Twitter's removal of UAE spam bots are 'not enough'

Twitter's removal of UAE spam bots is too little, too late, say some Arab users
4 min read
20 September, 2019
Considering Twitter's close links with the Saudi regime, some are arguing that Twitter is not doing enough to combat spam after removing more than 4,000 spam bots.
Spam bots are known for infiltrating hashtags [Getty]

Social media users are demanding Twitter take further steps to stop the spread of "fake news" peddled by a number of Middle East states, after the social networking platform deleted more than 4,000 UAE-linked accounts that had been spamming the Arab Twittersphere.

"We suspended a separate group of 4,258 accounts operating uniquely from the UAE, mainly directed at Qatar and Yemen," Twitter said in a statement.

"These accounts were often employing false personae and tweeting about regional issues, such as the Yemeni Civil War and the Houthi Movement."

The microblogging site added that the accounts were managed by a private company operating in the UAE and Egypt – two countries known for their bruital crackdown on personal freedoms and pervasive online surveilance.

Twitter’s algorithm managed to track thousands of the fake accounts and suspend them after seeing repetitive tweets criticising Yemen factions and Qatar. They were also seen to promote pro-Saudi and pro-UAE tweets and hashtags.

Infiltrating hashtags

Some of the accounts removed were classed as Twitter bots, defined as pre-programmed accounts to tweet about certain topics.

According to a report by Columbia University's Journal of International Affairs, the bots that are used to spew state propaganda mask themselves as people to seem more believable to the average Twitter user.

"They typically try to hide their automated nature, using a human profile picture and biography. Such bots spread favorable political messages or falsehoods," the report said.

"They can also amplify posts and hashtags, attempting to make them trend. Typically, such bots post at far higher rates than human users, with the most active bots posting more than 1,000 times a day."

Spam bots have also been found storming existing hashtags, trying to drown out tweets written by genuine accounts with propoganda or miscellaneous postings.

They also tried to muffle critical tweets by repeatedly posting advertisements to buy cheap apartments in Turkey.

Too little too late

Despite the move being welcomed by many, some have said Twitter has done too little, too late.

An Arabic hashtag, which translates to "take Twitter’s office out of Dubai" has urged the social media giant to distance itself from the UAE - a country that is notorious for using social media to spy on dissidents.

"Relocating @Twitter office out of UAE is a necessary step towards maintaining credibility and fairness to all users," Twitter user Rashed Alsubai said.

Some have also pointed to Saudi investment in the platform and links to leading figures in the Riyadh regime.

In 2015, Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal increased his holdings in Twitter, which at the time made him the platform's second largest shareholder.

The billionaire prince owns a 4.71 percent stake in Twitter, worth about $607.8 million. His brief arrest in 2017 had an impact on the microblogging website, almost immediately decreasing its stocks by 2.26 percent.

Saudi Arabia has also groomed Twitter employees to spy on several accounts to combat dissidents.

In 2018, The New York Times released a report saying western intelligence officials contacted Twitter alleging that Riyadh was "grooming" one of its employees, Ali Alzabarah, "to spy on the accounts of dissidents and others".

Alzabarah started working for Twitter in 2013 as an engineer with access to user accounts, and it is claimed he was persuaded by Saudi intelligence officials to look into several of them.

Twitter reportedly placed Alzabarah on administrative leave to investigate the claims.

Whilst "they could not find evidence that he had handed over Twitter data to the Saudi government", he was sacked at the end of 2015, notifying "few dozen accounts" that they might have been targeted in the Saudi mission. After he was fired, Alzabarah returned to Saudi Arabia.

Lives already lost

Along with the thousands of UAE-linked accounts, a handful of Saudi accounts were suspended. Among them was the account of Saud al-Qahtani, a close ally of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and among the top officials who orchestrated the assassination of prominent journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Twitter announced on Friday that al-Qahtani was suspended for "violations of our platform manipulation policies".

Qahtani was fired October last year when it was revealed he was closely involved in orchestrating Khashoggi’s killing at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

Dubbed "Saudi Arabia's Steve Bannon", he was responsible for finding Riyadh’s "online enemies" and coming up with a list of potential targets for Saudi intelligence.

In 2017 he called for a McCarthy-like blacklist to be compiled by Saudi Twitter users of anyone showing sympathy for regional rival Qatar, under the Arabic hashtag #TheBlacklist, and vowed to "follow" every name reported on this list.

Qahtani also tweeted that anyone who "conspires" against Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, and Bahrain - countries taking part in the Saudi-led blockade of Qatar - would go on "trial".