Published online by Cambridge University Press: 11 December 2019
Social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter were heralded circa 2009–2011 as ‘liberation technology’ that would facilitate mass mobilization against Middle Eastern authoritarians. In this article, however, we present evidence from the ongoing Gulf Crisis (2017-present) that regimes can now exploit Twitter as an outlet for political propaganda. Drawing in part on novel data collected by the authors, we present strong evidence of state actors manipulating discourse on Twitter through direct intervention, offline coercion or co-optation of existing social-media “influencers,” and the mass production of online statements via automated “bot” accounts. We further present evidence that this manipulation is aimed at securing organic participation from supportive publics.
Andrew Leber is a PhD student at Harvard University, Department of Government. firstname.lastname@example.org. Alexei Abrahams is an Open Technology Fund Research Fellow at the Citizen Lab, Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy, University of Toronto. email@example.com. The authors are grateful for the helpful comments provided by two anonymous referees. The authors are also thankful to Dana El Kurd, Mohammed al-Masri, and the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies for the opportunity to present their research, and to Marc Owen Jones, Sahar Khamis, Geoffrey Martin, Jocelyn Mitchell and Sean Foley for helpful feedback. Many thanks are also due to Melani Cammett for supporting this research throughout its genesis.
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14 Marc Owen Jones, “In Graphs: How pro-Saudi Twitter Bots Boost Donald Trump's Ego (and his retweet count),” Personal Website, November 13, 2017, https://marcowenjones.wordpress.com/2017/11/13/in-graphs-how-pro-saudi-twitter-bots-boost-donald-trumps-ego/
16 Henry Farrell and Bruce Schneier, “Common-Knowledge Attacks on Democracy,” Berman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, Research Publication No. 2018-7 (October, 2018), 9.
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19 “% Who Use the Following Social Media Platforms,” Media Use in the Middle East, Northwestern University in Qatar, 2017, http://www.mideastmedia.org/survey/2017/
21 Robert Worth, “Twitter Gives Saudi Arabia a Revolution of its Own,” New York Times, October 20, 2012. https://www.nytimes.com/2012/10/21/world/middleeast/twitter-gives-saudi-arabia-a-revolution-of-its-own.html
22 Elias Groll, “The UAE Spends Big on Israeli Spyware to Listen In on a Dissident,” Foreign Policy, August 25, 2016; “Facebook rant lands US Man in Emirati Jail,” BBC, March 5, 2015, http://www.bbc.com/news/technology-31692914
23 “Kuwait: Teacher Faces Jail over Twitter Comments,” Human Rights Watch, July 20, 2013, https://www.hrw.org/news/2013/07/20/kuwait-teacher-faces-jail-over-twitter-comments
24 Marc Owen Jones, “The Automation of Sectarianism: Are Twitter Bots Spreading Sectarianism in the Gulf?,” Personal Website, June 21, 2016, https://marcowenjones.wordpress.com/2016/06/21/the-automation-of-sectarianism/
25 Lorenzo Franceschi-Bicchierai, “How ‘Mr. Hashtag’ Helped Saudi Arabia Spy on Dissidents,” Motherboard, October 29, 2018, https://motherboard.vice.com/en_us/article/kzjmze/saud-al-qahtani-saudi-arabia-hacking-team; Jenna McLaughlin, “Spies for Hire,” The Intercept, October 24, 2016, https://theintercept.com/2016/10/24/darkmatter-united-arab-emirates-spies-for-hire/
26 “Sa‘ūd al-Qahtānī yaktub: Kayfa ta‘ml ma‘ al-’amir Muhammad bin Salmān?,” [“Saud al-Qahtani writes: What's it like to work with Prince Muhammad bin Salman?”], al-Riyadh, April 4, 2018, http://www.alriyadh.com/1673253
27 Saud al-Qahtani, Twitter post, August 17, 2017, https://twitter.com/saudq1978/status/898273541367451648 @saudq1978 was suspended by Twitter on September 19, 2019.
28 Benner et al. 2018.
29 David Ignatius, “How a chilling Saudi cyberwar ensnared Jamal Khashoggi,” Washington Post, December 7, 2018, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/global-opinions/how-a-chilling-saudi-cyberwar-ensnared-jamal-khashoggi/2018/12/07/f5f048fe-f975-11e8-8c9a-860ce2a8148f_story.htm
30 Saud Al-Qahtani, Twitter post, August 17, 2017, https://twitter.com/saudq1978/status/898257245183463424; Jones, Marc Owen, “Propaganda, Fake News, and Fake Trends: The Weaponization of Twitter Bots in the Gulf Crisis,” International Journal of Communication 13 (2019), 1408–09Google Scholar.
31 Ahmad Al-Shamrani, “Al-Dhahira S‘aud al-Qahtani [The Saud al-Qahtani Phenomenon],” Okaz, June 18, 2019, https://www.okaz.com.sa/article/1566814
32 Inter alia, “RE: Requist [sic],” Hacking Team Archive, Wikileaks. June 29, 2015, https://wikileaks.org/hackingteam/emails/emailid/1144691
33 Turki al-Roqi, Twitter post, February 26, 2017, https://twitter.com/turkialroqi/status/835869428675915776
34 See, for example, Tarikh wa Dhikriyat, Twitter post, August 31, 2017. https://twitter.com/HIAHY/status/903339085284212740
35 b33lz3bub, “Lord Of The Flies: An Open-Source Investigation Into Saud Al-Qahtani,” Bellingcat, June 26, 2019, https://www.bellingcat.com/news/mena/2019/06/26/lord-of-the-flies-an-open-source-investigation-into-saud-al-qahtani/
36 “Qahtani: 23 thousand dragooned by Qatar to attack Saudi Arabia,” Al Arabiya, July 7, 2017, .
37 Anonymous comments have suggested that the Saudi government communicates desired narratives through private messaging apps. Ahmed Al-Omran, “Gulf media unleashes war of words with Qatar,” Financial Times, August 3, 2017, https://www.ft.com/content/36f8ceca-76d2-11e7-90c0-90a9d1bc9691
38 See, for example, Hani al-Dhahiri, “Hal mātat khilāya ‘azmi am ghayarat mulābisiha?” [“Have the Azmi cells died off or changed their appearance?], Okaz, March 11, 2018, https://www.okaz.com.sa/article/1622491?rss=1.
39 One such theory included an alleged Saudi plan to drive a canal across the base of the Qatari peninsula, rendering Qatar an island. Saud al-Qahtani, Twitter post, April 15, 2018, https://twitter.com/saudq1978/status/985533292366704640
40 We define accounts as “Qatar-linked” where they either list their location or nationality as Qatari or display images of Emir Tamim or the Qatari flag on their profile.
41 This is also known as “astro-turfing.” Jacob Ratkiewicz, Michael D. Conover, Mark Meiss, Bruno Gonçalves, Alessandro Flammini, and Filippo Menczer Menczer, “Detecting and tracking political abuse in social media,” Fifth international AAAI conference on weblogs and social media, 2011.
42 The statistical methodology we use for bot detection is detailed in Alexei Abrahams and Marc Owen Jones, “Bladerunning the GCC,” Working Paper, 2018, https://www.dropbox.com/s/zh53kqhhktpiqbw/bot_detector_arabian_gulf.pdf With regard to suspended and deleted accounts, our assumption is that Twitter, with far more data at their disposal than us, is able to identify and remove accounts that trigger concerns over automated or abusive activity. See discussions of large-scale Twitter purges such as Craig Timgerg and Ezliabeth Dwoskin, “Twitter is sweeping out fake accounts like never before, putting user growth at risk,” Washington Post, July 6, 2018, https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2018/07/06/twitter-is-sweeping-out-fake-accounts-like-never-before-putting-user-growth-risk/
43 “Qatar tamḍagh zira‘ al-rabī‘ [Qatar chews the shoots of the ‘Spring’” Okaz, August 22, 2017,
44 Saud al-Qahtani, Twitter Post,,August 21, 2017, 4:08 PM, https://twitter.com/saudq1978/status/899724998876725250
45 Mohammed al-Kuwari, Twitter Post, August 22, 2018, 2:27 AM. https://twitter.com/BoArhama/status/899880613649367040
46 Users have long purchased fake followers and retweets. Nicole Perlroth, “Fake Twitter Followers Become Multimillion-Dollar Business,” New York Times, April 5, 2013, https://bits.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/04/05/fake-twitter-followers-becomes-multimillion-dollar-business/; Nicholas Confessore, Gabriel J.X. Dance, Richard Harris, and Mark Hansen, “The Follower Factory,” The New York Times, January 27, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2018/01/27/technology/social-media-bots.html
47 While the presence of infiltrators is interesting in its own right, we focus our analysis on “genuine” accounts due to the challenge of drawing inferences from what amounts to a small portion of accounts.