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Twitter Suspends Saudi Royal Adviser Qahtani, Fake Gulf Accounts

Saud al-Qahtani to the left next to Mohammad bin Salman
Saud al-Qahtani to the left next to Mohammad bin Salman

2019-09-21 - 7:25 p

Bahrain Mirror (Reuters): Twitter suspended the account of former Saudi royal court adviser Saud al-Qahtani on Friday, nearly a year after he was sacked over his suspected role in the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

The social network also separately removed accounts linked to Saudi Arabia's "state-run media apparatus" and others in the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, all of them amplifying pro-Saudi messages, according to a company blogpost.

Qahtani, a close confidante of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, ran the royal court's media center as well as an electronic army tasked with protecting the kingdom's image and attacking its perceived enemies online.

He dictated Saudi Arabia's official line on issues including a diplomatic dispute with Qatar and security and human rights.

Qahtani has not tweeted since Oct. 22, shortly after he was fired, but sources told Reuters in January that he continued to wield considerable influence behind the scenes.

Although the Saudi public prosecutor has said Qahtani took part in a plan to repatriate Khashoggi, officials have refused to disclose whether he was arrested and sources have said he was not among those put on trial for the murder.

The Saudi government communications office did not immediately respond to Reuters request for comment on Friday.

Platform Manipulation

Twitter's actions follow Facebook's removal last month of 350 fake accounts and pages promoting Saudi propaganda, which marked the first time a tech company had linked such activity back to the Saudi government.

Twitter declined to specify the precise reason or timing for Qahtani's suspension, saying only that he had violated the company's "platform manipulation" policies.

Records of his tweets are not being added to its archive of state-backed information operations, the company said in its blogpost.

Twitter suspended six other accounts linked to the Saudi government which were presenting themselves as independent journalistic outlets "while tweeting narratives favorable to the Saudi government," it said.

It also removed a network of 267 accounts in the United Arab Emirates and Egypt which were engaged in a "multi-faceted information operation" targeting Qatar and Iran while amplifying messages supportive of the Saudi government.

The company said those accounts were managed by a private company called DotDev, which identifies itself on its website as a "custom software solutions company based in Abu Dhabi." DotDev also has an Egyptian affiliate based in Giza, outside of Cairo.

The UAE government media office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Twitter said it had also taken action against accounts operating exclusively from the UAE, as well countries including Spain and Ecuador.

The network of 4,258 accounts operating from the UAE, employed fake names and tweeted mostly about Qatar and Yemen, the company said. It did not name an entity behind that operation.

In Spain, Twitter said it had suspended 259 accounts used by the Partido Popular political party to artificially boost engagement.

Facebook later said it had removed 65 Facebook accounts and 35 Instagram accounts used by "individuals associated with Partido Popular" after receiving a tip from Twitter.

The party said in a statement: "The PP has never set up false accounts because it believes that social media effectiveness actually happens with real volunteers and their own accounts. A different issue is what social network users do, under their own responsibility, when interacting with our party's accounts, just as they do with other parties accounts."