In the wake of Jamal Khashoggi’s disappearance and death, the fight for the facts of what happened has captured international attention and highlighted existing divisions across the Middle East. At least one side of the story has also been amplified by bot-like accounts.
A mixture of social media influencers aligned with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and bots amplified a digital influence campaign surrounding Khashoggi, who was a regular critic of the Saudi government. Most notably, the influence network spread an American-made conspiracy video, which claimed that the journalist left the consulate on October 2, unharmed.
On October 2, a Saudi Arabian citizen and permanent resident of the United States, journalist Jamal Khashoggi walked into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey and has not been seen since. Turkish authorities say the journalist and an outspoken critic of the Saudi government was tortured and murdered by 15 Saudi agents, who flew into Istanbul on the day of Khashoggi’s disappearance. The Saudi government denied such allegations, and claimed it was not involved in the journalists’ disappearance.
While the media and intelligence agencies tried to understand what happened to Khashoggi, social media influencers aligned with the Saudi government carried out an information campaign targeting domestic and foreign audience by amplifying a conspiracy theory video.
The video in question was first posted by Thomas Wictor, who published under the pseudonym Albert Bologna. Wictor is a known conspiracy theorist who was recently suspended from using Twitter for malicious behavior, namely incitement to violence. Wictor admittedly suffers from several mental health issues which cause memory lapses and dissociation, and he wears a pasta strainer for a hat in most of his YouTube videos.
In the video, Wictor said that he does not believe Jamal Khashoggi was murdered by Saudi agents, adding that Turkey has evidence that Khashoggi left the consulate 20 minutes after entering. Wictor went even further and argued that Iran was likely involved in this conspiracy. He concluded by saying he hoped the Saudis demand a public apology from American media outlets for “mob action.”
Wictor’s statements were not backed up by facts and there is no evidence to support the claim that Khashoggi left the consulate 20 minutes after entering, nor that Iran was involved in Khashoggi’s disappearance.
The video uploaded by Thomas Wictor was watched 15,500 times, but it was not until it was shared by a Saudi social media influencer three days after it was uploaded by Wictor that it went truly viral.
Going Viral in Saudi Arabia
On October 15, Saudi social media influencer @LabeebHub, shared Wictor’s video along with a tweet in Arabic, which read:
“American utopian decided to ignore the mainstream media and looked into the disappearance of #JamalKhahsoggi himself and discovered a conspiracy. It’s important to hear it and spread it, especially abroad.”
According to Truthnest data, the video was posted as an advertisement, meaning @LabeebHub paid to promote the tweet to a broader audience.
By October 18, the video was watched 1,200,000 times and @LabeebHub’s tweet was retweeted more than 30,000 times.
Among the accounts amplifying the video, there were several prominent Saudi journalists, such as:
@Almatrafi — journalist and former head of Saudi state-funded news outlet Al Arabiya;
@samialothman_ — Editor-In-Chief of two pro-government newspapers al-Riyadh and al-Yaum;
@waelalnajar — journalist at Al Eqtisadiah, a Saudi daily with a business focus;
@nassertomihi — independent columnist.
Wictor’s video was also amplified by Aswoaq, a Saudi marketing company, which frequently posts tweets promoting brands and sales to their 210,000 followers.
The Aswoaq Twitter account retweeted a handful of tweets about Jamal Khashoggi’s disappearance, sowing doubts about his fiancée’s credibility. It is unclear if the company was paid to promote this content.
A member of the Saudi royal family was also involved in the amplification of the video. HH Prince Mansour bin Saad Al Saud, Assistant Secretary General of the King Faisal Foundation and non-immediate member of the royal family, tweeted out the conspiracy video with a post which read:
“English speaking independent analysis by 3rd party who decided to ignore the media influence and try to reach the truth in #Khasheggi #Jamal_Khashoggi #JamalKhashoggi case based on the facts he found.”
By October 18, his tweet was retweeted a little over 1,000 times.
The video was also retweeted by American alt-right influencers Mike Cernovich and Jack Posobiec.
Cernovich merely amplified the video by retweeting it, whereas Jack Posobiec quoted the video, adding: “2018 will never quit us”.
This shows that the Saudi campaign did reach an American audience, one way or the other.
The original tweet by @LabeebHub was also retweeted by hundreds of bot-like accounts, most of which had 15-symbol alphanumerical handles and were serial retweeters, solely focused on amplifying political content.
A thorough look at some of these accounts shows they had at least four (out of twelve) bot indicators.
The three accounts featured above serve as an example of the pattern across the bot-like accounts in question. Each account was anonymous with no name, unique avatar photo, or any distinguishable details; each only retweeted other content, which means they have never published any authored tweets; each was alphanumerical, which indicated that they may have been automatically generated.
The majority of the bot-liked profiles amplified @AjelNews24, which is a Saudi news aggregator on Twitter. @AjelNews24 has a clear pro-government bias. On October 17, for example, it helped spread a conspiracy theory that protesters in front of the Saudi embassy in Ankara were paid $800 USD per hour to protest Khashoggi’s disappearance. The conspiracy was originally seeded by a journalist working for the pro-government Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper based in London, United Kingdom.
Among suspicious accounts, there were a number of new accounts created between August and October 2018, whose only Twitter activity was retweeting @LabeebHub’s video.
This is suspicious, as the new accounts had the same style handles as the bot-like accounts listed above, suggesting the accounts were part of the same network.
This case study showed how a video by a source known for conspiracy was used on an international scale during a geopolitical event.
The video offered no concrete evidence, but it was still exploited by prominent Saudi social media influencers and bots to sow doubt in any culpability of Saudi government in Jamal Khashoggi’s disappearance and death. The case also revealed the extent to which doubt and conspiracy has been used as a tool in prolonged denial of Khashoggi’s death. The denials of Khashoggi’s death are even further removed from the likelihood that the journalist and outspoken critic was killed for his criticism.
In any case, the bot accounts amplifying narratives cannot be taken as a serious source of evidence but have been used to promote suspicious content.