Twitter has suspended over 5,000 accounts tied to a network amplifying a message denouncing the report by Special Counsel Robert Mueller as a “RussiaGate hoax.” According to a researcher, the accounts—most of which had only posted three or four times in the past—were connected to other accounts previously used to post pro-Saudi messages.
In response to an inquiry by Ars, a Twitter spokeswoman said, “We suspended a network of accounts and others associated with it for engaging in platform manipulation—a violation of the Twitter Rules.” An investigation into the network is still ongoing, the spokeswoman said, but no determination has yet been made about who was behind the campaign.
“In cases such as this, attribution is difficult,” the spokeswoman noted. “If we do have reasonable evidence to support state-backed activity, we will disclose the accounts as part of our information operations archive.” (This archive is the data repository used to reveal operations of networks previously tied to election manipulation and other state-backed information operations.)
Most of the accounts had very few posts—as few as three. All of the accounts frequently retweeted content from the account @TheGlobus, previously named Arabian Veritas, according to information shared with NBC News by researchers who uncovered the network and analysis by Foreign Policy Research Institute senior fellow Clint Watts. Watts is also a non-resident fellow of the Alliance for Securing Democracy at the German Marshall Fund—the organization behind the Hamilton 68 project, an effort to track Russian disinformation campaigns on social media.
In a phone conversation with Ars, Watts said that the effort was “really rough” and focused mostly on raising the visibility on Twitter of hashtags such as #RussiaGate—hashtags used by Sean Hannity and other Trump supporters in posts supporting the President and dismissing the Mueller report’s findings. Watts said that the messages were clearly targeted at a US audience.
One of the tweets distributed by the bot network read, “The people screaming about Trump working for Russia are the same people demanding social media censor ‘misinformation’, Stop listening to these people.”
The renaming of the Twitter account was part of an effort to make it look like a legitimate news outlet. @TheGlobus was linked to the website theglobus.net, a now-empty site formatted as a news site. The domain for The Globus was registered through Tucows in October 2017 and was most recently updated in March—when it was moved behind the Cloudflare content distribution network. A check of the timeline of the account from its last snapshot on April 20, 2019 on Internet Archive shows a series of news “stories” (without actual links to content) presenting positive messages about the governments of Saudi Arabia and Egypt, negative stories about Iran and Turkey, and summaries of stories from Fox News and other sources about the Mueller investigation. The account only had 126 tweets but had 21.2 thousand followers—at least 5,000 of which appeared to be “bots.”
This is not the first time a campaign tied to Saudi interests resulted in a takedown of Twitter accounts. Last October, a group of accounts propagated messages praising Saudi leadership and used a hashtag that translates from Arabic as “We all trust Mohammad Bin Salman.” The accounts also denounced reports tying Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman to the killing of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi as “false statements” by those “waging a war against the Kingdom.” And according to a New York Times report last October, the Saudis had a spy working inside Twitter to help track dissent on the platform—and had an army of over 100 people working as a “troll farm” to go after dissidents like Khashoggi online. But this latest effort appears to have no connection to those efforts.