The suspensions were the latest blow to the disinformation operations in the Middle East. In August, Facebook suspended 350 accounts and pages for promoting Saudi state propaganda and attacking Saudi Arabia’s regional rivals. In October 2018, Twitter suspended thousands of bot accounts spreading favorable messages about Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman during the height of the furor over the killing of Washington Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi. Twitter’s other suspensions in the region have tended to focus on accounts linked to the Iranian government.
Though overdue, these suspensions are unlikely to affect the deluge of social media propaganda in the region. The accounts suspended are fairly small in relation to the amount of suspected accounts spreading disinformation in Arabic. Indeed, the number of fake accounts may be in the millions. And as the Khashoggi murder showed, it is also important to remember that disinformation is often produced and disseminated by state-approved institutions.
Analyzing the data
Who exactly were behind these recently suspended accounts, and what were they saying? I analyzed the data that Twitter released to the public and found some intriguing trends.
Between January 2017 and May 2019, the 4,500 accounts produced over 1 million tweets and retweets. Over half of all tweets were posted in the fourth quarter of 2018 and the first quarter of 2019. The tweets point to an influence campaign on a global scale, with accounts tweeting in multiple languages, including English, Arabic, Spanish, Russian and Japanese.
The modus operandi of the accounts was varied, but all were designed to deceive the casual Twitter user. Some of the suspended accounts masqueraded as independent English-language news sites.
One of the six Saudi accounts banned was a news site called “the Globus” and even had a verified Twitter account. This account had even been previously linked to a pro-Trump information operation trying to denounce the special counsel report as a “Russiagate hoax.”
Other accounts purported to be real individuals with profile photos, such as “Sara Bitar,” who claimed to have a master’s degree in political and economic science.
“Yemen,” “Qatar” and “Houthis” were among the most commonly appearing words. Many accounts also leveled criticism at the Muslim Brotherhood and Qatar’s hosting of the World Cup — both maligned by the Saudi and Emirati regimes. Other accounts praised the Saudi crown prince.
The common thread, though, was boosting the legitimacy of the Saudi-led war on Yemen, while also promoting Saudi and Emirati foreign policy via the demonization of Qatar, the Houthis and Iran. The accounts, a mixture of human-operated (trolls) and automated accounts (bots), also engaged in an increasingly common tactic on Twitter: mass-messaging Western media outlets and U.S. officials, including President Trump.
Suspending the ‘Lord of the Flies’
Most of the suspended accounts were not prominent, except one: that of Saud al-Qahtani. A former adviser to the Saudi royal court and the general supervisor of the Center for Studies and Media Affairs, Qahtani was implicated in Khashoggi’s October killing, and the United States imposed sanctions on him. Widely regarded as Mohammed’s confidant, Qahtani is considered the architect of Saudi Arabia’s malicious digital media campaign, procuring bots and spyware to target perceived critics of the country.
To suspend Qahtani now, allegedly for “platform manipulation,” when he has not tweeted since October, is unusual. It has been suggested that Twitter may have found evidence linking Qahtani to an operation against critics of Saudi’s leaders, but Qahtani’s reputation as “Lord of the Flies” began way back, during the Persian Gulf crisis in 2017. He endangered the lives of people when he initiated a Twitter blacklist to name and shame sympathizers of Qatar and promote regime change.
Oddly, despite providing an archive of the tweets from suspended accounts, Twitter has not provided Qahtani’s archive. Twitter claims there was no evidence that his account was linked to broader information operations, yet open-source investigations have suggested Qahtani was the main orchestrator of such tactics. It is possible his tweets are not being released for other reasons, such as an ongoing investigation.
Although 4,500 accounts may seem like a lot, the number is a drop in the ocean, compared with the number of accounts suspended without publicity. Studies show there are probably millions of fake accounts promoting political propaganda and hate speech in the region.
From pro-Russian Turkish bots, to accounts with links to the Iranian government, the region is being roiled by multiple, competing influence campaigns. But most of the time, there is no smoking gun, and attribution to a specific actor is difficult.
Despite its reputation for malicious behavior, Saudi Arabia has rarely been publicly rebuked by Twitter, so the recent action by Twitter is likely to be political. Indeed, with the impending anniversary of Khashoggi’s death likely to generate a lot of propaganda, Twitter wishes to appear proactive in tackling influence operations.
The account suspension is more symbolic than anything else. Twitter probably hopes that the account suspensions will bring in a new era of a less toxic Arabic Twitter. This is unlikely to happen. The reality is that it is easy to set up a Twitter account. Like a game of Whack-a-Mole, suspended fake accounts will be replaced by more sophisticated efforts at deception.
Marc Owen Jones is an assistant professor of Middle East studies and digital humanities at Hamad bin Khalifa University and an honorary research fellow at Exeter University.