Fake news has reared its ugly head on social media once again with an automated army of suspicious accounts booted off Twitter after tweeting support for the Saudi Arabian leadership en masse.
The accounts numbered in the hundreds. They were mass publishing pro-Saudi rhetoric after the country was condemned by the international community for the apparent murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, an outspoken critic of the kingdom.
US President Donald Trump has acknowledged that Khashoggi appears to be dead.
The microblogging platform took action after NBC News presented it with a spreadsheet showing hundreds of accounts tweeting and retweeting identical pro-Saudi messages at the same time.
EXCLUSIVE: Twitter suspended a network of suspected Twitter bots that pushed pro-Saudi Arabia talking points about the disappearance of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the past week. https://t.co/347Wb5vSNz
— NBC News (@NBCNews) October 18, 2018
Suspicious pro-Saudi activity was trending on Twitter
“From the very beginning, false statements have tried to link the disappearance or killing of #Jamal_Khashoggi to the kingdom,” one tweet from a now-deleted account read. “This is a campaign they are waging against the kingdom.”
On 14 October, tweets using a hashtag which translates to “we all have trust in Mohammed Bin Salman” trended on Twitter with more than 250,000 mentions across the social network. Another tweet, with the phrase ‘We have to stand by our leader’ was posted or reposted more than 60,000 times.
The suspicious accounts also urged Twitter users to unfollow Al Jazeera, a long-term target of the Saudi Arabian establishment.
Ben Nimmo, an expert in online misinformation at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensics Lab, told NBC that the accounts were posting the exact same content at the same time and in the same order, a behaviour associated with botnets.
Nimmo said the bots had avoided targeting individuals and were instead aiming to flood the platform with their message.
“This is a numbers game being played by bots and it’s about boosting messaging,” he said.
Some news: over the weekend, Twitter suspended ~1,500 accounts associated with [spins wheel] a gaming-derived meme campaign that was spreading election disinformation. https://t.co/feRALRI77i
— Kevin Roose (@kevinroose) October 16, 2018
The removal of the accounts was not even the first outbreak of fake news trolling on Twitter this week. Just days ago, Twitter released a statement saying it had removed content from Russia’s Internet Research Agency (IRA), an infamous ‘troll factory’ with a history of seeking to disrupt foreign elections.
Twitter also notified any users that had interacted with the bogus accounts.
The previous week, it banned more than 1500 accounts which were posing as ‘NPCs’ or non-player characters.
The creation of so-called non-player characters was identified as a trolling tactic by far-right groups seeking to paint Democrats supporters and critics of Trump as unthinking robots.