Saudi crown prince and heir to the throne Mohammed bin Salman is big on PR. He’s fond of selling himself as a Silicon Valley-style disruptor eager to take Saudi Arabia into the future as a regional tech and logistics hub, trying to ink big deals with international tech giants that could help solidify his claim to the throne. Before his sweeping meet-and-greet tour of prominent U.S. CEOs earlier this year, suspicious magazines titled The New Kingdom began appearing on newsstands across the country with headlines saying the prince was “destroying terrorism” and boasting of his “staggering $4 trillion business empire.”
Until the death of Saudi journalist in self-imposed exile and frequent critic Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi embassy in Istanbul this month at the hands of goons in the employ of bin Salman’s security services, all this public-relations effort noticeably blunted international pressure against some nasty things he was doing like a catastrophic, brutal war in Yemen or crackdowns on dissent. But now that Khashoggi’s death has been confirmed and the only question is how effectively the ruler can distance himself from it, the narrative is starting to crack. Exhibit number one million: bin Salman’s government has its own online troll farms that relentlessly harasses critics, tries to spin propaganda, and sometimes targets dissenters for special attention by more of those goons, according to a New York Times report on Saturday.
According to the Times, Khashoggi was regular quarry for internet trolls in the employ of the monarchy, and the effort grew so intense that Twitter became aware of an alleged attempt by Saudi intelligence officials to cultivate a mole in their offices:
One 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 members.
Its 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.
The Times noted some associations and common tactics among the professional trolls, who posted images of the crown prince dancing with a sword (compared in the piece to the Pepe the Frog meme favored by the U.S. far right), mass-reported tweets critical of the Saudi government as “sensitive” in the hopes Twitter staff would censor them, and used the hashtag #The_Black_List to alert Saudi officials of supposed traitors. According to the paper, the effort was organized by top royal adviser Saud al-Qahtani—fired in the wake of the Khashoggi scandal—and at least some of the operatives involved were offered about $3,000 a month to work out of a facility in Riyadh.
Some of the “specialists” who spoke with the Times said they had responded to the job postings without knowledge it would entail being a digital snitch, yet they felt compelled to accept offers lest a refusal mark them as suspiciously disloyal.
Though bin Salman is the current benefactor of the social media army, Saudi efforts to control the conversation and spot dissidents on social media date back years. As for the suspected Twitter mole in question, named as engineer Ali Alzabarah, the Times wrote he had been promoted to the point where he had access to the personal data of account holders and allegedly began working with Saudi intelligence officers:
Mr. Alzabarah 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 I.P. addresses, unique identifiers for devices connected to the internet.
The intelligence officials told the Twitter executives that Mr. 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.
Twitter was never able to prove he had passed on information, the Times reported, though it fired Alzabarah in Dec. 2015 and sent alerts to a few dozen users that read, “As 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.”
Worse yet, the Times also reported that after consulting firm McKinsey & Company issued a report on the 2015 decision to implement austerity measures in Saudi Arabia, writer Khalid al-Alkami was arrested, Canadian resident and Saudi dissent Omar Abdulaziz had family members imprisoned and his cell phone hacked, and an anonymous Twitter account going by the name Ahmad was shut down. According to the paper, all three were named in the report as driving negative sentiment about the decision on Twitter.
It’s pretty hard to cover up a state-sanctioned assassination that Turkish officials claim to have unreleased recordings of, though bin Salman has been trying. After weeks of saying Khashoggi left the embassy a free man, his government is now trying to explain it away as the work of rogue agents who bungled a polite meeting and accidentally killed the journalist in an unsanctioned brawl (i.e., some bad apples in the murder department). This explanation is about as implausible as can be, and probably won’t be enough to change the minds of many of the international business leaders who suddenly seem queasy about doing business in Saudi Arabia. However, the coverup does seem to have one U.S. proponent: Donald Trump, who has eagerly courted the Saudi monarchy throughout his presidency and remains reluctant to impose pressure in response to the scandal, lest it jeopardize arms deals.