morning, Jamal Khashoggi would check his phone to discover what fresh
hell had been unleashed while he was sleeping.
would see the work of an army of Twitter trolls, ordered to attack him
and other influential Saudis who had criticized the kingdom’s leaders.
He sometimes took the attacks personally, so friends made a point of
calling frequently to check on his mental state.
mornings were the worst for him because he would wake up to the
equivalent of sustained gunfire online,” said Maggie Mitchell Salem, a
friend of Khashoggi’s for more than 15 years.
online attackers were part of a broad effort dictated by Crown Prince
Mohammed bin Salman and his close advisers to silence critics both
inside Saudi Arabia and abroad. Hundreds of people work at a so-called
troll farm in Riyadh to smother the voices of dissidents like
Khashoggi. The vigorous push also appears to include the grooming —
not previously reported — of a Saudi employee at Twitter whom Western
intelligence officials suspected of spying on user accounts to help
the Saudi leadership.
killing by Saudi agents of Khashoggi, a columnist for The Washington
Post, has focused the world’s attention on the kingdom’s intimidation
campaign against influential voices raising questions about the darker
side of the crown prince. The young royal has tightened his grip on
the kingdom while presenting himself in Western capitals as the man to
reform the hidebound Saudi state.
portrait of the kingdom’s image management crusade is based on
interviews with seven people involved in those efforts or briefed on
them; activists and experts who have studied them; and U.S. and Saudi
officials, along with messages seen by The New York Times that
described the inner workings of the troll farm.
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 Saturday in the fallout from Khashoggi’s
killing, was the strategist behind the operation, according to U.S.
and Saudi officials, as well as activist organizations.
Saudis had hoped that Twitter would democratize discourse by giving
everyday citizens a voice, but Saudi Arabia has instead become an
illustration of how authoritarian governments can manipulate social
media to silence or drown out critical voices while spreading its own
version of reality.
the Gulf, the stakes are so high for those who engage in dissent that
the benefits of using social media are outweighed by the negatives,
and in Saudi Arabia in particular,” said Marc Owen Jones, a lecturer
in the history of the Persian Gulf and Arabian Peninsula at Exeter
University in Britain.
Saudi officials nor Qahtani responded to requests for comment about
the kingdom’s efforts to control online conversations.
his death, Khashoggi was launching projects to combat online abuse and
to try to reveal that Crown Prince Mohammed was mismanaging the
country. In September, 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.”
days before Khashoggi died in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, he
wrote on Twitter that the Bees were coming.
arm of the crackdown on dissidents originates from offices and homes
in and around Riyadh, where hundreds of young men hunt on Twitter for
voices and conversations to silence. This is the troll farm, described
by three people briefed on the project and the messages among group
directors routinely discuss ways to combat dissent, settling on
sensitive themes like the war in Yemen or women’s rights. They then
turn to their well-organized army of “social media specialists” via
group chats in apps like WhatsApp and Telegram, sending them lists of
people to threaten, insult and intimidate; daily tweet quotas to fill;
and pro-government messages to augment.
bosses also send memes that their employees can use to mock
dissenters, like an image of Crown Prince Mohammed dancing with a
sword, akin to the cartoons of Pepe the Frog that supporters of
President Donald Trump used to undermine opponents.
specialists scour Twitter for conversations on the assigned topics and
post messages from the several accounts they each run. Sometimes, when
contentious discussions take off, they publish pornographic images to
goose engagement with their own posts and distract users from more
times, if one account is blocked by too many other users, they simply
close it and open a new one.
one conversation viewed by The Times, dozens of leaders decided to
mute critics of Saudi Arabia’s military attacks on Yemen by reporting
the messages to Twitter as “sensitive.” Twitter automatically hides
such reported posts from other users, blunting their impact.
has had difficulty combating the trolls. The company can detect and
disable the machine-like behaviors of bot accounts, but it has a
harder time picking up on the humans tweeting on behalf of the Saudi
specialists found the jobs through Twitter itself, responding to ads
that said only that an employer sought young men willing to tweet for
about 10,000 Saudi riyals a month, equivalent to about $3,000.
political nature of the work was revealed only after they were
interviewed and expressed interest in the job. According to the people
The Times interviewed, some of the specialists felt they would have
been targeted as possible dissenters themselves if they had turned
down the job.
specialists heard directors speak often of 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 — Qahtani had gained
influence since the young crown prince consolidated power.
ran media operations inside the royal court, which involved directing
the country’s local media, arranging interviews for foreign
journalists with the crown prince, and using his Twitter following of
1.35 million to marshal the kingdom’s online defenders against enemies
including Qatar, Iran and Canada, as well as dissident Saudi voices
a while, he tweeted using the hashtag #The_Black_List, calling on his
followers to suggest perceived enemies of the kingdom.
Arabia and its brothers do what they say. That’s a promise,” he
tweeted last year. “Add every name you think should be added to
#The_Black_List using the hashtag. We will filter them and track them
executives first became aware of a possible plot to infiltrate user
accounts at the end of 2015, when Western intelligence officials told
them that the Saudis were grooming an employee, Ali Alzabarah, to spy
on the accounts of dissidents and others, according to five people
briefed on the matter. They requested anonymity because they were not
authorized to speak publicly.
had joined Twitter in 2013 and had risen through the ranks to an
engineering position that gave him access to the personal information
and account activity of Twitter’s users, including phone numbers and
IP addresses, unique identifiers for devices connected to the
intelligence officials told the Twitter executives that Alzabarah had
grown closer to Saudi intelligence operatives, who eventually
persuaded him to peer into several user accounts, according to three
of the people briefed on the matter.
off guard by the government outreach, the Twitter executives placed
Alzabarah on administrative leave, questioned him and conducted a
forensic analysis to determine what information he may have accessed.
They could not find evidence that he had handed over Twitter data to
the Saudi government, but they nonetheless fired him in December 2015.
returned to Saudi Arabia shortly after, taking few possessions with
him. He now works with the Saudi government, a person briefed on the
spokesman for Twitter declined to comment. Alzabarah did not respond
to requests for comment, nor did Saudi officials.
Dec. 11, 2015, Twitter sent out safety notices to the owners of a few
dozen accounts Alzabarah had accessed. Among them were security and
privacy researchers, surveillance specialists, policy academics and
journalists. A number of them worked for the Tor project, an
organization that trains activists and reporters on how to protect
their privacy. Citizens in countries with repressive governments have
long used Tor to circumvent firewalls and evade government
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,” the emails from Twitter said.
Saudis’ sometimes ruthless image-making campaign is also a byproduct
of the kingdom’s increasingly fragile position internationally. For
decades, their coffers bursting from the world’s thirst for oil, Saudi
leaders cared little about what other countries thought of the
kingdom, its governance or its anachronistic restrictions on women.
Saudi Arabia is confronting a more uncertain economic future as oil
prices have fallen and competition among energy suppliers has grown,
and Crown Prince Mohammed has tried relentlessly to attract foreign
investment into the country — in part by portraying it as a vibrant,
more socially progressive country than it once was.
the government’s social media manipulation tracks with crackdowns in
recent years in other authoritarian states, said Alexei Abrahams, a
research fellow at Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto.
for conversations involving millions of tweets, a few hundred or a few
thousand influential accounts drive the discussion, he said, citing
new research. The Saudi government appears to have realized this and
tried to take control of the conversation, he added.
the regime’s point of view,” he said, “if there are only a few
thousand accounts driving the discourse, you can just buy or threaten
the activists, and that significantly shapes the conversation.”
the Saudi government tried to remake its image, it carefully tracked
how some of its more controversial decisions were received, and how
the country’s most influential citizens online shaped those
the country announced economic austerity measures in 2015 to offset
low oil prices and control a widening budget gap, McKinsey & Co.,
the consulting firm, measured the public reception of those policies.
a nine-page report, a copy of which was obtained by The Times,
McKinsey found that the measures received twice as much coverage on
Twitter than in the country’s traditional news media or blogs, and
that negative sentiment far outweighed positive reactions on social
people were driving the conversation on Twitter, the firm found:
writer Khalid al-Alkami; Abdulaziz, the young dissident living in
Canada; and an anonymous user who went by Ahmad.
the report was issued, Alkami was arrested, the human rights group
ALQST said. Abdulaziz said that Saudi government officials imprisoned
two of his brothers and hacked his cellphone, an account supported by
a researcher at Citizen Lab. Ahmad, the anonymous account, was shut