The Saudi Arabian government constituted an army of Twitter trolls to target and silence its critics online, cultivated a Twitter employee in the United States to gain access to certain accounts as part of espionage operation to curb dissidence and engaged the expertise of US consulting firm McKinsey to support its effort to collect information on its critics on Twitter who were later punished and silenced, The New York Times has reported.
According to the NYT report, the Twitter army mobilised by Saudi officials resorted to various tactics in its targeted harassment of its online critics, including flooding the accounts of critics with disturbing memes, posting content that sought to work as distraction from critical online conversations, and reporting content deemed as critical of Saudi to Twitter as “sensitive.” The Saudi government reportedly paid its band of online trolls about 10,000 Saudi riyals, or $3,000, a month to tweet.
As per the report, the most insidious operation by the Saudi modus operandi was how it cultivated a Twitter employee, Ali Alzabarah, to spy on accounts. Alzabarah joined Twitter in 2013 and was working in an engineering role, possibly allowing him unfettered access users’ phone numbers and IP addresses.
It was only as late as 2015 that Twitter was alerted by intelligence officials on the growing proximity between Alzabarah and Saudi intelligence operatives and that he may already have aided Saudi officials to peer into several user accounts. Alzabarah was eventually terminated and returned to Saudi Arabia. In what appears to be an acknowledgement of the breach, Twitter sent out safety notifications to the accounts Alzabarah had accessed.
The NYT report also reveals how the Saudi officials commissioned a study by McKinsey & Company to measure the public sentiments of sweeping economic austerity measures introduced in Saudi Arabia in 2015 and used the report to identify and crush dissidents who were seen to have played an active role in opposing the steps.
McKinsey found that the austerity measures received twice as much coverage on Twitter as they did in more mainstream news outlets, and also noted that Twitter reaction was much more negative than positive. McKinsey also narrowed down on three accounts playing a pivotal role in driving the online narrative on Twitter. It later turned out that the man behind one of the accounts was arrested and another man behind one of the accounts had his phone hacked and said two of his brothers were arrested. The third account, which was anonymous, was shut down.
A billionaire Saudi businessman, Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, has significant holdings in Twitter. Alwaleed was arrested released two months later during the so-called anti-corruption purge in Saudi Arabia.