Saudi Troll Army, Twitter Insider Targeted Dissidents: NY Times
Story Code : 757052
The New York Times published a report on Saturday in which it cited sources as saying that Riyadh had groomed a Twitter employee, identified as Ali Alzabarah, to tap into dissident accounts until December 2015 when the American social media giant decided to fire the staffer.
The report said that Twitter had been told of the secret operation involving the insider and the Saudi government by certain Western officials. However, it said Twitter officials could never find evidences supporting the claims. Alzabarah now works for the Saudi regime.
However, Twitter sent safety alerts to dozens of the accounts Alzabarah had checked, some of which either fostered activism or might have been critical of the Saudi regime. The mix included policy academics, journalists and experts on security and surveillance, including people involved in the Tor Project and its activist-friendly anonymizing network.
Twitter refused to say anything when asked for further comments on the Times report, which also claimed that the Saudi royal family had hired hundreds of people on major social media networks to have the image of the kingdom improved and to attack influential Saudis who had criticized the kingdom’s leaders, including journalist Jamal Khashoggi who was killed in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul after he went to the diplomatic post to collect documents for a forthcoming marriage on October 2. Riyadh on Friday finally acknowledged Khashoggi had been killed in the facility.
Jamal Khashoggi had been living in exile in the United States since last year. A key figure behind Khashoggi’s death was Saud al-Qahtani, a top adviser to the crown prince Mohammad bin Salman, who was fired by the Saudi royal court on Friday. Qahtani is believed to have engineered a wide range of secret operations to flood the social media with pro-Saudi messaging and smother the voices of dissenters.
Several American and Saudi officials have revealed to the Times that Qahtani had mobilized operatives to harass dissenters on Twitter since 2010, when popular movements in the Arab world led to the ouster of several autocratic regimes.
The Saudi regime reportedly offered through an employer a sum of about $3,000 to every young man who was willing to tweet in favor of the Kingdom. That was revealed after specialists invited to interviews found about the political nature of the job.
According to the American daily, the late Saudi Journalist was also target of online attacks that 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.