Ali Alzabrah, at the end of 2015.
Twitter was surprised by the intelligence allegations and placed the employee on administrative leave. They questioned him and conducted analyses to try to figure out what he had seen, but they couldn’t find any evidence that he had given information to the Saudi government. Still, Twitter fired him in December 2015. Alzabarah then returned to Saudi Arabia and now works with the Saudi government. Twitter later sent out warnings to “a few dozen accounts” that they “may have been targeted by state-sponsored actors.”
The effort to recruit the Twitter employee exemplifies just how far the kingdom appears to be willing to go to attack critics and silence their voices on social media. At the center of that operation is a troll farm that uses group chats to distribute lists of people to attack and topics to monitor as well as pro-government messages to push on social media. The trolls also game the system by reporting critical tweet as “sensitive,” which leads the social network to automatically hide the posts from other users.
NBC reported on Thursday that Twitter suspended a network of suspected Twitter bots that were pushing pro-Saudi talking points regarding Khashoggi’s disappearance. The network that was identified by researchers shows that the Twitter bots are getting more sophisticated to try to evade detection.
The Times piece ends with a disturbing story about the effect of a report by consultancy McKinsey & Company about how the public received a string of economic austerity measures the kingdom introduced in 2015. The report found that the Twitter coverage of the measures were much more negative and three accounts were leading the conversation. After the report was released, the man behind one of the accounts was arrested, another one said his cellphone was hacked and two of his brothers were arrested, and the third account, which was anonymous, was shut down.
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