Why it matters: Twitter has suspended a number of bot accounts that were tweeting pro-Saudi messages in the wake of journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s disappearance. Many of the tweets contained hashtags supporting Saudi leader Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman and asked people to question reports over the incident.
NBC News presented the site with a spreadsheet compiled by IT professional Josh Russell that showed hundreds of accounts tweeting and re-tweeting the same pro-Saudi government posts at the same time. Many used the #We_all_trust_Mohammad_Bin_Salman hashtag, along with another that translated as “unfollow enemies of the nation."
Washington Post columnist Khashoggi entered the Saudi Arabia consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, on October 2 to obtain a document proving he was divorced so that he could marry his fiancée. He never came back out. Reports say he was tortured and murdered inside the building before being cut into pieces and smuggled out of the consulate in bags. Many of the bot accounts asked people not to believe these reports, with some trying to blame the journalist’s fiancée for his disappearance.
The bots are said to have avoided detection by tweeting and retweeting sparingly. Many were created within minutes of each other during a period in 2017, while others go back to 2012—some had been dormant for years before suddenly posting again.
"They're definitely bots, but they're not targeting individuals. This is a numbers game being played by bots and it's about boosting messaging," said Ben Nimmo, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensics Lab.
This is nuts, though. Retweet proportion of 96.3% is off the charts.— Ben Nimmo (@benimmo) 17 October 2018
Either there's a ton of really self-effacing users out there, or it's a coordinated retweet farm, or it's bots. pic.twitter.com/iWi1cc3tV3
A Twitter spokesperson said they were aware of bots being used to spread pro-Saudi government messages and had already suspended several accounts for violating the site’s rules on spam posts.