A Twitter employee was used by Saudi Arabia operatives and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to silence critics in that country and around the globe, the New York Times reported Saturday.
The revelation comes as Saudi government and MBS are under a microscope for the disappearance and murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a dissident journalist and a columnist for the Washington Post. Khashoggi went missing after he entered the Saudi consulate in Instabul on Oct. 2. He was reportedly killed by Saudi agents.
Khashoggi was also the victim of vicious online attacks orchestrated by the Saudi "troll army." As the attacks grew in intensity, his friends became increasingly concerned about his mental well-being.
“The mornings were the worst for him because he would wake up to the equivalent of sustained gunfire online,” Maggie Mitchell Salem, a longtime friend of Khashoggi, told the New York Times.
Prior to his death, Khashoggi was "launching projects to combat online abuse and to try to reveal that Crown Prince Mohammed was mismanaging the country," according to the report.
How did the troll farm work?
Here’s how online harassment operation worked:
“Hundreds of people work at a so-called troll farm in Riyadh to smother the voices of dissidents like Mr. Khashoggi," the New York Times wrote. "The vigorous push also appears to include the grooming — not previously reported — of a Saudi employee at Twitter whom Western intelligence officials suspected of spying on user accounts to help the Saudi leadership.”
Then-Twitter employee Ali Alzabarah allegedly aided Saudi operatives in identifying critics. Alzabarah began working at Twitter in 2013 in an engineering position that gave him access to users’ phone numbers and IP addresses.
After dissidents were identified, they were punished and silenced, according to the report.
Tactics include flooding targets with memes, distracting targets with other information and reporting content to Twitter to try to get it removed from the site.
Members of the so-called troll army are paid about 10,000 Saudi riyals a month to tweet, a figure equal to about $3,000 a month.
How was this discovered?
According to the New York Times, Twitter executives became aware of what was happening in 2015. Intelligence officials reportedly told Twitter executives that Alzabarah was working with Saudi operatives who convinced him to look into several user accounts.
Alzabarah was questioned and placed on administrative leave pending a forensic audit involving information he may have accessed, according to the New York Times. Although it wasn’t proven that he gave information to Saudis, he was fired in December 2015, according to the report. Twitter reportedly notified account holders whose information was apparently accessed.
Alzabarah is now reportedly working with the Saudi government.
Are there other examples?
Another example of how critics are silenced involved public perception about economic austerity measures introduced in Saudi Arabia in 2015. A study by McKinsey & Company, a U.S. consulting firm, reportedly showed the issue was discussed more on Twitter than through traditional media outlets.
"Three people were driving the conversation on Twitter, the firm found: the writer Khalid al-Alkami; Mr. Abdulaziz, the young dissident living in Canada; and an anonymous user who went by Ahmad," according to New York Times.
"After the report was issued, Mr. Alkami was arrested, the human rights group ALQST said. Mr. Abdulaziz said that Saudi government officials imprisoned two of his brothers and hacked his cellphone, an account supported by a researcher at Citizen Lab. Ahmad, the anonymous account, was shut down."
Twitter and Facebook have both faced criticism regarding how their platforms are used to sway public opinion and for other nefarious means.