Thought Russia was bad? Why Saudi Arabia is the world's most dangerous cyber bully

Thought Russia was bad? Why Saudi Arabia is the world's most dangerous cyber bully
6 min read
15 Sep, 2020
Comment: With disinformation, intimidation of critics, and an array of fake accounts, Saudi Arabia has successfully turned Twitter into a weapon of authoritarian rule, writes disinformation expert, Marc Owen Jones.
Saudi Arabia has successfully subverted Twitter for its authoritarian ends [Getty]
When it comes to disinformation and fake news, the world's media tends to focus on Russia, Iran and China. There is good reason for this – they do produce a lot of disinformation. However, the western-centric bias tends to neglect the fact that it is Saudi Arabia that should be considered one of the most dangerous global actors in digital repression.

Saudi Arabia's digital authoritarianism, that is, their use of digital tools including social media to censor, intimidate and surveil both domestic and international populations, is egregious in its audacity.

Over the past few years, Saudi-connected entities have successfully utilised and penetrated Twitter to the extent that Twitter itself has become a weapon of authoritarian rule.

Under the Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, the regime have simultaneously tried to resolve a paradox – to generate an image of a new progressive Saudi while at the same time stymying any potential criticism.

This is no mean feat. Saudi Arabia has the most Twitter users in the Arabic-speaking world, and the most verified Twitter accounts. So how do you stop people using that vast social media space for criticism?

Journalist Jamal Khashoggi was brutally murdered in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul in 2018. Before Khashoggi was murdered, he faced relentless attacks and a 'daily torrent of hateful comments' on Twitter

Intimidation and harassment

Rule one, use intimidation, harassment and murder. The Saudi regime have ensured that critics face consequences for their action. Journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a vocal critic of MBS's 'reforms', was brutally murdered in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul in 2018. Before Khashoggi was murdered, he faced relentless attacks and a 'daily torrent of hateful comments' on Twitter and social media. So much so, he reportedly wept every day.

Khashoggi attributed this hate campaign to Saud al-Qahtani, a former adviser to the Royal Court, widely seen as the architect of Saudi Arabia's reputation management in the digital sphere.

Read also: Under guise of anti-corruption sting, Saudi crown prince finds new royal targets

Yet while Khashoggi was a Saudi citizen, even Americans are not safe. Former FBI agent Ali Soufan, who rose to prominence for his role in investigation the 9/11 attacks, was recently warned by the CIA that there may be a Saudi-backed attempt on his life. Like Khashoggi, Soufan faced a similar Twitter harassment campaign from Saudi accounts two weeks after the CIA's warning.

Critics of Saudi Arabia are frequently 'doxed' and harassed on Twitter, with little or no consequence. This summer, Al Jazeera journalists Ghada Oueiss and Ola Al Fares were subject to a barrage of tens of thousands of misogynistic tweets from high profile verified Twitter accounts. They had even hacked Ouess's phone and posted a picture they took out of context and claimed she was nude.

Saudi Arabia has reportedly accomplished what no state appears to have done so far: infiltrate Twitter HQ


But Saudi Arabia has reportedly accomplished what no state appears to have done so far: infiltrate Twitter HQ. This year the FBI filed a legal case against three men accused of spying on behalf of Saudi Arabia. Two of them worked inside Twitter, accessing private information from Saudi Twitter users.

Using their high levels of Twitter access, Ali Al Zabarah and Ahmad Abouammo appear to have accessed email addresses, IP address, and dates of birth of known critics of the Saudi regime, as well as thousands of other Twitter users. What's more, their alleged handler, Ahmed AlMutairi, was a media adviser to the Royal family.

The Saudi penetration of the US tech giant had devastating consequence. Saudi citizen Areej al Sadhan, stated that her brother Abdulrahaman was disappeared by Saudi Arabia's secret police as a direct result of the Twitter breach. At least five others reportedly suffered a similar fate as a direct result of the Saudi infiltration.

Behind China, Saudi has the highest number of accounts removed by Twitter for information operations. Higher than Russia or Iran.

Fake accounts and propaganda

Once you silence your critics, you can drown out any remaining counter narratives by making sure only approved news gets heard. Saudi Arabia features heavily in Twitter's take-downs of known influence operations. In fact, behind China, Saudi Arabia has the highest number of accounts removed by Twitter for information operations. Higher than Russia or Iran.

One of the most followed Saudi News outlets is actually a Twitter account called SaudiNews50, which, rather than being a traditional news outlet, is a project run by the digital marketing company Smaat. SaudiNews50 was one of the most retweeted twitter accounts in the Arab World during the killing of Khashoggi, yet what it was tweeting was pure disinformation.

Months after Khashoggi's death, Smaat had 88,000 accounts deleted by Twitter for spam-like behaviour. In other words, SaudiNews50 was pumping out Saudi state propaganda, which was artificially boosted by armies of fake accounts.

'Astroturfing' and hacking

All these fake accounts serve one main purpose, to provide the illusion of popular grassroots support or agreement with state policy. Some accounts are more sought after in spreading this disinformation.

Verified Twitter accounts belonging to American sports personalities and TV celebrities have been hacked and taken over by account spreading pro-Saudi propaganda. On one occasion the hacked account belonged to an American meteorologist who had died some years previous, and was taken over for propaganda purpsoes. The blue tick of these verified accounts gives the news more reach and legitimacy.

With some of the highest number of Twitter account deletions, the ability to infiltrate Twitter, the willingness to brutally execute critics on foreign soil, Saudi Arabia is demonstrably one of the most, if not the most, dangerous actor in the conventional social media space. And in many ways, it is precisely Saudi Arabia's relationship with the US that has prevented deep scrutiny, as the media tends to focus on America's established adversaries in Iran, China and Russia.

There is little sign of this abating. Following the well-publicised demotion of Saud al-Qahtani after his alleged role in the killing of Khashoggi, harassment and disinformation are still rampant. Whether Qahtani is still pulling the strings is unknown, but the one constant appears to be MBS, under whom Saudi Arabia's digital authoritarianism has achieved the (un)enviable state of a global leader.

Marc Owen Jones is an assistant professor in Middle East studies and digital humanities at Hamad bin Khalifa University in Doha, and an honorary research fellow at Exeter University.

Follow him on Twitter: @marcowenjones

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab.

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