Behind the Troll Army and Twitter Insider Guarding the Saudi Gov’t Image Online

New York Times exposé reveals the secret digital forces swarming and silencing the Kingdom's critics.

In the wake of the killing of outspoken Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Saudi Arabia’s Turkish consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, the New York Times delivers a long exposé looking into the assets the Saudi government uses to identify, intimidate, and silence its critics online.

According to the Times, this digital reputation protection effort was orchestrated by the public face and de facto leader of the Saudi Kingdom, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. It includes a troll army operating of the country’s capital, Riyadh, that is tasked with swarming anyone offering negative portrayals of the Saudis online at home and across the globe and offering vigorous pushback. Other tactics include online stalking and harassment of critics as well as coordinated campaigns to get unflattering posts removed from Twitter via mass reporting the content as “sensitive” or inappropriate.

This campaign even included recruiting a Twitter executive to provide private details about Saudi critics using the platform , according to the story.

“Twitter executives first became aware of a possible plot to infiltrate user accounts at the end of 2015, when Western intelligence officials told them that the Saudis were grooming an employee, Ali Alzabarah, to spy on the accounts of dissidents and others, according to five people briefed on the matter,” the Times wrote. “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.”

Though Twitter, after conducting its own internal investigation, could find no evidence Alzabarah gave confidential information to the Saudi government, the company fired him in late 2015.

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