Saudi govt. deployed "Twitter troll army" to silence critics and allegedly used McKinsey analysis to target dissidents

In October 2018, The New York Times reported on online attackers hired by the Saudi government to silence critics via social media. Jamal Khashoggi, a journalist who was murdered by Saudi agents, was himself targeted by Saudi Arabia's "army of Twitter trolls." A former Twitter employee, Ali Alzabarah, was also allegedly plotting to spy on the accounts of dissidents, on behalf of the Saudi government. Alzabarah was dismissed in December 2015.

According to The Times, Consulting firm McKinsey & Company helped the Saudi government identify dissidents who criticised the 2015 austerity measures that followed the dip in oil prices. McKinsey claims the austerity report was an internal document based on publicly available information and not prepared for any government entity. “We are horrified by the possibility, however remote, that it could have been misused,” a McKinsey spokesman said in a statement. “We have seen no evidence to suggest that it was misused, but we are urgently investigating how and with whom the document was shared.”

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Article
20 October 2018

McKinsey's response

Author: McKinsey

We were never commissioned by any authority in Saudi Arabia to prepare a report of any kind or in any form to identify critics. In our work with governments, McKinsey has not and never would engage in any work that seeks to target individuals based on their views. The document in question was a brief overview of publicly available information looking at social media usage. It was not prepared for any government entity. Its intended primary audience was internal. We are horrified by the possibility, however remote, that it could have been misused in any way. At this point, we have seen no evidence to suggest that it was misused, but we urgently investigating how and with whom the document was shared.

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Article
20 October 2018

Saudis’ Image Makers: A Troll Army and a Twitter Insider

Author: Katie Benner, Mark Mazzetti, Ben Hubbard and Mike Isaac, The New York Times

... Many Saudis had hoped that Twitter would democratize discourse by giving everyday citizens a voice, but Saudi Arabia has instead become an illustration of how authoritarian governments can manipulate social media to silence or drown out critical voices while spreading their own version of reality... Twitter has had difficulty combating the trolls. The company can detect and disable the machine-like behaviors of bot accounts, but it has a harder time picking up on the humans tweeting on behalf of the Saudi government... Twitter executives first became aware of a possible plot to infiltrate user accounts at the end of 2015, when Western intelligence officials told them that the Saudis were grooming an employee, Ali Alzabarah, to spy on the accounts of dissidents and others... Twitter executives... could not find evidence that he had handed over Twitter data to the Saudi government, but they nonetheless fired him in December 2015... After the country announced economic austerity measures in 2015 to offset low oil prices and control a widening budget gap, McKinsey & Company, the consulting firm, measured the public reception of those policies... McKinsey found that... [t]hree people were driving the conversation on Twitter..: the writer Khalid al-Alkami; Mr. Abdulaziz, the young dissident living in Canada; and an anonymous user who went by Ahmad. 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...

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