Inside Saudi Arabia's Disinformation Campaign

Aug 10, 2019
Originally published on August 10, 2019 9:54 am
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SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

Last week, Facebook took down 350 accounts and pages from its site. All of them, it said, were linked to Saudi Arabia. The social media platform said the Arab country's government was engaging in, quote, "coordinated inauthentic behavior." An open source investigative website called Bellingcat uncovered one of the accounts that led to Facebook's decision. That research was done by our next guest, who asked that we not use his name to protect his identity. Thanks for coming on the program.

ANONYMOUS RESEARCHER: Thanks for having me.

PFEIFFER: We want to make clear to our listeners why we're having you be anonymous because there's a certain seeming double standard that we're talking about something involving anonymity and misinformation, yet we're allowing you to be anonymous.

ANONYMOUS RESEARCHER: Sure.

PFEIFFER: So explain to us why you gave that request, which we agree is a legitimate request.

ANONYMOUS RESEARCHER: Security. So I wrote an in-depth and possibly embarrassing report on a top aide to Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The report was on Saud al-Qahtani, who's best known in the West for masterminding the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, the Washington Post journalist. But he also heads up the kingdom's efforts to intimidate and silence critics, primarily through online hacking. So if there is a computer hacker sitting in Riyadh who's been tasked with finding out who wrote this report on his boss, I want to try to make his life a little bit harder.

PFEIFFER: So in terms of what you found in your research, what does Facebook mean when it says that Saudi Arabia engaged in coordinated inauthentic behavior?

ANONYMOUS RESEARCHER: So that's Facebook's catch-all term for groups of accounts that work together to mislead about either who they are or what they're doing. So like you mentioned, in the case of Saudi Arabia, they created more than 300 accounts and pages masquerading as local news organizations in countries throughout the Middle East and North Africa.

PFEIFFER: And what kind of misinformation were those intended to spread?

ANONYMOUS RESEARCHER: Facebook didn't give very many examples of the sort of content that they pulled down, but they did point to basically two categories of promoting pro-Saudi content, especially content revolving around the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. There were posts praising his social reform plan, Vision 2030. And then they also targeted enemies of Saudi Arabia, including Amnesty International, Al Jazeera, regional foes like Iran, so, yeah.

PFEIFFER: What part, if any, did Jamal Khashoggi's death play in this Saudi misinformation campaign?

ANONYMOUS RESEARCHER: So Facebook didn't point to any Khashoggi-related content with the pages that they took down and the accounts. But in the aftermath of his death, Saudi's network of bot accounts on Twitter jumped into action with the primary aim of dominating the online conversation, particularly in Arabic. So they worked to drown out and harass those pointing the finger at Saudi Arabia. And they also promoted and amplified tweets with the kingdom's version of events.

PFEIFFER: I wonder a lot how aware people are, whether on Facebook or Twitter or other social media platforms, how many of the accounts they're looking at could be fake fronts for deliberate misinformation, possibly by a foreign government. What does your research tell you about how aware the public is about this?

ANONYMOUS RESEARCHER: So it's hard to blame people for consuming disinformation, which by its very nature is intended to mislead and appear genuine. Some countries are very good at it. So Russia - like, they created Facebook accounts which started events that were attended by real Americans in real life across the political spectrum. They had no idea that these events were organized by people sitting in St. Petersburg. And the most recent campaign taken down by Facebook regarding Saudi Arabia, they said, had more than 1 million followers. So, yeah, it's a challenge for people to know what they're looking at is actually genuine if it's not an established source of news, for instance.

PFEIFFER: That was a researcher for Bellingcat, an open source investigative website. NPR granted him anonymity to protect his safety.

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