By Susie Waltz

Following the recent Jamal Khashoggi scandal, a network of what appear to be fake Twitter accounts began heavily promoting pro-Saudi messages. In response, Twitter suspended the accounts, citing company efforts to reduce spam that might influence public opinion.

Though Twitter suspended hundreds of accounts, very few people will find themselves locked out of their Twitter because the accounts were not held by people at all. Instead, analysts suspect that a network of bots was tweeting and retweeting pro-Saudi messages, using hashtags like “unfollow enemies of the nation” and “message of love for Mohammed bin Salman.”

Atlantic Council Analyst Ben Nimmo explained that the tweets likely came from bots because nationalist hashtags appeared in high numbers of retweets, rather than in original tweets. For example, the hashtag that translates to “unfollow enemies of the nation” appeared in retweets 96.3% of the time.

The suspicious tweets emerged shortly after Saudi Journalist Jamal Khashoggi was killed at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Hours after entering the consulate, Khashoggi was reportedly tortured and then murdered. Turkish officials and investigators believe that Saudi agents associated with the crowned prince, Mohammed bin Salman, may have been responsible for Khashoggi’s death. The Saudi government repeatedly denied all allegations. 

Though Twitter claims that there is no evidence that the spam accounts were backed by the Saudi government, the tweets could be an attempt to conceal dissent and suspicion among the public. Burying critical tweets with pro-Saudi content can create the illusion that fewer people suspect foul play.

Since the Khashoggi case, there has been a growing rift in the government’s relationship with international businesses, diplomats, and even with Saudi citizens. In this context, the tweets promoting pro-Saudi sentiments seem even more suspect.

The problem of propaganda-like automated Twitter accounts is not new. In the 2016 Presidential Election, an influx of fake accounts run by bots promoted then-nominee Donald Trump. By creating a false sense of widespread support through mass-tweeting, bots can theoretically manipulate public opinion and even influence elections.

Bots can also threaten a business’s success through influencing digital marketing campaigns.

Nearly half of all internet traffic comes from bots, according to data from Bot Traffic Report. Automated website visits and clicks make gathering accurate data about the real-life success of a website difficult. Bots can even cost companies significant amounts of money by attacking pay per click ads, which runs up advertising expenses and destroys digital campaigns.

Twitter is aware of the dangers bots pose and has taken steps to limit spam. Though bot creators are often anonymous and therefore difficult to catch, the platform can still restrict bot activity. In February of 2018, Twitter changed its Terms of Service to hinder propaganda-like account activity. This year’s changes banned mass automated retweeting and prohibited posting identical or near-identical tweets on multiple accounts.

Recent events regarding the Jamal Khashoggi scandal prove that the new regulations might not be enough. Despite Twitter’s efforts, the pro-Saudi botnet was still able to reach thousands of Twitter users following the events of Khashoggi’s death.

The surprisingly shrewd bots adapted to new rules by retweeting the same messages and hashtags sparingly. The advanced bots were able to choose exactly when to engage the Twitter news to evade the ban. Though the platform eventually caught on to automated activity, bots and their creators are clearly evolving.  

According to John Russell, a systems analyst at Indiana University, some of the bots have been active on Twitter for years. Bots from 2011 and 2014 were present, which Russell called “kind of shocking.”

It seems that ever-evolving internet bots are here to stay. In order to continue to protect users from misinformation, spam, and automated propaganda, Twitter and platforms will have to adapt alongside spam technology.

Susie Waltz is a Premium Writer at HubShout, a white label SEO company.

Evil bots stock photo by rcherem/Shutterstock