Twitter on Friday shared over a terabyte of information on 5,929 accounts they say belonged “to a significant state-backed information operation on Twitter originating in Saudi Arabia, which were “amplifying messages favourable to Saudi authorities.”
Disclosed in a Friday blog post, the state-linked accounts represented the “core portion of a larger network of more than 88,000 accounts engaged in spammy behavior across a wide range of topics.”
Devised and managed by Saudi-based social media management firm Smaat, which operated them “on behalf of – but not necessarily with the knowledge of their clients” (an interesting ‘out’ for said clients), the accounts were involved in various forms of platform manipulation, mostly in Arabic.
Primarily, accounts were amplifying messages favourable to Saudi authorities, mainly through inauthentic engagement tactics such as aggressive liking, Retweeting and replying. While the majority of the content from this network was in Arabic, a portion of it related to events relevant to Western audiences, including amplification of discussion around sanctions in Iran and appearances by Saudi government officials in Western media.
Smaat managed a range of Twitter accounts for high-profile individuals, as well as many government departments in Saudi Arabia. -Twitter
Twitter has suspended the company’s access to the platform, as well as the accounts of Smaat senior executives.
The overall manipulation network reportedly used “third-party automated tools” in to primarily amplify helpful, non-political content at high volumes – which Twitter suggests was an attempt to make it more difficult to identify propaganda. Smaat may have also believed that amplifying helpful tweets, such as crisis response information or weather updates, would attract more followers.
Where we identify and remove state-backed information operations on our service, we disclose them publicly in the interest of transparency. Today we’re updating our archive with new activity we’ve removed originating within Saudi Arabia. Read more here: https://t.co/qkWoQem8xU
— Twitter Safety (@TwitterSafety) December 20, 2019
The company says it will continue to take strong enforcement action against any state-backed information campaigns “which undermine our company’s mission, principles, and policies.”