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“Electronic flies” promoting MBS on Twitter

US Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) (L) talks with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) during a rally with fellow Democrats before voting on H.R. 1, or the People Act, on the East Steps of the US Capitol on March 08, 2019 in Washington, DC. (AFP photo)
MBS and Twitter army. 5 April, 2021. Composite image.

Over the past few years, the Saudi kingdom has invested billions of dollars in social media. The kingdom’s passion for this digital platform, especially Twitter, initially promised a new lease of life to a nation practically deprived of freedom of expression.

But what was hoped to be a parliament of people soon turned into a tool in the hands of the repressive regime, to promote its own narrative while muzzling voices of dissent.

Shortly after the Biden Administration released a report on the gruesome murder of Jamal Khashoggi in which the Saudi Crown Prince was incriminated, Saudi Twitter blew up with support for the young prince. 

Saudi-based Twitter accounts with fake profile pictures

Saudi-based Twitter accounts with fake profile pictures, and repetitive wording, sought to undercut the findings of US intelligence officials. It was part of a wider effort by Saudi accounts to shape public opinion on the role of Mohammad bin Salman as the de facto leader of Saudi Arabia.

The reality is that it is very effective. The reality is that it makes people pause and consider to what extent bin Salman is actually popular, and if you read a lot of the articles, even in (the) New York Times or even in other Western outlets, you will find that where bin Salman is criticized for the Khashoggi murder and criticized for his measures, you will always find a sentence that alludes to the suggestion that bin Salman is popular amongst the youth, which is an image that has been propagated by these influencers as opposed to any empirical evidence on the ground as to whether these reforms are actually popular.

Sami Hamdi, Editor-in-Chief, The International Interest

More than 600 Twitter accounts — many of them apparently fake — used a hashtag in Arabic translated as “#the people of the kingdom support the crown prince” on the day before the intelligence report was released.

Riyadh has long sought to use mass media to construct public narratives about major events and politically important themes. Twitter suspended about 3,500 accounts after they commented on the US intelligence report.

Some of the same accounts, according to the social media company, promoted pro-Saudi claims about women’s rights, tourism and the Yemen war, while also praising the crown prince for his leadership.

Twitter is one of the most popular social media platforms in the country. Before being disappeared from the public eyes in the aftermath of the Khashoggi scandal, Saud al-Qahtani would lead an army of automated Twitter accounts known as bots or electronic flies, earning the nickname the Lords of the Flies by Saudi critics. 

The flies frame debates and news inside the country, while attacking critics and responding anti-Saudi government tweets.

For Saudi Arabia, for Egypt for the UAE, for other regimes, they believe that there needs to be an army, even if it is a fake army, to give the impression that there are lots of people in the world who like what is going on in Saudi Arabia, who like the social reforms that Mohammed bin Salman is implementing, that Saudi Arabia is truly changing and transforming and becoming a place that should be visited. And this is why given that many people gauge public opinion based on the number of likes, based on the number of retweets, based on the number of shares, based on the number of engagements that people get on social media. The aim of these, of these authoritarian regimes, is to establish these "electronic flies" as we call them, who go around and essentially fill the wall of any positive message, or any positive post, with as many shares and likes as possible, artificial shares and likes, in order to give the impression to the ordinary bystander who looks at it and says, "Oh wow, this positive news on Saudi Arabia has got so much engagement there must be something interesting about it". And anybody who criticises Saudi Arabia, "the electronic flies", the UAE or Egypt, the "electronic flies" will come out and they will hound that person's wall with such negative content that any neutral bystander, or anybody who doesn't know anything about that person, will come into the wall and see a whole array of negative comments and believe subconsciously that this person is not worth listening to. Because it's clear that the public opinion is against him.

Sami Hamdi, Editor-in-Chief, The International Interest

Influencers backbone of Saudi digital authoritarianism

In addition to the army of bots, the Saudis have a large number of real-life influencers who trigger what seem to be authentic pro-government rallies of real users inside the kingdom. In fact, these influencers are the backbone of the Saudi digital authoritarianism.

I think in abstract, in objective terms, I think everybody now is going towards this idea of employing influencers in order to positively promote their countries. I think in Saudi, the manner in which it's done of course it's very different in that, if you're an influencer you are approached by the government, you are told to follow a certain line and if you don't you either end up in prison, or you're removed from the public sphere.

We saw for example Salman al-Awdah when he put the tweet up, one of the most famous scholars in the Muslim world, when he put a tweet up that called Allah to reconcile between Qatar and Saudi Arabia, he was put in prison and he remains in prison.

When Abdulaziz al-Tarefe put out and said that the Aramco IPO was a bad idea because the Americans will not be satisfied, they will demand more and more and more until the whole Saudi identity is changed and all Saudi resources are in American hands.

Abdulaziz al-Tarefe was put in prison and this of course sends a message to every other influencer to toe the line and that's why we see a lot of these blue tick accounts, a lot of journalists, Saudi journalists or pro Saudi journalists, who come out and sing the praises of Mohammed bin Salman, we've seen even prominent scholars who were once revered by the Muslim world coming out in support of Mohammed bin Salman as the Saudi government has gone to the scholars and demanded that they publicly endorse Mohammed bin Salman, in order to give the impression to the public opinion that he is the correct choice, that he is the one that should be followed, and that his policies are a good thing.

Sami Hamdi, Editor-in-Chief, The International Interest

While the Saudis boast that are among the top countries whose citizens use Twitter, they fail to say that making anti-regime social media posts is a punishable crime and violators may end up doing time in prison for up to five years and paying fines to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars.

I think it's important to stress that social media was a catalyst in the Arab Spring in Tunisia, in Libya, in Egypt, in Syria, the state media that was controlled by the governments, by the authoritarian regimes, were bypassed by social media, were bypassed by Facebook and Twitter, they were blindsided by Facebook and Twitter that allowed different groups, that allowed the protesters to organise and to mobilise and to gather in one place in what resulted in the downfall of the Ben Ali regime, of the Mubarak regime, of the Gaddafi regime, of the descending of Syria into a civil war, over the fall of Abdullah Saleh, Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen.

So for Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the UAE and indeed other countries, they've now become aware of the potent impact of social media, and we've seen over the years that social media laws have been put in place in order to restrict the freedoms of social media, in order to make tweets punishable by prison or punishable by torture, in some cases.

I think when we're looking at the authoritarianism or the rise of authoritarianism in the control of social media, it is a direct reaction to the role social media played in bringing down these authoritarian regimes, and it's a bid by these authoritarian regimes, to make sure they are not blindsided once more.

Sami Hamdi, Editor-in-Chief, The International Interest

By the same token, they have failed to acknowledge that they have recruited Twitter workers to spy on hundreds of users including a popular journalist with more than 1 million followers and other prominent government critics.

In the absence of strict measures by Twitter, the Saudi kingdom has weaponised the platform to hunt down political dissidents and at the same time to manipulate the public opinion.

I think the reality is that the questions are not whether, how can we make Saudi stop but more about to what extent can Twitter become more robust, or Facebook can become more robust to protect people from arbitrary detention, from torture, and allow them to express their opinions freely, which is something that bin Salman is not willing to offer within the kingdom.

Sami Hamdi, Editor-in-Chief, The International Interest

The Saudi nation and at a higher level the whole world are being lied to by people who don’t even exist. With an army of bots and trolls at its beck and call, Riyadh, indeed, has taken online deception to a new level of audacity.

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