Twitter shuts down spambots spreading pro-Saudi hashtags over Khashoggi disappearance | Steades
18 October, 2018

Twitter shuts down spambots spreading pro-Saudi hashtags over Khashoggi disappearance

Saudi leader Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman is receiving some unexpected help from erectile dysfunction pill spammers.

There’s been an intense online campaign playing out over Twitter in the past week to control the narrative surrounding the disappearance of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

A combination of human influencers, automated political accounts, and spambots have been working together — some willingly, some not — to defend the Crown Prince and the Saudi regime over their suspected role in Khashoggi’s disappearance.

Twitter has since informed NBC News that it has suspended the accounts involved with the bot network from its platform.

Khashoggi, who had been critical of the Saudi government and Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, was last seen on Oct. 2, when he entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey. Turkish officials believe he was killed while inside the consulate. The Saudi regime has been facing intense pressure and scrutiny over Khashoggi’s disappearance and his alleged murder. Now, governments and companies around the globe have been pulling out of events, conferences, and partnerships in the interim.

Damage control efforts quickly spread throughout Saudi Twitter, with users starting various hashtag campaigns professing their loyalty and support for the Saudi Crown Prince. Arabic-language hashtags like “We have to stand by our leader” and “5000 riyals prize for the best patriotic comments” spread across the platform, receiving tens of thousands of tweets and retweets, and hitting trending topics within the country.

More interesting, as well as suspect, were the hundreds of thousands of Arabic-language tweets and retweets that prompted hashtags including phrases like “we all have trust in Mohammed Bin Salman” and “unfollow enemies of the nation” to trend worldwide.

So, what exactly is going on here? We spoke with Josh Russell, a systems analyst who hunts bots in his spare time, who was tipped off to the bizarre activity surrounding these tweets. Each, without fail,  tout how great the Saudi regime is in the wake of the recent coverage surrounding Jamal Khashoggi.

Looking at the trove of data he collected surrounding the aforementioned hashtags, Russell believes that what we’re seeing is three distinct sets of users colliding. Real, legitimate, sometimes even Twitter verified accounts like @f_alabdulkarim, @AlNassrFC_EN, @ASNA_20, and @SaheelKSA would tweet out and promote these pro-Saudi hashtags. Aided by political Twitter bots mass retweeting these messages, the pro-Saudi hashtags would receive a boost, likely giving them traction locally among Saudi trending topics. As Ben Nimmo points out on Twitter, for the “unfollow enemies of the nation” hashtag, an incredible 96.3% of people using it were just via retweet with 15% of all posts being retweets of @f_alabdulkarim.

According to Russell, this is where that third party comes in. Among his compiled data surrounding the accounts tweeting or retweeting these hashtags, Russell says what he sees are “mostly spam bots, tons of boner pill spambots, hawking supplements.”

Sharing some of his findings, Russell notes that many of the accounts facilitating the spread of these hashtags have “multiple data points that correlate.” They have similar posting numbers, follower counts, and most significantly, account creation dates. Just throwing this data into a spreadsheet, it would be immediately obvious to the eye. “Organic account data would look random,” Russell says.

The age of these accounts are also notable. Many of these spambot Twitter profiles were created as far back as 4 to 5 years ago. A slew have gone dormant for significant lengths of time, randomly jumping back into action to insert themselves into an unrelated Twitter hashtag to tweet about some weight loss supplement.

During Twitter’s earlier years, trending hashtag spam use to plague the platform, at least here in the U.S. “Twitter has really cracked down on English language bots spamming hashtags,” Russell says. But, when it comes to foreign-language spam, not so much. In a case like these campaigns to distract from the Khashoggi disappearance, those Twitter spambots latching on to a pro-Saudi hashtag for attention could be what pushes a countrywide trend into a worldwide one.

While there are certainly political forces behind these automated bots looking to promote love for the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman and his regime, there are other significant forces just looking to hawk their boner pills and weight loss supplements.

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