Twitter Worked with Saudi Arabian ‘Spy Ring’ and Tried to Cover It Up

September 11th, 2023 11:11 AM

The Twitter Files never cease to uncover new heights of Big Tech corruption, and its 27th installment is no exception. 

Lee Fang, an independent investigative reporter for The Twitter Files, revealed that Twitter employees worked with a Saudi Arabian social media “spy ring” to “unmask” accounts critical of the government. When the DOJ exposed the operation, Twitter executives helped cover up the platform’s role. “Exclusive emails show Twitter executives downplayed the significance of a Saudi spy network operating within the company, an infiltration that allegedly led to the torture of dissidents,” Fang wrote on Sept. 8.

“After the Arab Spring brought unprecedented protest and public criticism of the Saudi Kingdom, the gov began a crackdown on social media,” Fang explained. “The effort focused on Twitter, which is hugely popular in Saudi Arabia. SMAAT, a social media PR firm, helped bribe Twitter employees.” 

The Twitter Files journalist went on to note that one employee played no small part in helping the Saudi Arabian government track down alleged dissidents “Ahmad Abouammo, a Twitter employee, accepted $300k in cash & a $40k luxury watch from Saudi agents,” he wrote. Fang added that “In exchange, [Abouammo] illicitly used Twitter's backend system to unmask anon accounts critical of Saudi's ruler, Mohammed bin Salman. Abouammo, records show, accessed 6,000 accounts.” He was later arrested by the FBI and Twitter cut ties with SMAAT, according to a screenshot Fang shared

However, it is hard to overstate the influence of the PR firm. According to screenshots of one internal email at Twitter, the firm was “connected to a network of 93,000 accounts acting in a coordinated fashion to promote content favorable to [the] Saudi Crown Prince.” Twitter itself also majorly benefitted from its partnership with SMAAT. The PR firm reportedly “was a significant advertising partner” and had spent $4 million on Twitter ads in just over 10 months, screenshots show.

At the recommendation of several Twitter executives including former head of Trust and Safety Yoel Roth, Twitter was vague in its public statement about the scandal. “The Twitter public disclosure, published the following month, concealed many critical details,” Fang wrote. “The ‘platform manipulation’ was simply ‘originating in Saudi Arabia,’ the statement read. There was no mention of the spying ring the Twitter knew was central to the effort.” In its statement, Twitter also referred to “a larger network of more than 88,000 accounts” instead of the 93,000 it had claimed internally. 

Fang noted that Twitter’s negligence reportedly jeopardized human lives. “Twitter spies allegedly identified Abdulrahman Al-Sadhan, an anon gov critic on social media. Police smashed his finger and taunted: ‘This is the hand you write and tweet with,’” Fang wrote. He added that the effort may have contributed to the murder of The Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi. “The Twitter spying ring unmasked accounts tied to WaPo columnist's associates. Saud al-Qahtani, mastermind of the killing, coordinated w/the Twitter spies,” he noted. “SMAAT also mobilized its bot network to cover up the Khashoggi murder.”

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