During the Arab Spring, in which Middle Eastern residents used social media to connect with one another, plan protests, and fight for change within their oppressive government regimes and poor living conditions, Twitter represented a powerful tool for dissidents to communicate and organize.
On Saturday, The New York Times revealed that the Saudi government responded by forming troll farms to uncover and silence dissidents, even planting a spy inside the offices of Twitter.
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
Just as both Russia and China did, the Saudi Arabian government spread disinformation through social media to affect elections and fight criticism of their new regime under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
‘Saudi operatives have mobilized to harass critics on Twitter, a wildly popular platform for news in the kingdom since the Arab Spring uprisings began in 2010. Saud al-Qahtani, a top adviser to Crown Prince Mohammed who was fired on Saturday in the fallout from Mr. Khashoggi’s killing, was the strategist behind the operation, according to United States and Saudi officials, as well as activist organizations.’
— Mediaite (@Mediaite) October 20, 2018
According to the Times, the Saudi government formed a “well-organized army of “social media specialists” via group chats in apps like WhatsApp and Telegram,” even “sending them lists of people to threaten, insult and intimidate; daily tweet quotas to fill; and pro-government messages to augment.” One official, Sauod al-Qahtani, took charge of the efforts, hiring the “specialists” who were not told what the job would entail when they applied, but soon came to understand that turning down the job would land them on the list of detractors whose lives may be in danger.
‘The specialists heard directors speak often of Mr. Qahtani. Labeled by activists and writers as the “troll master,” “Saudi Arabia’s Steve Bannon” and “lord of the flies” — for the bots and online attackers sometimes called “flies” by their victims — Mr. Qahtani had gained influence since the young crown prince consolidated power.’
— Jim Roberts (@nycjim) October 20, 2018
The death of Jamal Khashoggi, a Washington Post reporter who had gained the status of permanent resident in the United States, brought the Saudi efforts to silence critics to the forefront. For his efforts in exposing the new regime as equally oppressive as the old regimes had been, he was tortured and killed at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey by Saudi officials.
‘In September, Mr. Khashoggi wired $5,000 to Omar Abdulaziz, a Saudi dissident living in Canada, who was creating a volunteer army to combat the government trolls on Twitter. The volunteers called themselves the “Electronic Bees.”
‘Eleven days before Mr. Khashoggi died in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, he wrote on Twitter that the Bees were coming.’
COINCIDENCE? The mastermind of the SAUDI online attack squad was a top adviser to MBS & was among those fired in connection with KHASHOGGI’s killing. The adviser, Saud al-Qahtani, has been called the “troll master” & “Saudi Arabia’s Steve Bannon.” https://t.co/J42rhSYmpj
— Kenneth P. Vogel (@kenvogel) October 20, 2018
The new regime under bin Salman has been touted as more progressive than before as laws barring women from the right to drive have been abolished and economic reform to move the country away from its dependence on oil sales have taken place. However, Khashoggi made it a goal to expose his home country’s new leader as the same kind of brutal dictator Saudi Arabia has always suffered under.
"100s of people work at a so-called troll farm in Riyadh to smother the voices of dissidents like Mr. Khashoggi. The vigorous push also appears to include the grooming — not previously reported — of a Saudi employee at Twitter" @katebenner @markmazzettinyt https://t.co/OzLd5COT3S
— Michael Tackett (@tackettdc) October 20, 2018
Interestingly, at least two of the countries who have been exposed for influencing elections and public sentiment both at home and in the U.S. have become closely tied to the current U.S. president. Not only is Trump overly friendly to and praising of Russian President Vladimir Putin, Trump’s son-in-law and foreign policy advisor, Jared Kushner, has famously formed a close friendship with bin Salman.