BEIRUT — The electronic army’s insults are relentless, their pace dizzying.
They brand people “cockroaches” and “traitors.” They engulf news with mistruths. To Saudi opposition activists, they are known as the “flies.”
The disappearance of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi more than two weeks ago has dragged the kingdom’s cyber-battles to center stage, with a vast network of Twitter accounts in the spotlight for amplifying Saudi government denials of involvement and hounding dissidents who contradict the official line.
Researchers and activists say they have tracked a sprawling web of loyalist social media accounts — real people and bots — that have repeatedly joined forces in times of crisis for the Saudi government.
“You can draw a correlation between the amount of negative press coverage and the pace of their [online] activities,” said Marc Owen Jones, a researcher and lecturer at Exeter University who has tracked the phenomenon since 2016. “They have to work harder when they’re doing damage control.”
And no crisis has been more sensitive than this latest one.
As the international outcry over Khashoggi’s disappearance grew, the Saudi government steadfastly denied any knowledge of his fate or whereabouts. But Saturday, officials reversed course, saying he was killed in a brawl as he visited the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2.
Turkish officials have said Khashoggi was killed by a Saudi hit squad. They also say they have audio and video recordings of the journalist’s slaying and dismemberment.
In the weeks since Turkish officials first accused Riyadh of responsibility for his disappearance, and as Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has come under mounting scrutiny for his ties to the alleged killers, the online army has worked tirelessly to smear Khashoggi’s reputation. It has also intensified attacks on dissidents, many of them in exile.
This week, the Arabic hashtag “We all trust in Mohammed bin Salman” was among the most popular in the world. By Friday, it had appeared more than 1.1 million times, according to an analysis by Ben Nimmo, an information defense fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab.
“It’s a numbers game,” he said. “Once you get something trending, it’s reaching an audience that not everyone can get.”
Social media is wildly popular in Saudi Arabia, with more than 11 million registered Twitter users, according to Crowd Analyzer, a Dubai-based analysis firm.
The engagement pattern behind other trending hashtags, including “a word to our enemies,” “strongly suggests artificial amplification” by automated bot networks or well-coordinated groups of social media users, Nimmo said.
Saudi officials did not respond to a request for comment.
This is not the first time Saudi government loyalists, backed by bots, have waged a fight over social media. Automated networks of high-volume Twitter accounts were mobilized by both Saudi Arabia and Qatar during their diplomatic crisis last year, according to Nimmo.
Researchers said many of those accounts then fell dormant, only to spring back to life in recent weeks. It remains unclear who directs the online traffic. In research shared with The Washington Post, Jones traced one cluster of apparently automated accounts to a programmer in the Egyptian coastal city of Alexandria who has publicly advertised software to create Twitter profiles en masse.
Friends and associates of Khashoggi, a Washington Post contributing columnist, have speculated that his disappearance was linked in part to his role in an emerging network of cyber-activists who have started to fight back.
One well-known activist, Omar Abdulaziz, said in an interview that Khashoggi had recently donated $5,000 for a project they called “the bees.” Abdulaziz said they had planned to buy SIM cards with Canadian and American numbers that Saudis could use inside the kingdom without fear of being exposed and punished.
While a number of long-standing social restrictions have been eased during Mohammed’s short tenure as crown prince, the space for open dissent has rapidly shrunk. Princes deemed insufficiently loyal have been arrested and beaten. Women’s rights activists have also been jailed.
On Sept. 12, Khashoggi made a veiled reference on Twitter in support of his friend’s online counter-movement, tweeting, “What do you know about bees.”
Saudi social media users with a history of criticizing the Saudi establishment say they have experienced the spike in pro-government online activity as a cacophony of noise and threats.
Leading rights activist Manal al-Sharif responded last weekend to the fallout from Khashoggi’s disappearance with an anguished set of Twitter messages.
“We dreamt of social justice, human rights, political reforms, freedom of expression,” she wrote. “We had big and unrealistic dreams for our children.”
“I’m thankful that I left the region just in time,” she continued. “If you too can leave with what [is] left from your sanity and dignity, please do.
“Don’t fight the system, don’t have hopes, don’t speak up, don’t dream, don’t [breathe], just leave.”
The backlash was immediate.
“I hope you’re killed, God willing,” posted one Twitter user.
“In the name of God one day you will meet the fate of traitors,” said another.
Vitriolic messages continued to pour in Friday.
Other activists, speaking on the condition of anonymity out of fear for their safety, said the spike in trolling, combined with the chilling effect of stories about Khashoggi’s reported murder, had left them unable to shake a sense of pervasive dread.
“I can feel my muscles tightening as I scroll through all those posts,” said one. “Now we’ve seen what happened to Jamal, I don’t feel safe. And the whole time these Twitter flies are just buzzing, buzzing, buzzing.”
Zakaria Zakaria in Istanbul contributed to this report.