Anyone who tweeted about the murder of Jamal Khashoggi in the past two weeks saw major pushback on Twitter from accounts in Saudi Arabia. But that could slow down in the coming days. Twitter has now reportedly banned an unspecified number of alleged bots that were pushing pro-Saudi propaganda.
The revelation comes from an NBC News report about the “hundreds of accounts that tweeted and retweeted the same pro-Saudi government tweets at the same time”.
But Twitter doesn’t get all the credit for spotting the bot network. The accounts were first spotted by IT specialist Josh Russell, whose work was shared with the social media giant via spreadsheet.
One giveaway that many of those pro-Saudi accounts were probably bots? Hundreds were posting identical content using the hashtag #We_all_trust_Mohammad_Bin_Salman, a reference to the Saudi crown prince.
Commonly called MBS for short, it’s widely believed that the crown prince ordered the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who went into the Saudi consulate in Turkey on October 2 but never came out. Khashoggi was reportedly tortured and murdered inside the consulate and then cut into pieces and smuggled out of the consulate in bags.
Saudi Arabia has repeatedly denied having anything to do with Khashoggi’s disappearance, but top officials in the country have yet to come up with an explanation for why Khashoggi is seen on surveillance video entering the consulate but never leaving.
The Saudis have warned that anyone spreading “fake news” about Khashoggi’s disappearance faces up to five years in prison. The Turkish government claims to have audio of Khashoggi’s murder, including evidence that he was being cut into pieces before he died.
For his part, President Trump, an unindicted co-conspirator who broke US federal election laws, has said that there will be consequences for Saudi Arabia “if” the royal family is behind the murder.
Trump finally acknowledged yesterday that it “certainly looks like” the journalist is dead. But Trump has also compared the situation to that of his Supreme Court pick Brett Kavanaugh, who was credibly accused of sexual assault by multiple women.
“Here we go again with you know you’re guilty until proven innocent,” the president told the Associated Press earlier this week.
Khashoggi, a Saudi national and permanent resident of the US, became an exile from Saudi Arabia not for his criticism of the Saudi royal family but because he criticised President Trump shortly after he was elected president in November of 2016.
Khashoggi had questioned Trump’s close relationship to Russia and what that would mean for America’s alliances in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia banned Khashoggi from writing and making TV appearances in the country in deference to the American president.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo travelled to Saudi Arabia and Turkey this week, but was hesitant to assign blame or even ask hard questions. During an exchange with reporters yesterday, Pompeo didn’t want to talk about Khashoggi.
From a US State Department transcript:
QUESTION: Just the latest news, if you don’t mind, Secretary. The ABC is reporting that a Turkish official says he showed you a transcript of the tape, the purported tape, and that they played you the audio. Can you respond to that?
SECRETARY POMPEO: Yeah, we asked you to ask questions about Panama. Do you have a question about Panama?
[Discussion about Mexico, Panama, and China]
MS NAUERT: All right, we’ve got to wrap it up.
SECRETARY POMPEO: And I will take your Khashoggi question and only that one. I’ve seen no tape. I’ve seen no – or I’ve heard no tape. I’ve seen no transcript. And the network that reported that ought to pull down the headline that says I have.
MS NAUERT: Thanks, guys.
QUESTION: Thank you.
QUESTION: Thank you for speaking with us.
SECRETARY POMPEO: Do you work for ABC?
QUESTION: No, but —
SECRETARY POMPEO: You should actually ask them. They’re peers of yours. You should tell them that the Secretary of State is on the record saying this, and that they shouldn’t – they shouldn’t do that. This is wrong to do to the fiancé of Khashoggi. We should be factual when we’re reporting things about this. This is a very serious matter that we’re working diligently on. And so to put out headlines that are factually false does no one any good. You should encourage all your colleagues to behave that way. It’s most constructive when the media tells the truth. It’s very useful.
QUESTION: Thank you for taking the time to speak with us.
The US president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, has been reportedly urging Trump to stand by MBS, allegedly saying that the crown prince “can survive the outrage just as he has weathered past criticism,” according to The New York Times.
But this international controversy doesn’t appear to be going away any time soon, especially as more and more companies distance themselves from the Saudis. Numerous business leaders, including top executives at Uber and Google have pulled out of a conference in Riyadh that starts October 23 called the Future Investment Initiative, also known as Davos in the Desert.
And even US Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin has been forced to back out of the conference. Despite promises earlier in the week that he’d still be attending, Mnuchin was finally forced yesterday to say that he wouldn’t be travelling to Riyadh later this month. Curiously, Mnuchin didn’t specify why he wouldn’t be attending.
“Just met with @realDonaldTrump and @SecPompeo and we have decided, I will not be participating in the Future Investment Initiative summit in Saudi Arabia,” Mnuchin tweeted.
What a profile in courage.