Twitter shuts down Saudi state-backed information operations

They formed a larger network of more than 88,000 accounts.
Written by Aimee Chanthadavong, Contributor

Twitter announced it has removed another batch of state-backed Twitter accounts from its platform, this time there were just shy of 6,000 of which a "significant" number of these were from Saudi Arabia.

According to Twitter, the deleted accounts represent a "core portion" of a larger network of more than 88,000 accounts that have "engaged in spammy behaviour" across a range of topics.

"We have permanently suspended all of these accounts from the service," the social media giant said on Friday.

"In order to protect the privacy of potentially compromised accounts repurposed to engage in platform manipulation, and in response to researcher feedback requesting that we pre-filter unrelated spam, we have not disclosed data for all 88,000 accounts.

"In the interest of offering meaningful transparency, the dataset we are disclosing includes a representative, random sample of the fake and spammy accounts associated with this broader network."

According to Twitter, its investigation uncovered accounts that were involved in various forms of platform manipulation, targeting discussions related to Saudi Arabia by using fake engagement tactics, such as aggressive liking, retweeting, and replying to amplify messages favourable to Saudi authorities.

The company also traced the source of the coordinated activity to Saudi-based social media marketing firm Smaat, which created, purchased, and managed the state-backed accounts -- whether knowingly or unknowingly -- on behalf of its clients.  

"We have permanently suspended Smaat's access to our service as a result, as well as the Twitter accounts of Smaat's senior executives," Twitter said. 

See also: Governments still struggling to contend with weaponized social media platforms (TechRepublic)  

In addition, the social media giant said many of the accounts employed third-party automated tools to amplify non-political content at high volumes.

"As a general matter, the use of automation to Tweet helpful content -- like crisis response info or weather updates -- is not a violation of our rules. However, this behaviour was, in part, strategically employed in an attempt to mask the overall platform manipulation originating from these accounts," Twitter stated.

"These tactics made it more difficult for observers to identify political Tweets in the timelines of accounts, which mostly shared automated, non-political content."

The information about the operations was shared with peer companies and relevant law enforcement entities, the company said. 

These latest updates adds to Twitter's public archive of state-backed information operations, which the company first launched in October 2018 and is accessed by researchers who use it to conduct their own independent, third-party investigations.

Last month, two former Twitter employees, along with another individual were charged for allegedly spying on Twitter users critical of the Saudi royal family, the US Justice Department announced.

The complaint alleged that Saudi officials recruited employees at Twitter to look up the private data of thousands of Twitter accounts and remove certain content from the social media platform.

The two former Twitter employees, Ahmad Abouammo and Ali Alzabarah, and the third person named Ahmed Almutairi were arrested on charges of fraudulently accessing private information and acting as illegal agents of a foreign government.

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