US Tech Companies like Twitter probably breathed a sigh of relief when Biden announced that he was not going to directly sanction Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for ordering the murder of Jamal Khashoggi.
Not because Twitter bares any ill will towards murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi, but because the Saudi Market and the cult of personality around the Crown Prince, in particular, offer a lucrative revenue stream for the US company – one that would risk drying up if the US officially sanctioned MBS.
Indeed, the use of digital technology to facilitate authoritarian rule has become the lesser known face of the arms trade, and the Saudis are big customers. Part of this is due to MBS, who has attempted to position Saudi as a key player in technological investments both at home and abroad. Saudi's Public Investment Fund is considered one of the biggest 'swinging chequebooks' in Silicon Valley with considerable stakes in companies like Uber, Slack, and other start-ups.
Indeed, the amount of Saudi money in Silicon Valley has raised concerns that it will become a 'reputation-laundering machine for one of the least admirable regimes on earth'. And not without good reason, especially considering that MBS chairs the Public Investment Fund.
MBS's obsession with reputation has meant that control over traditional social media is key to achieving his reforms. As such, he has overseen the creation of a system of 'technological authoritarianism,'; a comprehensive surveillance and propaganda assemblage that spies and digests content and data points from mobile devices and social media platforms.
The Saudi regime have gone so far as to send spies into Twitter, infiltrating its headquarters in San Francisco and extracting private information on thousands of Twitter accounts, including many dissidents. Saudi spies also facilitated the verification of Saudi Twitter accounts, building digital capital around MBS's propaganda machine.
The Saudi regime has also deployed armies of trolls and bots to intimidate and silence critics, both at home and abroad. After China, 'Saudi has the highest number of accounts removed by Twitter for information operations, more than either Russia or Iran. While Twitter has banned thousands of such accounts, it has not curbed the problem.
The Intelligence Report
Indeed, it became clear the day before the release of the intelligence report prepared by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) implicating MBS in the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, that pro-MBS forces were still capable of manipulating Twitter to dilute criticism of MBS and whitewash his involvement in human rights abuses.
At least 600 fake accounts began to boost messages of support for the Crown Prince on the hashtag 'the people of the Kingdom support the Crown Prince. On the day of the release of the ODNI report, misspellings Khashoggi's name (Khasxoggi and 3aKhashoggi) also began trending – the misspellings likely a deliberate attempt to circumvent Twitter's spam detection algorithms.
Anyone clicking on the Khasxoggi trend would be greeted by either spam accounts, or accounts arguing that the US was a hypocrite to lecture anyone on human rights.
These trending spam accounts effectively demoted any other trends that might have contained information critical of the Crown Prince, while increasing traffic to accounts containing anti-US and pro-MBS propaganda.
Twitter has, since the release of the report, suspended 3500 accounts that commented on the ODNI report but have stopped short of attributing them to a specific actor or state.
Profit for Propaganda
Perhaps more alarmingly though, is the use of a legitimate Twitter functions to incentivize the promotion of pro-MBS propaganda.
Through an advertising function, Twitter allows paying customers who have applied for the service to send tweets containing a picture and a 'tweet' button. When someone presses the 'tweet' button, they are instantly able to repost the exact same content posted by the original advertiser.
Although this is designed for businesses generating hype around a particular product, it has been utilized as a propaganda tool. On the day of the release of the report, thousands of accounts used this function to tweet the identical message, '"I am Saudi and proud of this great country and trust and have faith in the wise leadership'.
While one might think such behaviors run afoul of Twitter's political advertising policy which 'globally prohibits the promotion of political content, they'd be wrong. Bizarrely, Twitter has a caveat that states 'cultural customs and local protocols to show allegiance or provide salutations do not fall under this policy.' Even though the stated purpose of the policy is that political messaging reach should be 'earned not bought'.
In other words, it's against Twitter's policy to pay money to promote candidates in a democratic society, but promoting dictators in an authoritarian country where no political parties exist is a legitimate revenue stream.
It may seem obvious, but Twitter should not directly profit off attempts to whitewash the brutal killing of journalists on the pretext of respecting 'local protocols and cultural customs. Unfortunately, unless more is done to regulate how US tech firms operate abroad, the Biden administration's decision to let MBS off the hook is going to embolden his propaganda machine, while giving Twitter the green light to continue business as usual.