The Saudi government relied on a “mole” inside Twitter and hired trolls to harass and silence critics, including the dissident Jamal Khashoggi, according to a NYT report. The trolls were also used to impact the public opinion on various topics, spanning from the Yemeni conflict to human rights.
On October 20th, Saudi Arabia admitted that Khashoggi had been killed in the consulate after a fight broke out. This came after 18 days of denying any knowledge of his whereabouts.
According to anonymous sources, cited by NYT, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and his aides led the efforts to silence the voice of critics, including Khashoggi. This was allegedly done with the help of a Twitter employee, who had access to their account information.
“Saud al-Qahtani, a top adviser to Crown Prince Mohammed who was fired on Saturday in the fallout from Mr. Khashoggi’s killing, was the strategist behind the operation, according to United States and Saudi officials, as well as activist organizations,” the report said.
According to the outlet, Western intelligence officials suspect the employee spied on user accounts to aid the Saudi government.
Also, presumably executives at Twitter were aware of a Saudi scheme to gain access to account information as early as 2015. That is supposedly when intelligence officials told them that the Saudis were “grooming” an employee to spy on dissident accounts.
A Twitter spokesman refused comment for the NYT.
The report is based on interviews with seven people involved in those activities or “briefed on them; activists and experts who have studied them; and American and Saudi officials, along with messages seen by The New York Times that described the inner workings of the troll farm.”
The consulting giant McKinsey & Co. played a role, too, according to the Times, by helping the Saudi government analyze public perception of economic austerity measures announced in 2015. A spokesperson for McKinsey who refused to be named told MarketWatch:
“We were never commissioned by any authority in Saudi Arabia to prepare a report of any kind or in any form to identify critics. In our work with governments, McKinsey has not and never would engage in any work that seeks to target individuals based on their views.”
“The document in question was a brief overview of publicly available information looking at social media usage. It was not prepared for any government entity. Its intended primary audience was internal. We are horrified by the possibility, however remote, that it could have been misused in any way. At this point, we have seen no evidence to suggest that it was misused, but we are urgently investigating how and with whom the document was shared.”
These troll factory reports by MSM are not something uncommon. However, often such reprots are deisnged to blame Russia or China creating for them an image of the “empires of evil” and accusing them of intervening in the US internal affairs.
On October 17th, Twitter released 10 million tweets that had been circulated by alleged propaganda farms and their associated puppet accounts. The majority of the tweets aren’t new, they have been released previously by various outlets. Vox released own report on this issue “surprisingly” claiming that these tweets were a part of the Kremlin propaganda campaign.
According to Vox, four things became apparent from Twitter’s release:
- The Russian company Internet Research Agency (IRA) is allegedly behind most of the tweets. The company was indicted earlier in 2018 by Special Counsel Robert Mueller. There is no evidence that IRA’s conduct had any effect on election results;
- The trolls allegedly tried to influence and disrupt a broad range of local and global political debates; The Russian trolls tweeted more in Russian than in English;
- Most, not all of the content is presumed to be to the extreme right’s favor;
- Twitter released the data due to the incoming election to be more transparent about attempts to influence the election.
Separately, the US Department of Justice charged a Russian national in a $35 million election influence plot. Elena Alekseevna Khusyaynova was charged with conspiracy to defraud the United States, overseeing financial operations for a multinational social media influence campaign tied to the Russian government.
A wide-scale propaganda campaign is also ongoing against China. Beijing is being accused of attempts to spy with microchips, as well as meddle in the incoming mid-term elections on November 4th.
It’s an open secret that governments pursue their interest by seeking publicity with narratives of the sort. However, the observed media hysteria over Russian and Chinese “propaganda” and “cyber operations” looks unprecedented even if one ignores the lack of evidence provided to confirm the accusations.
Any actions by Beijing and Moscow to defend their informational security and to promote own interests, even through public channels like state-run TV networks, are depicted as “unprecedented” and “malicious”. The same appraoch is employed toward actions of any other state if they are performed by a side that is not allied to the US. The misconduct of US and allies is disregarded. It can be seen in the dominating US narrative in the MSM, with even the Netherlands and the UK media joining in on the “hysteria.”
Meanwhile, the US even allows propaganda entities linked to some states to operate on its soil, because it supports “agenda” of the Washington establishment. A recent example is Rick Gates admitting that he hired not one, but two companies filled with Israeli ex-intelligence officers to launch a propaganda campaign in Trump’s support.
It is also no secret that the US has the most capable propaganda machine and at least one of the most capable “cyber forces” around the globe. It runs multiple operations in various spots around the world. These actions are depicted by the MSM as necessary moves to defend “democracy”.
The NYT Saudi critique shows that the public journalist killing in the diplomatic facility is such a serious misconduct on their side that even the MSM cannot turn its back on the story. However, the critique of the Saudis will most likely not be as sharp as any “hysteria” over any actual or alleged Russian or Chinese misconduct.