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A Storm of Tweets: Social Media Manipulation During the Gulf Crisis

  • Andrew Leber (a1) and Alexei Abrahams (a1)
  • Please note a correction has been issued for this article.

Abstract

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.

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1

Andrew Leber is a PhD student at Harvard University, Department of Government. andrewmleber@g.harvard.edu. Alexei Abrahams is an Open Technology Fund Research Fellow at the Citizen Lab, Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy, University of Toronto. alexei@citizenlab.ca. 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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2 Diamond, Larry and Plattner, Marc F., eds., Liberation technology: Social media and the struggle for democracy. JHU Press, 2012.

3 For the Arab Spring in general, see Steinert-Threlkeld, Zachary, “Spontaneous collective action: Peripheral mobilization during the Arab Spring,” American Political Science Review 111.2 (2017), 379403; — (2017c). Zachary Steinert-Threlkeld, Twitter as data. Cambridge University Press, 2018; Steinert-Threlkeld, Zachary, et al., “Online social networks and offline protest,” EPJ Data Science 4.1, 2017, 19. For Tunisia's “Jasmine Revolution,” see Breuer, Anita, Landman, Todd, and Farquhar, Dorothea, “Social media and protest mobilization: Evidence from the Tunisian revolution,” Democratization 22.4 (2015), 764–92. For Egypt's “January 25” revolution, see Tufekci, Zeynep and Wilson, Christopher, “Social media and the decision to participate in political protest: Observations from Tahrir Square,” Journal of Communication 62.2 (2012), 363–79 or Daron Acemoglu, Tarek A Hassan, and Ahmed Tahoun, “The power of the street: Evidence from Egypt's Arab Spring,” NBER Working Paper (2014).

4 Lynch, Marc, Freelon, Deen, and Aday, Sean, “Online clustering, fear and uncertainty in Egypt's transition,” Democratization 24.6 (2017), 119. See also Ingmar Weber, Venkata R. Kiran Garimella, and Alaa Batayneh. “Secular vs. Islamist polarization in Egypt on Twitter.” Proceedings of the 2013 IEEE/ACM International Conference on Advances in Social Networks Analysis and Mining. ACM, 2013.

5 Bellin, Eva. “The robustness of authoritarianism in the Middle East: Exceptionalism in comparative perspective,” Comparative politics 36.2 (Jan., 2004), 139–57; An investor linked to the Saudi Arabian government helped fund the Hacking Team in 2016, and the Kingdom has had extensive dealings with the company in procuring its surveillance technologies. Franceschi-Bicchierai, Lorenzo, “Hacking Team Is Still Alive Thanks to a Mysterious Investor from Saudi Arabia,” Motherboard, January 31, 2018, https://motherboard.vice.com/en_us/article/8xvzyp/hacking-team-investor-saudi-arabia; Benner, Katie, Mark Mazzetti, Ben Hubbard, and Mike Isaac, “Saudis’ Image Makers: A Troll Army and a Twitter Insider,” The New York Times, October 20, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/20/us/politics/saudi-image-campaign-twitter.html

6 Seva Gunitsky, “Corrupting the Cyber-Commons: Social Media as a Tool of Autocratic Stability,” Perspectives on Politics 13.1, March 2015.

7 Roberts (2018).

8 For more on citizens’ use of reference groups to develop understandings of perceived or desired behavior, see Tankard, Margaret E. and Paluck, Elizabeth Levy, “Norm perception as a vehicle for social change,” Social Issues and Policy Review 10.1 (2016): 181211.

9 Egorov, Georgy, Guriev, Sergei, and Sonin, Konstantin, “Why resource-poor dictators allow freer media: A theory and evidence from panel data,” American political science Review 103.4 (2009): 645–68; Lorentzen, Peter, “China's strategic censorship,” American Journal of Political Science 58.2 (2014): 402–14.

10 Bill Marczak, John Scott-Railton, and Ron Deibert, “NSO Group Infrastructure Linked to Targeting of Amnesty International and Saudi Dissident,” The Citizen Lab, July 31, 2018, https://citizenlab.ca/2018/07/nso-spyware-targeting-amnesty-international/

11 Deibert, Ronald, Palfrey, John, Rohozinski, Rafal, and Zittrain, Jonathan, Access denied: the practice and policy of global Internet Filtering, Oxford Internet Institute, 2007; Deibert, Ronald, Palfrey, John, Rohozinski, Rafal, and Zittrain., JonathanAccess controlled: The shaping of power, rights, and rule in cyberspace, MIT Press, 2010; Deibert, Ronald, Palfrey, John, Rohozinski, Rafal, and Zittrain, Jonathan, Access contested: security, identity, and resistance in Asian cyberspace, IDRC, Ottawa, ON, CA, 2011.

12 Jamal, Amaney, Keohane, Robert, Romney, David, and Tingley, Dustin, “Anti-Americanism and anti-interventionism in Arabic Twitter discourses,” Perspectives on Politics 13.1 (2015): 5573.

13 Kalev Leetaru, “Visualizing Seven Years Of Twitter's Evolution: 2012–2018,” Forbes blog post, March 4, 2019. https://www.forbes.com/sites/kalevleetaru/2019/03/04/visualizing-seven-years-of-twitters-evolution-2012-2018/#2a5e5b0d7ccf

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/

15 Munger, Kevin, “Tweetment Effects on the Tweeted: Experimentally Reducing Racist Harassment,” Political Behavior 39.3 (September 2017), 629–49.

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.

17 Schedler, Andreas, The politics of uncertainty: Sustaining and subverting electoral authoritarianism, OUP Oxford, 2013.

18 Cf. Rebecca Mackinnon, “China's “networked authoritarianism,” Journal of Democracy 22.2, (2011), 42–44.

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/

20 Leber, Andrew and Lysa, Charlotte, “The Banality of Protest? Twitter Campaigns in Qatar,” Gulf Affairs, OxGAPS 2016; Justin Gengler, “Collective Frustration but No Collective Action in Qatar,” Middle East Reporting Project, 2013. http://www.merip.org/mero/mero120713

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), 1408–09.

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, https://www.alarabiya.net/ar/saudi-today/2017/07/06/القحطاني -23 - ألف - حساب - جندتها-قطر - لمهاجمة - السعودية.html.

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, https://www.okaz.com.sa/article/1566667/محليات / قطر - تمضغ - زرع - الربيع

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.

48 Andrew England and Ahmed al-Omran, “Nationalism on the rise as Saudi Arabia seeks sense of identity,” Financial Times, May 7, 2019, https://www.ft.com/content/31845386-6cb9-11e9-80c7-60ee53e6681d

1 Andrew Leber is a PhD student at Harvard University, Department of Government. . Alexei Abrahams is an Open Technology Fund Research Fellow at the Citizen Lab, Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy, University of Toronto. . 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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A Storm of Tweets: Social Media Manipulation During the Gulf Crisis

  • Andrew Leber (a1) and Alexei Abrahams (a1)
  • Please note a correction has been issued for this article.

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